Milestones in Our Faith: Transformation at common art
The following is the transcript. No audio is available.
Alicia: Good morning! common art takes place every Wednesday at The Emmanuel Church on Newbury Street. The indoor space is much like our Willett Hall. Imagine a large blue tarp rolled out and taped down to protect the floors, the lighting is dim, the air feels a bit stale. Community members haul large bins full of donated art supplies up from a basement storage room and set up 6 round tables around the room, and three more up on the stage. Each week without fail, unhoused artists and community members gather in this Grace-filled space. Some carry with them their worldly possessions, the pain of addiction, the scars of rejection and mental illness. Embedded in these burdens are remarkable talents, creativity and kindness. Art is happening everywhere around the room, though some folks are there only for coffee and respite. Every forty-five minutes, just as volume and tempers seem to rise, Rev. Mary or Rev. Laura interrupt it all with the strike of a chime, a call for a moment of quiet reflection, and a simple, short, Bible verse to inspire. On any given Wednesday, you will find Terry behind a table on the stage sorting beads,
Terry: ...and Alicia at the watercolor table making cards. Alicia and I joined this group shortly after we retired, each seeking a meaningful way to occupy our now freed up time. What we found was so much more than that. We want to share with your how our volunteering at common art has changed us and transformed our faith. Our stories are different but the profound impact common art has had on us is similar.
From Paul’s letter to the Romans Chapter 12: Therefore, I urge you, siblings, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.
Alicia: After thirty years as an elementary school teacher, my retirement challenged me to mess with the borders and boxes I’d worked my whole life to build, the ones that separated and defined the many identities, roles, and worlds in which I’ve lived: Chinese American, Christian, daughter, partner, teacher, mother, caregiver, mentor, advocate, neighbor, friend... Boxes are neat and manageable. They create perpendicular borders that are clearly defined so that crossings can be made safely, efficiently or not at all. Suddenly unboxed, I felt lost and uncertain. What had once kept me productive, forever multitasking and confident, now felt arbitrary and irrelevant, cumbersome and confining. It was time for me, as Paul exhorts in Romans 12, to no longer “conform to the pattern of this world but to be transformed by the renewing of the mind” – to see myself and others in a new light, a light shining from within rather than from the outside. I longed for a new lens so I might be able to see the path that God would have me travel going forward.
My first visits to common art were as compelling as they were confusing. I’d walk by Newbury Street’s pristine shop windows boasting designer clad mannequins, and cross the threshold of Emmanuel Church into a cacophony of unrelenting smells and vehement conversations. I’d find myself embraced by a beloved, unconditional welcome. It was overwhelming. Incongruous. What gift could I possibly bring to this space? D was agitated because someone stole his bag last night while he was sleeping in a doorway. H was sketching a breathtaking likeness of Marilyn Monroe with charcoal pencil. M could not understand the medical report she clutched in her hand because it was in English. And J kept trying to get me to look on the ground at an imaginary dollar bill. I didn’t know what to do. Viewing the scene from my cardboard-box-lens, I could not imagine becoming a member of this complicated, struggling body, so that “each member belongs to all the others.” Scanning the room, my eyes spotted bins of colored pencils, markers, crayons strewn haphazardly together. They were broken, unsharpened, many without caps. Well, if there is one thing in my wheelhouse, it is the fierce ability to establish order in a box of colored pencils. And so armed with a pencil sharpener, I dug in with a sense of holy purpose. One Wednesday not long after sovereignty reigned in Crayon Kingdom thanks to me, an artist pulled up her chair beside the now labeled, organized bins. She began slowly and methodically digging, tossing heaping piles upon the table, mixing pencils with markers, reds with yellows. I gently inquired what she was looking for, trying hard to ignore the mess she was creating. Without looking up, she said, “I’m looking for a blue crayon.” “Here’s one,” I proudly offered, knowing exactly where the blue crayons lived now. Her eyes shot fury and disappointment at me. “I told you,” she said accusingly, “I am LOOKING for a blue crayon.” I was stunned. She had been thoroughly engaged and committed to LOOKING for - not to finding, not even hoping to find, and certainly not wanting to be given - a blue crayon. She looked with intention, she noticed details, she mixed colors and mediums and textures, and made a random, splendid, unruly mess. With this common artist’s help, right there that day, my faith journey took new shape - a shape not held up or separated by boxes, but a shape that morphs and molds to embrace opposing realities. At common art I’ve found light that shines from within each person in order that I may look, just look for God - in a beautiful, hot mess of unyielding humanity, amidst furious truth and blow-my-mind talent, touched by gentle Grace and all kinds of grit, face to face with palpable suffering and unresolvable sadness. And each time I look, I see myself in this messy, incongruous, true and proper worship.
Terry: My faith journey started when I was a child, going to a Presbyterian church with my family. I had a very good life – a loving middle class family, my health, and lots of opportunity. I was aware of how lucky I was and my faith led me to believe it was my duty to help people obtain a better life. I became a lawyer primarily as a tool to help poor people. I worked to keep people from being evicted, got them on welfare and got them health care.
I was attracted to common art because I could help people who were clearly on the fringe of society. Now that I was retired I wanted a low level of commitment where I wasn’t in charge but I was contributing. Common art seemed perfect. I quicklygot asked to sit at the bead table and organize the beads for the artists. It seemed simple but it was anything but.
You might think that people who have nothing are grateful for whatever you can give them, but that is not always the case. Many of them are angry at the unfairness of the hand they have been dealt. Many have mental health problems and substance abuse problems. Because they have no home, they often are victims of theft. They were suspicious of me as well they should be. They didn’t know my motivation or my staying power and they had no reason to invest in a relationship with someone who might not come back next week.
Honestly, I didn’t know my motivation either. Why was I there? It gave me satisfaction that I was helping people who had less than I had, but was I really helping them? There was often chaos at the beading table with people hoarding beads, pushing others out of the way and complaining endlessly about each other. I quickly tried to improve things. I suggested rules for how many beads people could take at one time and that the beads were for use at the church and not to be taken home. I saw my job as making sure beads weren’t being “wasted”. We were constantly in danger of running out of beads.
The more rules I set out, the worse it got with the artist complaining to me about other beaders. Finally, I suggested to a woman who never made anything, but would pocket the prettiest and most expensive beads, that she needed to make something or not take beads. She complained to Rev. Mary that I was being mean to her and Mary came to talk to me. It was my “ah ha” moment. Who was I to tell a woman who had so little that she couldn’t have a pretty bead in her pocket. I totally reassessed what I was doing and decided to give up on the rules, which by the way weren’t working anyway. I was very worried we would run out of beads and the beading table would have to be shut down. I was begging everyone I knew for donations of old jewelry and extra beads, but we were going through several trays every Wednesday.
About that time Rev. Mary read a scripture which says essentially God will provide. Could I believe that God would actually provide? In my head I started singing the Beatle song “Let it be”. “Let it be, let it be. There will be an answer, let it be.” Did I really believe that? In my belief system, God works through me and I needed to find the solution. Could I really let go? I decided to try. I gave up on my rules and started letting the beaders take as many beads as they wanted. I would only ask them to bring back the beads they didn’t use. I started asking them to show me their finished product and sometimes I would point out beads I thought went together. I gave up being the enforcer and just started being a friend who appreciated what they were making.
Slowly my change in attitude changed the atmosphere. Artists started sharing more with me – telling me what they wanted to do as well as showing me what they did. They stopped complaining about each other – for the most part. And most remarkably, some started sharing beads they had hoarded. I came to understand my rules were just more of people in power telling people without power what they could and could not do. I wasn’t making a fairer place for them to create, I was making a restrictive place. And what about my concern about running out of beads? Well, we haven’t yet. We still get donations, including from United Parish’s thrift store, Thrifty Threads. But most importantly I learned an important lesson – that sometimes you just have to have faith in God that it will work out. I still struggle with that. Do I believe enough to let go?
Now I don’t want you to think everything is honky dory at Common Art – people still complain, I still worry, and people still pocket beads when they think I’m not looking. But now I think that if you really believe in God, you sometimes have to believe she will provide. We need to have faith in God and by extension in each other. And particularly in the people we think we are helping. None of us are perfect but we can tap into the divine in each other and not shoulder the whole burden of creating order out of chaos and fairness out of injustice. Believe that God will provide an answer, let it be, let it be.
Alicia: In our respective retirement and continuing faith journeys, Terry and I have become proud members of a caring, vibrant community where folks who have little, give in abundance. And we have also become friends. Each Wednesday we arrive at common art, grateful to receive welcome, respect and truth however it is dished out to us that day. We have found a space and made friends who call upon us to be fully present, to trust in God to provide what we cannot, and to believe in a collective humanity that has the power to lift us all from despair. In a broken world demanding of solutions and hungry for order, God calls upon us
• to hug the mess and to allow ourselves to be hugged by the mess.
• to tell our stories and to hold dear the stories told to us.
• to pull up a chair, and look for God, not in order to find God but so that we may learn to simply look.
Because perhaps somewhere on our faithful paths, at the crossroads of our stories and a glistening bead carefully tucked in an artist’s coat pocket, a light will shine from within each of us and lead us closer to the peace that passes understanding. Amen.