In this story from July 1976, the star of stage and screen shares how he learned to use his gifts for God's glory.
One night while I was appearing in my biggest Broadway hit, a show called Pippin, I was in my dressing room relaxing after a demanding performance of song, dance and mime when my good friend Shirley MacLaine came backstage to see me.
“When did it happen, Ben?” she asked, her face all aglow with enthusiasm. “You were such a quiet youngster on the set when we made Sweet Charity together, and now look at you—out on that big stage—doing all those wonderful things. When did it happen?”
I could have answered her, but it would have taken hours to explain. So I just passed it off with the flip remark, “Well, I guess I’ve finally graduated from my apprenticeship.”
In my heart I knew what she meant. I held been a very quiet, introverted person when I made that movie with Shirley. But that was because I hadn’t yet found my true self. At that time. I was a performer who was deeply tormented by guilt.
Shirley’s remark put everything in focus, and I found myself reviewing my life and the choices I had made.
I was born in Florida, but when I was very young, my family moved to the rough Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn. My mother was a domestic who worked for a time as a wardrobe mistress for Broadway shows. She was from Louisiana, and could she sing the blues!
My father was a church deacon who also worked in a paint factory to support our growing family. It was in his church that I first discovered my talents as a singer. When I was four, I sang my first solo there—and experienced my initial joy at entertaining people.
In the slums where we lived, there was only one place where young people could enjoy themselves and show off their talents—the street. I lacked the athletic abilities that offered instant status, but I did have a talent for dancing—and that won me the nickname of “Twinkle Toes.”
It was my godfather, the Reverend Eddie, an itinerant preacher, who took me off the streets. He started taking me along on his spiritual rounds.
Whenever a minister went on vacation, my godfather would substitute for him, conducting services and visiting the congregation in their homes. He ministered to people and comforted the poor and sick.
“Wherever the flock of God is. I will be there,” he would say to me. As I grew older I realized that Reverend Eddie was the closest follower of Jesus I knew. Like Jesus, he went among the people and ministered to them. I decided that I wanted to become a minister like my godfather.
The conflict in my life began soon after that when my mother was convinced by a salesman that my natural talents as a dancer could win me fame and fortune if I enrolled in a local dancing school.
My mother loved the theater, so she gladly made the sacrifice, and soon I was dancing away with a bunch of other kids—all of us bent on becoming Bill Robinsons and Fred Astaires.
At first I took the classes casually, but the more I danced, the more I liked it. I seemed to have a natural talent for it, as I had for singing, and I spent lots of time practicing, while also continuing to practice my religion.
It was when I began appearing in public and basking in the glow that came from an audience’s applause that my conscience started to bother me. I felt that by singing worldly songs and dancing worldly steps, I was turning my back on my religion.
It wasn’t that my parents or my godfather actively opposed my new career. They didn’t. It was just that I felt agonizing guilt for wanting to be an entertainer. That guilt became a crushing burden.
Everything I did outside the church during this period when I was starting a musical career filled me with remorse. Our church was desperately trying to get a hearing for gospel music on the radio.
The networks only wanted pop music—except maybe on Sundays. Here I was dancing and singing frivolous songs in public instead of doing something to promote religious music on the air.
While I was suffering all those doubts, I married into a religious family, and their quiet devotion to their beliefs doubled my guilt. Then, almost too coincidentally, I appeared in an off-Broadway musical play, The Prodigal Son, that reflected my own life.
I played Brother Luke, a minister who leaves his church to seek religion in the outside world. Instead. he finds only emptiness and loneliness. In the end, he returns to the church.
I felt that it was a good Biblical play, but when it flopped, I regarded it as an omen that God was punishing me for being a performer instead of a minister. I was so afraid of God and the possibility of His vengeance that I decided to enter the ministry.
I studied for the ministry for six months. But fear is poor motivation for that calling. So, still full of fears and doubts, I left the ministry and returned to the world of entertainment. The reason I gave to myself was that maybe bringing enjoyment to people would please God.
So I began calling on God before going on stage at every performance. I would say things like this to Him, “I’m going out there to minister to a lot of people—please guide me.”
But I still couldn’t relax completely or throw myself into roles with total conviction because I couldn’t seem to rid myself of the feeling that I had failed God by not becoming a minister.
This went on for a long time. Then one Saturday I stayed up all night after a performance meditating and agonizing about my dilemma. Suddenly I heard a voice.
“Why do you fear Me?” it asked gently. “What have I done to you but given you life. I love you. Why have they taught you to fear Me?”
Those were not words I had read or heard, yet the voice seemed familiar. It was a voice that I had heard before, whenever I was deep in prayer.
The voice went on. and I wrote down what I heard. “I speak to you and I call your name on the wind and on the wing of a bird. Why have they taught you to fear Me?”
It was an incredible, life-changing experience. After that morning, I no longer feared God. Not only that. my guilt feelings about being in show business disappeared. My next show on Broadway was Jesus Christ Superstar in which I played Judas.
I read the Bible over and over in preparation for that role and found in it all the answers to the fears that had haunted my life, answers like the opening lines of Psalm 27: “The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The Lord is the strength of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?”
In my next show, Pippin, I received not only my greatest notices, but a Tony Award as well for the best performance of the season by a male actor in a musical.
So, when Shirley MacLaine asked me that question backstage—“When did it happen. Ben?"—I realized that my liberation from guilt was complete.
It had begun that quiet Sunday morning when God spoke to me. He made me realize at last that by using the talents He had given me I was making the best possible use of His gift of life.
Isn’t that true for all of us?
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