Can performance art bring peace to the Middle East? Yael Miriam believes it can, and she's so certain of it that she persuaded a social service foundation to give her a grant to go do it.

The St. Paul native is a practitioner of "applied theater," which she describes as "using theatrical performance techniques for building awareness and promoting social responsibility."

She'll be leaving for Israel the first week of August to set up theatrical workshops in communities dealing with violence and discrimination. The trip is being funded by the Dorot Foundation, a charitable organization that focuses on fostering young -- Miriam is 23 -- Jewish leaders.

It wasn't easy to get the foundation to back the project.

"It took a lot of talking," she said. "They understood the two parts, the art and the social change, but they had trouble seeing how the elements could come together."

So she told them about one of her teachers at St. Paul Central High School. "Jan Mandel taught us about creating meaningful performance pieces that would open up a dialogue about issues in the community," she said. "For instance, I did a show about teen sexuality and peer pressure."

Miriam, who lives in New York City, has gotten both positive and negative feedback on her mission -- which is fine with her. After all, the ultimate goal is to get people talking to one another.

"This is about hearing the voices of the people," she said. "I'm not going to be pushing a political agenda. There are people across the entire political spectrum who want to express themselves creatively, and I want to help them."

The grant covers the 10-month-trip's expenses, but Miriam is hoping to expand the project by recording everything she does so it can be analyzed and studied when she comes home. To do that, she's going to need a little help.

"I need $7,950," she said. "To date, I have $2,732." She has set up a website,, where she will write a blog about her mission and where supporters can make donations.

No safety net

Lost amid the hubbub over the Vatican's new rules on dealing with sex abuse that were released 10 days ago was another pronouncement that could have a profound local impact.

The ruling, so overlooked that it wasn't even translated into English until early this week, said that a bishop can close any parish, regardless of its financial stability or the size of its membership, if he believes that the decision is best for the diocese as a whole.

The announcement could cause some Twin Cities Roman Catholics to lose sleep. The Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis is in the process of preparing a new strategic plan -- basically, a downsizing -- that Archbishop John Nienstedt has made clear will involve closing some churches and merging others.

From the outset of the process in February 2009, it has been assumed that the closings would involve churches with sagging memberships and declining revenues. While it's still likely that those parishes will make up most of the closings, it's no longer a given that healthy ones will be spared.

The Vatican ruling was in response to a strategic plan implemented by the Archdiocese of Boston that included closing 10 parishes that were economically viable. The 10 appealed the order to the Vatican, which upheld the decision.

The strategic plan for Twin Cities parishes will be announced Oct. 16-17.

Talking back

The radio program "Atheists Talk" is returning to the air next weekend after a yearlong hiatus.

Sponsored by Minnesota Atheists, the show was pulled from KTNF (950 AM) because of a combination of factors, including a hike in the station's rates and a decision by the group to focus its fundraising efforts on a building project.

"About a month ago, we were sitting around talking about how the radio show was one of best things we'd ever done," said August Berkshire, the group's president and co-director of the show. They approached the station and discovered that it had cut its fees to a level that makes the hourlong show affordable again.

The first show will air at 9 a.m. Aug. 1. The guest is Robert M. Price, a former member of the Jesus Project and author of a new book, "The Case Against the Case for Christ."

Jeff Strickler • 612-673-7392