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Pastor restores theater in his Williamsburg church

All the world’s a stage: Pastor Ben McKelahan of St. Paul’s Church in Williamsburg shows off the newly renovated theater he plans to rent to community groups.
Photo by Michah Saperstein

Talk about a divine intervention!

A Williamsburg pastor will reopen a long-forgotten theater inside his church to the public this weekend, after working for years to restore the abandoned performance space back to its former glory.

The churchman says he felt compelled to save the old playhouse for the sake of both his own flock and the community at large, as so many of the neighborhood’s arts venues have recently closed due to skyrocketing rents.

“Part of a church’s mission is to help people express what it means to be human, and the arts are an important part of that,” said Pastor Ben McKelahan, who is the head of St. Paul’s Lutheran Church on S. Fifth Street at Rodney Street. “Also, there are so many small venues that have shut down in Williamsburg and artists need more places to show off their work.”

McKelahan said he didn’t even realize there was theater in the landmarked house of worship for several months after he first arrived there in 2013. But while wandering around the second floor over the parish hall one day, he came across a pair of doors that looked like they had been tied together for years. Inside, McKelahan found a theater that had deteriorated into a disaster area. The room, which hadn’t been used since the mid-1990s, had crumbling walls, broken windows, and a hoard of discarded home furnishings that congregants had collected long ago for a rummage sale that never happened.

It was a mixed blessing. McKelahan immediately saw the potential for the space, but also how much time and money it would take to fix — both of which were in short supply at St. Paul’s.

“I thought it would be great if we could use it again, but the damage was so extensive,” McKelahan said. “I knew it would take a long time, because we are a small, poor congregation.”

The pastor’s prayers were answered when he met members of the Workers Justice Project, an outfit that helps protect the rights of the day laborers who gather on Williamsburg street-corners in the mornings to seek employment. The group’s organizers were looking for somewhere they could hold meetings and classes, so McKelahan proposed an exchange — the organization could use the church if its members helped renovate the theater space.

The workers, some of whom are skilled at construction, quickly coordinated the restoration, which included fixing and painting the walls, upgrading the electrical system, installing a chandelier, and building a bathroom. Workers Justice Project organizers say it was a win-win scenario.

“If we can work together and help each other, it is easier to advance,” said spokeswoman Yadira Sanchez.

A local theater troupe also made a similar deal, cleaning out all the junk in the room in exchange for staging a Christmas show there last year.

The church has already hosted several music and storytelling nights in its new theater — one of which featured women from the Workers Justice Project sharing their own stories. And starting this weekend, McKelahan is opening the theater up to outside events. He plans to rent the space out to local performance groups for $1,200 per week, with a discount for non-profit, bilingual, and church organizations.

St. Paul’s Lutheran Church [334 S. Fifth St. at Rodney Street in Williamsburg, (718) 388–7220, www.stpaulsbrooklyn.org].

Reach reporter Danielle Furfaro at dfurfaro@cnglocal.com or by calling (718) 260–2511. Follow her at twitter.com/DanielleFurfaro.

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