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Robu uses theater to try to discover ‘how to do church better’

April 5th, 2022

Karen Robu

Karen Robu's original play “Suffering Church” will be staged Monday, April 11, at 7 p.m. in Krehbiel Auditorium in Luyken Fine Arts Center.

Most people who recognize Robu’s name do so because she has been a fixture in Wichita theater for almost 30 years.

But Robu is also a full-time associate minister for Plymouth Congregational Church in Wichita and part-time assistant professor of communication arts and director of theater at Bethel College, who just completed a Doctor of Ministry degree at Phillips Theological Seminary in Tulsa, Okla.

For her doctoral project, Robu wrote Suffering Church: How Theatre Can Help Us Learn from Those Who Leave, which will be staged in Krehbiel Auditorium in Luyken Fine Arts Center on the Bethel campus April 11 at 7 p.m.

There is no charge for the performance, which is sponsored in part by the Greer Endowment at Bethel College.

The play got its start in September 2019 when Robu attended a funeral for a long-time Plymouth member, and found herself wondering, as she looked around the sanctuary, why people go to church and also why they don’t.

The church was full for this funeral, yet only about 100 people typically attend on a Sunday morning. A month later, the Pew Research Center reported that between 2009-19, the number of Americans identifying as Christian dropped by 12%.

“I was curious about the stories behind the numbers,” Robu said, “and began interviewing people as to their reasons for leaving church.

“Initially, I was doing in-person interviews. The only question I asked was: ‘What is your story in regards to leaving the church?’ People talked and I listened with the promise of no judgment and no evangelism.”

In the first five months, Robu interviewed 22 people. Then the pandemic hit, and when she could no longer meet face-to-face, she created an online survey that could be completed anonymously.

She collected another 34 stories that way. “The stories were varied but most often involved some form of suffering caused by the church,” she said.

From this source material, Robu created Suffering Church, in which eight actors – including Robu, her husband Timothy Robu and their young-adult daughters Katie and Francie – portray the reasons people leave church, often permanently.

Because of mature subject matter, the play is not intended for young audiences.

Robu has already staged the play as part of the Plymouth Fine Arts Series for 2021-22 and at the Mosley Street Melodrama in Wichita. This will be its first move into the wider south-central Kansas area.

In her introduction to Suffering Church, Robu notes there are “stories of abuse, marginalization and unwelcome I heard from those who I interviewed.

“If this is the way people are experiencing the church, then what can I as a minister do to address this legacy of harm?

“I sought to discover my answer by rebuilding the ancient connection between religion and theatre. My original play is based on the stories I collected from those who left the church. I invite you to learn with me. How can we be and do church better?”

A talk-back session with the actors will follow the April 11 performance.

Bethel is a four-year liberal arts college founded in 1887 and is the oldest Mennonite college in North America. Known for academic excellence, Bethel ranks at #15 in the Washington Monthly list of “Best Bachelor’s Colleges” and #31 in U.S. News & World Report, Best Regional Colleges Midwest, both for 2021-22. Bethel was the only Kansas college or university selected for the American Association of College & Universities’ 2021 Institute on Truth, Racial Healing and Transformation, and has been named a TRHT Campus Center. For more information, see www.bethelks.edu

About Bethel

As the first Mennonite college founded in North America, Bethel College celebrates a tradition of progressive Christian liberal arts education, diversity within community, and lifelong learning.