Barefoot, hooded and clad in black, dancers from Palm Beach Atlantic University glided across the stage to open the true story of Rabeka, a South Sudanese woman who made vibrantly embroidered bedsheets to sell in her village market. A tragic shadow fell over the rich colors of Rabeka’s work as background music faded and the dancers depicted what happened when soldiers ravaged the village.
“The women gathered as much as they could carry in a sheet and ran for their lives,” explained a narrator. “Rabeka was running with her bedsheet and her children when a soldier stopped her, grabbed one of her sons out of her arms and brutally killed him right in front of her eyes.”
The audience at First Presbyterian Church North Palm watched in silence, transfixed as the story continued through music, dance and words. “The soldier threatened to kill Rabeka and the rest of her children,” said the narrator, “but at that moment another soldier recognized her and helped her escape to a refugee camp.”
Sometime later, Rabeka met workers of Women in the Window International (WIW), a ministry headquartered in West Palm Beach and serving marginalized women in 35 nations. “We dropped to our knees and surrounded Rabeka with prayer, with tears and with love,” explained the narrator.
In a choreographed routine of seven minutes, the dancers and WIW narrator condensed a story that played out over many days. Embraced by other refugees, Rabeka learned from God’s Word the principles of forgiveness and trauma healing. Ultimately, Women in the Window provided her practical tools “to overcome poverty and injustice with dignity and purpose in Christ,” said the narrator. Today Rabeka is not only surviving, “but she and her bedsheet business are thriving, her heart set free to forgive, to worship and to serve.”
Students, professors practiced service learning
“How beautiful and powerful” is the organization Women in the Window, said Jin Lee Hanley, associate professor of dance, and chair of the Palm Beach Atlantic Dance Department. I echo that sentiment and give the same description to the entire program I experienced at First Presbyterian on Febreuary 26. It was a moving example of what we call service learning, the culmination of much prayer, planning, study, practice and collaboration.
Jin had volunteered with Women in the Window for several years, performing for the organization’s events. She and Stella Amblade, adjunct professor of dance, decided the dance course Dance Ensemble would be perfect for leading students through a learning process that would enrich the students and also promote and serve WIW.
Consider the different formats and levels of learning found in formal education. The classic lecture format is most prevalent, but education reaches a deeper level in a two-way exchange, when professor and students engage in discussion. At Palm Beach Atlantic our small class sizes make that discussion format practical, and our students benefit tremendously.
Now what if you took that engagement to an even greater level? What if students and professors worked together to serve others during the learning process? In our structured method of service learning, faculty develop coursework that integrates academic learning with Christ-like community service. The process requires faculty and students willing to go the extra mile, so Jin and Stella invited dance majors to augment a required course with extra study and writing.
Showing God’s grace through dance
In addition to the physically demanding preparation for dance performance, students signed up for an extra weekly session where they prayed and learned about the work of Women in the Window. “It was quite difficult,” said sophomore dancer Kaitlynn Bossie. “We were dealing with such hard stories and tragedy.” But she’s glad she made the commitment, “because helping people and showing them God’s grace and His words through my dancing is such an honor for me.”
Addison Hand, another sophomore dance major, was chosen to portray the refugee Rabeka in the dance routine telling her story. That felt overwhelming at first, Addison said, but then she found it “just so powerful, there on the stage, portraying a story of redemption.”
Addison, Kaitlynn and their fellow dancers presented three redemption stories, depicting how Women in the Window serves in Africa, Asia and the Middle East. “The dancers were so beautiful,” said WIW Executive Director Kim Kerr. “I know it impacted everyone who attended, and it will benefit people far and wide.”
You can experience the program via the Women in the Window International website. (Find YouTube under the “Media” tab.) And after the dance segment about Rabeka in South Sudan, you’ll hear Dr. Terriel Byrd, PBA professor of urban Christian ministry, who linked Women in the Window’s outreach to Jesus’ words in Mathew 25.
“We are defined by what we do,” said Dr. Byrd. “My friends, will you help the least of these?”
Dr. Debra A. Schwinn, a physician, researcher and innovator, is president of Palm Beach Atlantic University. (www.pba.edu) For more articles by Dr. Schwinn, visit goodnewsfl.org/author/dr-debra-a-schwinn/