On a bitterly cold day, half a dozen young people are in an empty apartment that doubles as a drama studio, singing about miracles, talking about their relationship with God.
Annie O'Neill, Post-GazetteDreams of Hope is a theater troupe for gay youth, ages 14-18, and their allies and supporters. Above, the group rehearses a number for the show. They've been around for a few years, and do sketches and musical numbers built around themes in their lives. This year's production, "Gay Youth in Good Faith" explores the religious conflicts they have. Their first performance will be Feb. 25 at St. Andrew's Lutheran Church, Shadyside.
But this is not standard gospel.
Dreams of Hope is a drama troupe for gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgendered and "questioning" youth -- and their straight friends. The 4-year-old troupe devotes each season to a different theme, such as school or family. This year it is "Gay Youth in Good Faith" -- an examination of relationships with God.
Faith was a natural topic for this crop of six performers, ages 14 to 21, because several come from clergy families, said Susan Haugh, the founder and artistic director.
"One of the biggest themes is the personal issue of sin, of how something that is so natural and doesn't seem like a bad thing, can be seen as horrible and people reject them for it. That is a big issue that most of them are dealing with," said Ms. Haugh, who previously founded the Renaissance City Women's Choir.
"The kids come up with the themes. They create the shows themselves," she said of the poetry, monologues, songs and sketches they write.
One scene re-creates a bus ride two actors took during which another rider condemned them by reciting Bible verses.
"That really hurt me, because I believe in God," said Renee Ballard, 20, a pastor's daughter from the North Side, who was on the bus.
Ms Ballard said that when she came out as a lesbian, her relatives rejected her, asking how she could still call herself a Christian. But there has since been reconciliation, she said.
"I told them I believe in God and God is in my life no matter what I'm doing. God loves me, no matter what. My sister came and said that she would also love me, no matter what," she said.
Some in the troupe keep their distance from religious institutions of all kinds.
"I really do love the Lord and believe in him and have a personal relationship with him," said Terrance McGeorge, 20, of East Liberty, raised Baptist.
"But I'm against organized religion. . . . Religion is supposed to heal your soul, but it bruises us because we are being discriminated against by people who are supposed to love everyone."
Not every cast member is down on the church. Michanty Battle, 19, has a monologue about getting saved at a church that might not have approved of what she was doing, but loved her anyway. She's an avid churchgoer, searching for a local church home.
Now a sophomore at Chatham College, she grew up in another state, where her grandfather and uncles were pastors. When she came out as a lesbian, she said, a boy she had been friends with raped her. Her mother blamed the attack on her for coming out, and kicked her out of the house. She lived in her car in a small town where everybody knew each other's business, she said.
One desperate morning she felt an impulse to go to a church she had never been to before. The people were well dressed -- she was not. She figured they knew her whole story. But when the pastor gave a call to receive Jesus, she went forward.
"The pastor reached out to me. He said something that has stayed with me ever since. He said, 'In your darkest hour, God will never leave you or forsake you,' " she said.
"He said, I know you've been through a lot of bad things but none of those things are your fault."
She believes this production will "put a face on gay Christians. I think it will open people's minds to see . . . that we aren't these foul people who are trying to get everyone to be gay."
Other faith traditions are present. Cast member Rayna Faigen, 14, calls herself a "Jewnitarian," for Jewish Unitarian.
She joined the group because her stepsister had belonged to it. She calls herself a lesbian, shaving her hair short and dressing in boy's clothing. But the break with her synagogue came the day she arrived dressed as a girl and was teased for that, she said. She switched to her stepfather's Unitarian church, where she feels safe, she said.
"The good thing about being Unitarian is that there's no God involved. It just about learning about everything," she said.
There will be a performance a 1 p.m. tomorrow in St. Andrew Lutheran Church, Shadyside. St. Andrew is the only congregation in the local synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America belonging to Reconciling in Christ, a program to welcome gays and lesbians.
"We hope that by having it in the church, we will say that there are churches that welcome everyone and we particularly want to say [to the actors] you are welcome here," said the Rev. Janet Grill, the pastor.
Ms. Ballard, who has been in the troupe for three years, said the best part is the reaction from older gay people in the audience.
"People are very moved to see that we, the youth, are out and we don't care. We encourage people to be themselves," she said.
Ann Rodgers can be reached at email@example.com or 412-263-1416.