Will Art and Religion Clash in Downtown Santa Ana?

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On Sunday at the Newsong Church in Irvine, Pastor Adam Edgerly delivered a sermon that seemed directed not so much toward Newsong’s congregants but rather toward the denizens of Santa Ana’s Santora Arts Building, who, if all goes as planned, will soon be the church’s tenants.

Edgerly described a visit by the Apostle Paul to ancient Athens, then considered one of the world’s great centers of art and culture. Paul’s arrival sparked rioting among the Greek artisans, Edgerly said, because they feared Christian teachings would kill their business, which centered on the selling of idols and trinkets to pagans.

“They realized they’re going to lose if people start to believe,” Edgerly said of the artisans. But, he said, “At Newsong, we love culture. We have a special love for artists, actually. … We see in culture the hand of God expressing humanity.”

The pastor’s words were meant to soothe the fear that has swept through Santa Ana’s Artists Village since early last week, when it was revealed that Newsong was buying the Santora from owner Michael Harrah.

The Santora artists so far have taken a much more relaxed approach than did the ancient Greeks. But they have held two special meetings on the issue, and there is undoubtedly a current of hostility toward the church running on Broadway between First and Third streets.

Several of the artists, as well as others who have a stake in Artists Village, feel as if their sacred space is being invaded.

Skeith De Wyne maintains a small space in the basement of the Santora as somewhat of a shrine. The studio, known as “The Smallest Art Gallery in California,” is meant to be viewed in a prostrate position, as in worship, De Wyne said.

“The Santora is our church,” Santora artist Kathie Warren told a group of artists Sunday just hours after Edgerly delivered his sermon.

Newsong leaders say they have no firm plans for the building. Their purchase, they say, is rooted in a desire to save the Santora from corporate interests that would turn it into a commercial real estate venture. They insist there are no plans to evict the artists.

A document posted on the Facebook page of Lead Pastor Dave Gibbons, however, shows that the church wants to use the building as an urban ministry and office space. It also contemplates the construction of a 300-seat meeting facility, which church leaders later said would be a community theater.

If church leaders make changes to the building, they won’t be happening overnight. The broker in the sale had said that most of the building’s tenants have long-term leases. And church leaders acknowledge that they have yet to confirm whether the building’s zoning permits a 300-seat meeting hall.

During his sermon, Edgerly emphasized that Newsong wasn’t planning to turn the Santora into a worship space. But he also made it clear that the building would serve as a base for Newsong to reach out to others in the area. He compared the controversy to the resistance Paul had faced in Greece.

“Are you willing to face riots?” Edgerly challenged the congregation.

It remains to be seen how stiff the resistance will be to Newsong. Although the artists are united in their fears about the church’s intentions, they’re divided on what their approach should be.

De Wyne questions whether Newsong will allow shows that chafe Christian values. He says that if the church buys the Santora, it would be the “end of the Artists Village.” He has made it clear that he and other artists will take an activist approach.

“I just want to say, this means war,” De Wyne said.

Yet Alicia Rojas, a founder of United Artists of Santa Ana, which was formed in recent years to battle the gentrification of Santa Ana, has so far managed to quell the urges among many to protest. Rojas argues that the artists have to appear willing to be diplomatic or city leaders will shut them out. She also doesn’t want the artists to appear anti-religion.

They have a plan to circulate a petition and demand a contract with the next Santora owner that the majority of the building would remain dedicated to the arts without undue influence from the landlord.

But some want to take a more aggressive tack. At a meeting last week, Don Cribb, founder of Artists Village, said the leaders of United Artists must show a greater sense of urgency.

“Art is religion to a creative individual. It’s like a religion,” Cribb said in an interview before the meeting. “They [Newsong] want to proselytize. They want to add their two cents in a very unwelcome way.”

Please contact Adam Elmahrek directly at aelmahrek@voiceofoc.org and follow him on Twitter: twitter.com/adamelmahrek. And add your voice with a letter to the editor.

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