This Mt. Airy evangelist believes in the uplifting power of art

by Len Lear
Posted 1/18/24

The Rev. Elsa Johnson Bass recently retired as a worship arts pastor whose mission was to get young people involved.

This item is available in full to subscribers.

Please log in to continue

Log in

This Mt. Airy evangelist believes in the uplifting power of art


The Rev. Elsa Johnson Bass' magnetic smile could charm a handkerchief out of a silkworm. The cultural arts doyenne and recently retired worship arts pastor is on a mission to get as many young people as possible involved in the arts.

The educator and ordained minister at Christ Center Church of God at 1615 W. Chelten Ave. in West Oak Lane is the founder and artistic director of Christian Theater Workshop and Cross Culture Christian Theater. She taught acting, playwriting, musical theater, and children's theater at Philadelphia High School for Creative and Performing Arts (CAPA) for 21 years and has conducted arts workshops across the country. A minister for 45 years and a Mt. Airy resident for more than 23, Bass is thoughtful and polished by kindness and compassion, making her a figure young people gravitate toward.

“The arts are an absolute must for these kids,” Bass said, adding that “there’s nothing cooler than teenagers.” 

That’s why having to reject students was the hardest part of her teaching job at CAPA.

“The only thing I did not like was having to tell 13-year-olds that they were not good enough. I've seen them weeping. But sometimes, we only had 30 available seats for 100 applicants,” she said. “I don't want to keep burying young people who never had a chance to reach their full potential. I don't want to hear any more kids say, 'If I grow up...' I want to hear them say, 'When I grow up’.”

In 2014, Bass retired from the School District of Philadelphia after 40 years as an educator. The first 20 were at schools other than CAPA, where she developed the musical theater program and directed more than 20 spring musicals. “It was a dream job,” she recalled, “and I am thrilled to see the continued success of so many of my former students.

“You shouldn't have to be wealthy to experience or participate in the arts. One of my dreams is to fill a theater with children who have never before seen 'The Lion King,” she continued. “I point out that in addition to acting, they can also do backstage work. A good technician can make or break a play. And the technology now is amazing. In 'Spider-Man,' for example, the technology is the star.”

One of nine siblings, Bass grew up in the racially segregated small town of Ardmore, Oklahoma, where her father was a pastor. However, her family moved to Erie, Pennsylvania, when she was of high school age. 

Contrary to what most would assume, she preferred life in the South. 

“Ardmore was segregated, but the Black teachers cared, and I felt at home in school,” she said. “When we moved to Erie, though, it was worse. There were not many Blacks, and the attitude of many whites was 'What are you doing here?' People thought you were dumb if you spoke with a Southern drawl and spoke slowly, so I deliberately spoke fast and wanted to wear glasses to look smarter.”

Bass earned a bachelor's degree in speech and drama at Anderson University in Indiana, followed by a year at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, where she acted with the Bedford Stuyvesant Company. She also has a master's degree in theater from Hunter College and a second master's in educational leadership from Cabrini University in Radnor. In New York, she was mentored by Lloyd Richards, the first Black director on Broadway, renowned for his production of “Raisin in the Sun,” starring Sidney Poitier, which opened in March 1959 and ran for 530 performances.

Bass started her own theater company in Harlem in 1974, which lasted four years. Then she got married and moved to Philadelphia with her now ex-husband. At CAPA, she worked with, among others, Leslie Odom Jr. in “Bye Bye Birdie.” Odom went on to win Tony and Grammy Awards in 1998 for his role as Aaron Burr in the hit musical, “Hamilton,” which won 11 Tony Awards. In 2014, the same year she retired from CAPA, Bass directed a musical, “Ruka,” at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.

Bass' most recent show was “The Best Christmas Pageant Ever,” by Barbara Robinson, with her assistant director, Marguerite Sutton, and a cast and crew of 30, with three December performances at the 100-seat Cross Culture Christian Theater. A Saturday afternoon performance was particularly emotional because it was dedicated to Laron Williams, a neighbor of one of the church's pastors who was shot to death on his 12th birthday in June of that year.

“When you include the families outside of school, which we do, you get support,” Bass said. “Part of my mission is to show the kids there's more to life than what they're used to. The two places where I always felt at home were in the church and on the stage. The village will support you. Others may tell you that you're not good enough, but here we tell you that you are.”

And in Northwest Philadelphia, Bass said, the churches are where she sees this actually happening. 

“Northwest Philadelphia churches do a great job with the arts,” she said. “What's going on in this part of the city is astounding. Teachers and administrators are giving their whole lives to the kids.

For more information, visit Len Lear can be reached at