The name Robert Munoz first cropped up in local pro-life circles as the man who would bail activist Bill Whatcott out of jail following one of the latter’s frequent arrests.
The Munoz name came up again with word of a play based on the life of activist/political prisoner Linda Gibbons. Later it was learned this same Munoz is pastor of Trinity Evangelical Lutheran Church in mid-town Toronto.
Pastor, playwright and supporter of leading pro-life activists – a story was lurking in the comfortable confines of that church rectory. And before you could say dramatis persona, a meeting was arranged and the questions flowed.
Munoz came to Trinity parish last summer after eight years as pastor of a Lutheran parish in Synder, near Niagara Falls, Ontario. Church elders gave him the title “urban mission developer,” but to Munoz, that became carte blanche for some creative inner-city ministry. And today, the 45-year-old father of five combines a fascination for music and drama with a novel idea of using the arts to promote pro-life and pro-family values.
‘Reclaim the arts’
“Christians have to reclaim the arts today,” Munoz told The Interim. “The secular culture is massively in control and unfortunately, people in the theatre are often hostile to the Christian faith and to the kinds of issues important to Christians.”
That attitude provided the motivation for Munoz to write the play “Linda” which is based on the struggle of activist Linda Gibbons who sits the Metro West Detention Centre for continually ignoring a permanent injunction against pro-life demonstrations. The play was performed in August before an enthusiastic audience at the Trinity church hall.
Although he found parts of his work “clumsy,” Munoz was generally happy with the finished product. And what is he trying to do with the play?
In essence, he is trying to extend the audience for Gospel message beyond the pews and church rostrums. He is now revising the play in the hope of having it performed in Toronto area high schools. Munoz has also submitted an audio tape of the play to officials with Lutheran Hour syndicated radio program to have it broadcast throughout North America.
In early November, Munoz’ Trinity Basement Theatre wills stage a week of performances of the revised Linda play. At an October 2 court appearance, the subject of the play was found guilty of obstructing a peace officer and breaking probation. Her case was remanded to November 12 for sentencing.
Munoz’ use of theatre to promote pro-life efforts is a welcome idea, say members of the Linda cast. Dolores Toth, a performer with the Actors’ Studio, was involved in the original performances of the play. Dolores, who also works as an advertising sales agent for The Interim, appreciates Munoz’ attitude to theatre. “The theatre can be a powerful method of teaching,” Dolores said. “Young people in particular might be more open to messages delivered by live theatre.”
For Munoz, the theatre also has an evangelical component. “When we have people together in church, we are speaking to the faithful,” Munoz said. “And while they need to be reminded of essential teachings, it’s important to speak to people on the outside. They need to be addressed as to what the real issues are.”
It’s no surprise that Munoz should embrace music and theatre in such a way. Before coming to Trinity Lutheran, he was heavily involved in contemporary music, including stints as producer and manager of Christian musical ensembles. Creative and scholastic pursuits also form a large part of the pastor’s work history. In addition to his involvement with Christian musical groups, Munoz has worked as an interpreter, freelance writer, teaching manuals editor, home-school curriculum author and lecturer on religious education. He has also written an unpublished novel described as “a futuristic eschatological fantasy.”
The Linda play is the second such evangelical effort for Munoz. In 1994, he wrote the script for the musical Job and the Snake, a tale of suffering and redemption based on the Old Testament Book of Job.
The play had a successful run in small southern Ontario theatres, and in April, it was performed at the Betty Oliphant Theatre in Toronto.
Munoz believes the Job play has much to say about euthanasia for today’s audiences. The play has struck a responsive chord in audiences, and producers in Montreal, St. Louis and San Francisco have expressed interest in staging it.
Munoz embraces the arts to push the pro-life line for other reasons as well. He believes the “emotional punch” inherent in live theatre makes the message more immediate for audiences. In the Linda play for example, he believes some audience members who were neutral to the pro-life issue came away with a greater appreciation for Gibbons struggle.
“Christians involved in the arts need to devote themselves to this kind of issue to mobilize and motivate,” Munoz said. He added that the pro-life movement may be “top heavy” with older people, and an appeal to the younger generation through arts, drama and music could have a positive effect.
“Many people see the pro-life movement as weak, or something that can be ignored,” he said. “But imagine if the Christian majority could be mobilized in this country. Things could be turned around in a positive direction just like that.”
To that end, Munoz believes mainline churches should be doing more to reach the elite, the influential and the opinion makers. He said churches have no trouble preaching to the converted and to those at the lower end of the social strata, but they have little influence among society’s elite. “To minister to those below us is not threatening,” he said. “But to reach out to the elite and the intellectuals can be intimidating.”
To that end, Munoz looks forward to a time when more university professors, artists and other respected individuals unashamedly proclaim a respect-for-life stand. “If a well regarded university professor makes a positive pro-life statement, the students would very likely follow the lead,” Munoz said.