A growing and diverse movement of urban Christian leaders reminds us that the beauty of art is also an effective instrument for sharing the Good News.
In his memoir, Make the Impossible Possible, entreprenuer Bill Strickland (left) describes the images of his earliest memories. He writes, “What I saw as I walked to school each day was an unbroken landscape of decay that taught me indelible lessons about hopelessness and defeat no matter where my gaze fell.”
Home was different. There Strickland’s mother enlisted her children’s help in keeping their simple abode neat and clean. In high school, a teacher named Frank Ross introduced Strickland to the art of making pottery. It changed his life. With the support of patrons, Strickland founded the Manchester Craftsman’s Guild when he was just 19 years old.
Today Strickland presides over the Manchester Bidwell Corporation, a gleaming, expansive community arts and jobs training center in his hometown of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Of this space he writes, “Anyone who knew me could see straight off that the place was built to offer our students the same rich experiences that had turned my life around. There was clay. There were art and photography. After a while, there were gourmet food and flowers…. And it was all housed in a sleek, clean, sunlit space that had been meticulously designed down to the last detail, to give our students the same sense of self-worth and possibility that Frank Ross’s classroom had nurtured in me.”
Strickland knew from experience that a person’s environment shapes who they are and how they see the world. Decay fills us with despair while beauty inspires us to hope and dream beyond our circumstances. He says his vision for the center was “met with a lot of skepticism and doubt” in boardrooms where he tried to raise funds. But as word spread through the corporate community in Pittsburgh, an influential patron saw the potential in Strickland’s vision and motivated others to support it.
Earlier this month, at the International Arts Movement’s Encounter 10 gathering in New York City, philanthropist Roberta Ahmanson echoed Strickland’s theme when she put forth a convincing apologetic for patronizing the arts. In part, she said:
“Though my husband has long been involved in supporting the work of groups such as Food for the Hungry and World Vision, we have also been involved with the arts. Why? First because we believe God is in the universe business. He didn’t create the universe and retire into full-time Christian ministry. And, we are called to be part of God’s program in the universe business. Second, beauty provides a living and visual witness to the glory and goodness of God. And, finally, beauty is an attribute of God himself. We are created in his image both to create and to enjoy beauty for our pleasure and his glory.”
Ahmanson and her husband Howard have commissioned many works of art, including those that make the Village of Hope homeless facility in Tustin, California, a refuge rather than simply an escape. There are ceremonial iron gates that provide a sense of safety, stained glass windows in the community chapel and a towering sculpture with a water feature in the courtyard. “The idea behind it all,” said Ahmanson, “is that beauty is part of healing for every human being: rich, poor, or in between.”
So often we think of ministry in pragmatic terms. We think of feeding the hungry and housing the homeless. We think of teaching people skills with which they can support themselves and their families. We think of communicating principles by which they can live. Ahmanson is right, though, about the power of beauty to heal.
The Gospel of John, chapter 12, tells the story of a dinner that was given in Jesus’ honor. In attendance were Mary and her newly resurrected brother Lazarus. Imagine their awe and gratitude at this miracle. The Scripture says, “Mary took a pint of pure nard, an expensive perfume; she poured it on Jesus’ feet and wiped his feet with her hair. And the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. Judas objected, saying, ‘Why wasn’t this perfume sold and the money given to the poor? It was worth a year’s wages.’ ”
We recognize in Judas’ statement a poverty of spirit, even as we empathize with his question. After all, isn’t outreach to the less fortunate one of our primary calls as followers of Christ? And, with that in mind, shouldn’t we be more discriminating with our resources?
But Jesus is not tripped up. He says, “Leave her alone. It was intended that she should save this perfume for the day of my burial. You will always have the poor among you, but you will not always have me.”
He is reminding us not to be shortsighted. There is a place for beauty in our lives. In our budgets. Even meager ones. More than that, though, as the house filled with a luxurious aroma intended to cover up the smell of death and decay, it may have given Jesus hope as it foreshadowed the glory that would come after the agony of the cross and the grave.
Those of us who minister to the needy follow in the footsteps of giants when we see the beauty in our charges and reflect it back to them in and through our ministry. It won’t always look like serving up meals at the soup kitchen or rescuing orphans in Haiti. Sometimes it may look like supporting Christian musician Joy Ike, who was struggling to get an album made and went directly to fans for support, or booking spoken word artist Amena Brown (see video above) to perform in your church or coffeehouse. The beauty of the gospel is revealed in many shapes, sounds, and forms.
To learn more about Bill Strickland, visit him at Bill-Strickland.org.
Photos by Germaine Watkins, MCG Photography.