“I’m amazed and grateful that God does not say you have to totally change who you are to be part of his work; rather, he’s saying, ‘I made you who you are in order to be part of my work.’” That’s what Elizabeth Dishman has discovered after reflecting on her time at Urbana over 20 years ago.
Elizabeth attended Urbana 93 during her junior year at Emory University in Georgia, where she was majoring in voice and minoring in dance. Like so many students who go to the conference, she went unsure about what she wanted to do with her life and was very open to direction from God. “It was kind of a crux for me, right before my senior year,” she recalls. “I even brought some grad school applications to Urbana. I did a lot of praying about what God wanted for me in my vocational life.”
Although there were no lightning bolts from the sky at Urbana leading her to missions in the traditional sense, Elizabeth had a deep sense that God was calling her to be an artist. “The separation between Christian vocation and secular vocation melted away for me,” she says. “I felt free to step into my identity as an artist in the world, where I didn’t have to create a separate missions category for it but instead could be used missionally as an artist.”
Elizabeth had a deep sense that God was calling her to be an artist. “The separation between Christian vocation and secular vocation melted away for me,” she says. “I felt free to step into my identity as an artist in the world, where I didn’t have to create a separate missions category for it but instead could be used missionally as an artist.”
Just before Urbana, Elizabeth had begun to involve herself more deeply in the world of dance. She had done ballet as a child but had given it up in middle school in favor of music. And her pursuits in college had all been in voice. But during her sophomore year at Emory, Elizabeth attended a gospel choir performance, which included modern dance. It pulled her in with its ability to connect the movement of the body with the emotions of the music. The next week at church she responded to a request for help in developing some choreography for their worship music.
Open Doors and Dance
After that, Elizabeth found herself feeling constantly surprised by the doors God kept opening for her in dance, since, for a time, she still felt that she was first and foremost a singer. “God himself completely guided my journey as a dancer and choreographer,” she says. “I kind of always knew I had a voice as a singer. I always knew I was good at that and knew how to pursue it. But when I started pursuing dance, it was more about my love for the art form and not my own talent.” The focus wasn’t on her. “I wasn’t worried about trying to be the best because I knew I couldn’t,” she says. “It was about working with people; it was collaborative. That was a more godly pursuit for me. It was healthier and more joyous.”
Since Urbana she has continued to see dance as a part of God’s mission. “Dance has caused me to love in a more generous way,” she says. “God really used the human body to do that for me.” And God continued to give her opportunities to build a career around dance post-college. In one act of trust after another, she chose to follow those leads.
Today Elizabeth directs a modern dance company in Brooklyn, New York, where she works with a diverse group of people. She sees her company as God’s present mission field for her, but not in a pushy way. “God used dance to show me more about beauty, and grace, and humanity. I’ve become a better listener,” she explains.
Elizabeth looks back to Urbana as the moment in which she became excited about the prospect of being part of the secular arts community: “I felt a fully orbed sense that God’s mission enfolded and fulfilled my identity.” She remembers specifically listening to Bruce Kuhn, an actor, speak at Urbana about being an artist in the secular world. She reflects, “Now, as I’m solidly in this field and have my own dance company, I see how rich the opportunities are for loving people, for speaking about Jesus when the opportunity arises and cultivating a gracious community.”
Elizabeth doesn’t take her unique position lightly. The arts community is filled with people who have been hurt, and many whom she works with are very guarded against Christians. She sees her role as helping people open the door that God will then lead them through himself, in his own time.
Following God into the world of dance has not always been easy. It’s hard to trust God with our talents; they tend to be things that we feel we need to control. Elizabeth recalls, “One time I was putting together a show and it was such an intense process. I was so worried it wasn’t going to go well. I had this image of my dream being a fragile butterfly that God would care for, but I wasn’t trusting him to.” She encourages people, students especially, to constantly bring their dreams before God, and to challenge their own hold on them.
Of course, there are also always dreams that God says no to. “Just because God made me to be creative doesn’t mean I’ll be a headliner at a huge theater in New York,” she says. “Success is fine and good; it’s not wrong to have fans and be in the public eye. But seeing the work as a way to engage God and the world, rather than a vehicle for your own giftings and passions, is key.”
It’s advice that Elizabeth has clearly taken to heart since she gave up music in favor of dance. She concludes, “It’s a rush to make something beautiful and experience something profound. We’re touching God in that act of creativity. That’s compelling. That’s why I am an artist—I’m sharing that image of God.”