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Benefit performances for World Relief depict refugees’ experiences

Katy Shedlock shows scarves she will wear for the monologue.

Katy Shedlock, pastor of Rockford United Methodist Church, brings together her experiences in improv theatre, working with refugees in Cairo, learning Kazakh in the Peace Corps and hosting refugee families in Spokane, when she presents, “For I Was a Stranger: Biblical Stories of Refuge,” an original monologue performance to benefit World Relief.

She gave her first performance on April 23 at Cheney United Methodist Church (UMC). 

Three other 45-minute performances will be at 7 p.m., Wednesday, May 17, at Manito UMC, 3220 S. Grand; Friday, May 19, at Covenant UMC, 15515 N. Gleneden Dr., and Sunday, June 4, at Audubon Park UMC, 3908 N. Driscoll Blvd. They will be followed by discussion.

Katy uses four scarves to depict women from Scriptures who represent aspects of refugees’ stories:  Miriam, flight across the Red Sea; Ruth, arrival in Bethlehem; the Queen Mother Nehushta, resettlement in Babylon, and Mary, returning from Egypt.

“I use theatre because human beings are hard-wired for stories.  It’s the way to make sense of the world,” she said.

As executive orders on immigration unraveled, friends spoke of welcoming strangers as a matter of faith, she said.

“While many tune out when people use Scriptures to make a point in an argument,” Katy said, “stories have the potential to move people past partisan divides. We can disagree on facts or proofs, but we can’t disagree with someone’s story. Scripture stories help us handle differences.”

Global connections are important in Katy’s life

“When I interact with diverse people, I’m forced to grow, to rethink my assumptions about myself and others,” she said.

The performance idea grew out of a project she did for an online preaching class with Iliff Theological Seminary in Denver, Colo., to create a first-person monologue telling the story of someone from Scriptures.

While serving the Rockford UMC part-time, she is completing seminary studies through Iliff’s distance-learning master of divinity program, The Journey.  She graduates in June.

Katy, who grew up attending Manito UMC, earned a degree in theatre and anthropology from Drew University in Madison, N.J.  In 2007, she and Ben, now her husband, were in a group of students spending three weeks in Cairo at an Anglican mission, Refuge Egypt, which provides education, health care, job training and language classes for Sudanese refugees. It was part of a class that introduced her to the history of refugee issues.

“Before World War II and the United Nations, there was no global system to help refugees,” she said. “The first refugees were from post-war Europe, but the height of refugee resettlement was after the Vietnam War, resettling people from Southeast Asia and parts of the world experiencing conflict.

“In Egypt, I learned about refugee issues through the ethnic and religious conflicts between the North and South of Sudan,” she said.

That experience led her to enter the Peace Corps after she graduated in 2008, so she could live in another culture and country.  Katy taught English in a village school for two years in Kazakhstan. No one spoke English, so she learned Kazakh. 

When she returned to the U.S., she and Ben, who graduated in 2009, settled in Allentown, Penna., where he worked for refugee resettlement with Catholic Charities.

There, Katy worked a year with Touchstone Theatre in nearby Bethlehem.  The nonprofit theatre company performs original work, developing performances out of improvisational exercises, movement and music.

She and Ben then moved to Pittsburg where he completed a master’s degree in writing at Carnegie Mellon in 2013.  She taught English at an Orthodox Jewish high school. While attending a United Methodist-Presbyterian church plant, Katy felt called to ministry. 

To pursue that call, she reconnected with Manito UMC and studied a year at Duke Divinity School in North Carolina. Then she decided to work as a minister while attending seminary.

They moved to Rockford in May 2015. Ben works as a proposal writer on Native American health issues.

Rockford is a community of 500 at the junction of Hwy. 27 south to Fairfield and Rte. 278 to Worley.  Rockford supports three restaurants because of traffic to the Worley casino, where many in Rockford work. Others commute to work in Spokane.

About 30 attend worship at the church, which began in 1879.  Previously, it served mostly farm families with many children. The former grocery and dry goods store is now Hurd’s Mercantile, which sells gifts and knickknacks. Many long-time families still live there, and many in town are related. Some still farm or lease their land for others to farm.

Katy connects with Rural Ministry Resources and is a chaplaincy intern at the nursing home in Fairfield.

Preaching, leading worship, teaching Bible studies, visiting people, conducting funerals and singing with the church’s praise band, Katy finds it enriching to fit what she reads in theology books with people’s lives. 

“I ask, ‘How will this sound to the real person I know and care about?’ I might not do that if I was just in an academic setting,” she said.

When Katy and Ben moved to Rockford, they contacted World Relief, which resettles refugees in the area.

They volunteered as a host family, welcoming six refugee families at the airport, and housing them for several days while apartments were arranged.

The refugees included a young woman from Congo, a Kurdish family from Syria, another family from Syria, an Iranian family and an Iraqi family, ranging from one person to a family of seven. 

Two of the families are Christian and others were Muslim. They showed Muslim families where the Islamic Center and Arab grocery stores are. Ben knows some Arabic from studying six months in college in Egypt.

Ben and Katy have kept in contact with some of the families as they have studied English and found jobs.

 “I am amazed how resilient the refugees are,” she said. “I’m interested to learn their stories and what brought them here.”

“Hosting has been severely limited since the executive orders cut the number of refugees,” said Katy, who has also helped World Relief with monthly simulations of refugee experiences for church groups. 

“I taught Kazakh to help people understand refugees’ experiences of learning a new language,” she said. 

With World Relief’s funding based on the number of refugees who come, Katy decided to do performances to raise funds.

She described the characters:

• Miriam stands on the shore of the Red Sea, ready to start on the Exodus.

• Ruth comes to a new place, Bethlehem.

• Nehushta is the “queen mother” referred to in Jeremiah’s letter telling exiles to build their homes, plant gardens and build new lives.

• Mary prepares to return from Egypt after Joseph dreams of the death of Herod, whose order for all baby boys to be killed led them to flee, so it was safe to return.

“Like Mary and Joseph, many refugees go home when it is safe.  Only a small fraction resettles in other countries,” Katy said.

She hopes the performances challenge people here to see how they can transform their corner of the world.

Encountering stories as pastor of a small, rural church, Katy encourages people to move beyond thinking life was better in the past.

“I ask what our story is now and how God is part of our lives and our community,” she said.  “The present has different challenges from the past, but is still part of God’s story of grace.”

For information, call 291-3444 or email katy.e.fitz@gmail.com.





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