By Jillian Risberg
For more than 20 years Rev. Kim Padfield Urbanik has been creating and directing original plays and choreography to convey the story of Jesus.
And she’s been preaching to her students at the Christian Drama School of New Jersey a simple message: love God and love your neighbor. Feed the hungry. Clothe the naked. Nourish the thirsty. Heal the sick. Welcome the stranger. Visit the prisoner. (Matthew 25:31-40).
“My goal is to help students experience God through music, dance, and drama. Every play tells the story of Jesus,” Rev. Kim says, as she continues leading, loving and learning from the children and youth in New Jersey.
Many students and congregations (especially members of the Denville Community Church and Christ the King) have made this possible.
As a young person, Sarah Harrs (CDS 2010) desired a purpose and sense of importance in her life.
“Christian Drama School was a place where I felt needed, important, heard and understood, which are rare feelings in a teenager,” Harrs says. “Rev. Kim sets high expectations for all of her performers and helps them reach and then surpass those goals, creating confidence and inspiring positive self-improvement.”
The 28-year-old continues to help the Christian Drama School so that more kids and teens can have such an experience.
Emma Worrall echoes that sentiment, calling the CDS so much more than a place to act or become the lead.
“It’s a place where students can be themselves,” Worrall says. “It is a place where students can experience God in ways they never have before.”
Urbanik founded the CDS (an after-school program for students K-12/ages 5 to 18) in 2000 with the support of local pastors and students from several area churches, including Denville Community Church, Rockaway Valley United Methodist Church, Bible Fellowship Church, Parsippany United Methodist Church and Community Church of Mountain Lakes (where she served as the Associate Pastor for nine years) that wanted her to continue preaching the gospel.
“Students from all over the area would come to my youth program, which involved doing drama,” says Rev. Kim. “Then it grew really big, really fast.”
Linda Bohrer Shearman first met Rev. Kim at the Community Church of Mountain Lakes some 25 years ago.
Urbanik left the church to focus her ministry entirely on Christian Drama and after two decades, Shearman loves still being a part of the CDS community… “Why?”
Because she believes whole-heartedly in this ministry and has seen lives changed, both youth and adult by it’s shared journey.
“The Christian Drama School had an enormous impact on my life,” Worrall says. “It provided, and still provides, a safe place for students to be their core-selves and promised no judgment.”
According to Worrall, this type of teaching is instrumental for children and adolescents. At such a crucial time in their lives, students find a space where they don’t have to worry about putting on a performance for everyone else.
“They can be who God really meant for them to be,” says the CDS 2009 grad, who went on to receive her Master of Science in International/Global Studies, with a concentration in global health and development in sub-saharan Africa.
“For myself, I loved going to Christian Drama every week,” says Worrall, now attending seminary, citing Rev. Kim as a tremendous influence and wanting to give back to others what she experienced at the CDS.
“My core group of friends was there –- the people who knew parts of me that I never let anyone else see and 10 years later, I am still friends with these individuals and know I can count on them for anything.”
A dynamic young preacher, Shearman says Urbanik inspired not only the youth, but the entire congregation.
“Occasionally in life you meet people who are such a breath of fresh air that you want whatever it is that makes them such a light in the world,” she says. “With Kim it was clearly her faith and I would be remiss if I didn’t say what a force she has been in my own faith journey. If she could have that effect on me, imagine how many faith journeys she has inspired among the youth.”
That’s no doubt one of several reasons people are drawn to the program because it is an activity that involves the whole family. There is a great sense of community that continues even after students graduate high school and college.
The most students they had on stage at the same time was 147.
“Then we went down to 120 students for 10/15 years,” Rev. Kim says. “And now we are at our lowest point, but I’m not worried because things go in cycles.”
According to Urbanik, the CDS relies solely on volunteers.
“‘Nobody gets paid,” Rev. Kim says (not even her). “The kids pay a tuition that pays for itself. I don’t do this to get paid — I do this ‘cause it’s fun and it’s what God wants me to do.”
Raised in Bethlehem, PA, Rev. Kim began writing and directing plays for her home church. Trained as a classical ballerina and a member of the Ballet Guild of the Lehigh Valley, she graduated from Penn State University in 1985, where she studied criminal justice.
“‘Cause I thought I was going to be in the FBI or something and ended being a probation/parole officer for three years (in Allentown, PA),” Urbanik says. “But I was always working at Christian camps doing ministry and then (she had an epiphany moment) G-d called me, as they say.”
In 1989, while receiving her Master’s in Divinity from Princeton Theological Seminary, Rev. Kim identified herself as ‘an artist with a mission to spread the gospel of Jesus Christ’ and was ordained in 1991.
Urbanik believes that you can’t teach faith.
“It’s something that’s caught, not taught,” the reverend says. “You can teach the story and the scriptures, whatever scripture you ascribe to. I’m a Christian so I teach the Bible.”
Since the school’s inception, Rev. Kim has directed and choreographed 77 plays and written 56 original plays.
The reverend says these shows are serious endeavors that cost between $20,000 and $30,000 to put on.
“I’ve done the Gospel According to John, Gospel According to Mark, Gospel According to Luke,” Urbanik says. “But then I do the “Grinch who Stole Christmas,” “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” The Birth (of Jesus from Heaven’s point of view). I do scripture and historical people who are amazing Christians.”
She’s done Joan of Arc and written a play about the real St. Nicholas.
“I wrote a play about Clara Barton and Amy Carmichael and Martin Luther,” Rev. Kim says. “And I have a whole play based on Uncle Toms Cabin called “Free at Last.” All with the notion of helping kids to feel into ‘the story.’
The reverend says it’s one thing to read a story but completely different to act it out.
“When you act out a story in the Bible suddenly it’s real and has meaning,” she says, adding that the plot is moved forward through dance and choreography. “And I teach everybody how to look good on the stage.”
Rev. Kim says if you’re going to grow in your faith and find God, you must be willing to be vulnerable.
“I mean vulnerable like Brené Brown, the popular writer who has a book about daring,” Urbanik says.
Every Good Friday Rev. Kim preaches about how to win in the world of Christianity.
“Jesus surrenders to G-d’s will and saves us all,” Urbanik says. “That’s the sign of true greatness. Every Christmas, no matter what show we do — it always ends with a live baby Jesus and nativity scene.”
For their spring play, (usually on Mother’s Day weekend) there’s always some sort of death and resurrection scene with a Christ character.
“We’re actually kind of famous for carrying a cross through Denville for almost 20 years,” says Rev. Kim, referring to their annual Good Friday Cross Carry and Youth Worship where students sustain a 12-foot cross four miles from the Rockaway Valley United Methodist Church to the Denville Community Church -– followed by a great crowd of witnesses.
Urbanik has also written a play, ‘The Gospel According to Women’ comprising all the gospels, but from the women’s point of view.
She penned three plays about Uganda, Africa and her ties to the country are well documented.
It all started when a CDS graduate, Cindy Garrison Donough volunteered in Uganda. Her stories and experiences inspired Harrs, who wanted to meet these people and help them in some way.
Modeling herself after the selfless, brave, daring characters she portrayed in many of the school plays — in 2010, Harrs traveled half a world away as a missionary — joined by Urbanik and a CDS team to the East African country and witnessed the poverty devastating Uganda firsthand.
She also saw all those working hard and sacrificing much to make a difference in their own communities.
“I had to do something to contribute to that effort,” Harrs says. “And so Heart for People was born — this idea of sharing stories and connecting more people, especially children, with the kids and people I met in Uganda. And I learned the value of that at the Christian Drama School.”
CDS now supports five schools in Uganda, through the H4P Foundation.
“Never imagined that I would ever be doing ministry in Africa,” says Rev. Kim. “That wasn’t part of my plan.”
And they have helped children in India, Belize and the United States — including victims of hurricanes in New Jersey and Puerto Rico, as well as local food banks.
The students at CDS come from a variety of denominations and beliefs.
“In the beginning it was students from the churches that supported us getting founded,” Urbanik says. “Preachers kids and students active in their churches. (Now) I also sometimes have the occasional kids who are not Christians and are other religions.”
All three of Shearman’s children grew up in the CDS and many of their closest friends went to different schools and different churches.
“Being a part of this larger group, with shared values and beliefs, helped each of them negotiate the challenges of high school and build lifelong friendships,” she says. “I believe in this ministry and how it builds faith, changes lives.”
According to Rev. Kim, you have mainstream churches, evangelical churches, Catholic churches and all different kinds of kids.
“The way I keep all the denominations together in drama school is I teach what Jesus actually said and did,” Urbanik says.
She says if you stick with that you don’t have to worry about the theology.
But if kids happen to need help with the creation theories of their different denominations the reverend can offer clarity.
“Like if a kid is Catholic and going to confirmation class and has a question I can help them, even though I’m trained as a Protestant — but very flexible.”
Rev. Kim’s own children, Luke and Mark were raised in the program so she says the big draw of the school are parents who want to raise their kids in a loving, Christian environment where all the children could participate.
“It didn’t matter what age you were, you were all in the same play,” Urbanik says. “You came at different times to rehearse, but then you put on a show. But the show is more like a prayer.”
Rev. Kim wants everyone to remember: God loves us and we should love each other.
For someone diagnosed with a learning disability, Worrall says the CDS helped so much more than just her faith.
“I was told that God had a purpose for me,” she says. “Acting, learning lines, I learned that I wasn’t stupid and could do the work. It gave me the tools I needed to apply to my scholastic education.”
“It didn’t matter if I was made fun of at school for being in special education classes. In my confidence gained at Christian Drama, I was able to make friends at school that accepted me for who I was.”