By Jonathan Williams
“Most people grind it out for years as servers, bartenders, and baristas before they book their first acting gig. I was lucky.”
Ben Jeffery is lucky. After moving to New York from Kansas City, Missouri, almost five years ago, he found work in commercials and in TV shows, including Louie.
“I mean, I did spend some time working as a barista at Starbucks,” Ben tells me with an affable nod, “but I basically got the chance to live out my dream as an actor right away.”
For the past three years, Ben has entertained capacity crowds as the lovable warthog Pumbaa in Broadway’s megahit The Lion King. It’s a play that has grossed almost $1 billion, been watched by 64 million people worldwide, and is currently one of the longest-running shows on Broadway.
Ben puts it all into perspective. “Eight times a week I get to sing, dance, and tell an incredible story to audiences from all over the world.”
Ben is also a Christian. Ben and his wife, Christina, have attended Forefront Church in New York City for the past three years. Not only is Ben a principal character on Broadway’s most popular show, he’s also active in the life of Forefront Church, leading small groups, serving at organizations throughout New York City, and encouraging others in Christ.
Ben is a great friend, and I was more than happy to ask him about his role as an actor and as a Christian in an influential city like New York.
How does your work as a performance artist play into your experience as a Christian? Does one inform the other?
It’s weird, but I’ve always felt closer to God in a theater than in a church. In the film Chariots of Fire, the Olympic runner Eric Liddell tells his sister God made him fast, “and when I run, I feel his pleasure.” For me, acting, singing, and performing in general have always been an act of worship.
John 1 talks about the Word becoming flesh and dwelling among us. I love that, because I feel that, particularly as an actor, I’m creating with God—making the word flesh, speaking something out of nothing. The best art always seems to point us to God in some way or another, even if it’s to talk about how we don’t understand him or can’t believe in him. But as an artist, I feel like God is there in the middle of the creation, passion, and truth of art.
As someone in a high-profile position and someone who is a follower of Christ, do you consider yourself as someone who influences culture?
I have an influence, however minimal it may be. I don’t think America or Broadway are hanging on my every word to enrich or change their lives. On the other hand, while I may not be a direct influence, I work in a show that has a great deal of cultural importance on a number of levels. It tells a beautiful, artistically revolutionary story that utilizes aesthetics and traditions from several cultures just to tell the story. We have a diverse, international cast of players, and people from hundreds of cultures around the world come to see the show every year.
I’m also a part of a church that partners with many other great groups around the city to feed the homeless, rescue sex workers from slavery, and bring hope and love to people.
There are a lot of people in your profession and in New York City who do not consider themselves Christ followers. What do you do to combat the non-Christian mind-set in an industry as “post-Christian” as Broadway?
My favorite thing about Jesus was how he just turned everything on its head. Basically, he was like, “Yeah, you guys have been doing things this way for a long time. That was fine till now, but it’s time to graduate. I’ve got a better way, and a bigger hope, and it’s totally going to mess with you.” If I claim to be a follower of Jesus—and I do—then I’m claiming that I think his culture, his life, and his ideas are better than the other options out there—most often, the option of just doing what I think is best for me.
How do you demonstrate this in your own life?
Because I believe he’s so crazy about me that he died so I didn’t have to rely on my way of doing things (which was sure to get me killed), I want to live in his culture, his community, and his love. Doing that means I’m going to be bringing his culture with me, and I think the world needs Jesus’ culture. He did, in fact, command us to bring his light to the world, and the world needs it.
So, yes, I think it’s my job to love people, to see that the homeless are fed and sheltered, to try to rid the world of sex trafficking and violence against women, and to live as much of Jesus as I can to the people in my life.
How does your job guide your Christian experience? Does it influence the way you see Christianity and faith?
I work with a lot of folks who have been really burned by the church, or who have friends who have been burned, and it makes me realize how important it is to make sure the first thing I’m doing is loving people . . . unconditionally, shamelessly loving the mess out of people. It seems to me that’s the biggest thing Jesus was about—coming and being willing to die to love us before we knew he existed.
What are the biggest obstacles of faith and work in your profession?
Honestly? Other Christians. Most of the people I work with don’t want anything to do with Jesus because the people who work for him are too busy running around telling everyone else how evil they are, how they’re going to Hell, how God hates them for their sin.
When I say I love Jesus, the first thing that pops into their heads are these images of ministers telling everyone how bad they’re going to get it unless they do exactly what they’re told. And the people I work with are over that. They don’t hate me for loving Jesus, and they don’t want to take that away from me, but they’re through being told all the reasons they’re going to Hell and God hates them. I don’t blame them.
How can Christians in the arts be more welcoming to everyone?
Maybe instead of telling gay people they’re sinners, we should just tell them how much Jesus loves them. Would it be such a terrible thing if that’s what we were known for? Because I work with some homosexuals, and you know what they’ve never done to me? [They’ve never] said, “Oh, sorry, you’re a Christian and we’re gay, so we’re not going to let you come to our gatherings, hang out in our homes, or feel welcome and loved around us.” Instead, they’ve taken me as I am, without any conditions or reservations, and as I’ve stated throughout this, I can be a real jerk. And I’ve been loved anyway.
That should be what my friends hear from the church: regardless of who they are or what they do, they are loved. Instead, we’re the people who are known for trying to make everyone do things our way, whether or not they want to.
There are exceptions to this, of course, and I think the church does a lot of good in the world, or I wouldn’t be a part of it. But I think Jesus is bigger than most of the issues we take up in his name. He died to save all of us, not so that a few of us could celebrate how right we are. That’s a culture most people can get on board with.
What’s your biggest takeaway from your life as a Christian artist?
There are a lot of things about Jesus’ life and teachings that I think can be good for the world and people I work with, but the biggest thing is to try to love them the way he did. Because if there’s one thing I know about Jesus, it’s that he’s crazy in love with all of us, and he wants us to see in his other kids what he sees in us and in them. After loving him so that we can learn how to love everyone else, the rest is semantics.
Jonathan Williams serves as lead pastor with Forefront Brooklyn Church in New York.