To Reimagine Community As Art

I often feel at odds with my love for art and my understanding of the work of justice. There is a lot within the culture of art to criticize: the eliteness, the consumerism, the cost. Even when it comes to the artists who use their art as a platform to speak address issues in society, I find myself wondering, “Is there not a more direct way to address this problem?”

However, despite my cynicism, I cannot deny the authority of art and beauty over humankind. Art draws me in. I enjoy it, I study it, I make my own. Working at a gallery this summer, I have been able to think more about my own views on art. I am learning to appreciate the complexities of beauty and why we humans are so obedient to it. I think that we are drawn to stories of creation: the coming-together of smaller pieces to form a new a larger whole.

The Walls-Ortiz Gallery has a project that demonstrates this artistic coming-together very well. For a while, the gallery hosted weekly yarn circles, where neighbors were invited to knit and crochet together. The beginners learned from the experts, and we all produced various handmade squares of green, blue, yellow and brown yarn. After many were collected, we stitched them all into a patchwork of colorful textures to encase the tree trunks of the young trees growing outside of the gallery entrance.

They call this project the Yarn Bomb and I love the idea of it I love the conversations that the Tree Sweaters have encouraged and I love that people now stop to admire our trees. They give the neighborhood an extra spark of color. Above all these things, I love the Yarn Bomb because each covered tree trunk is proof of community. Just like beauty can be made by the coming-together of smaller pieces, community must be as well. To me, the Tree Sweaters show beauty and community at the same time, in the same way.

To me, this concept of coming-together is redemptive. It gives an immeasurable collective value to each small component, both in a work of art, and in a community. I have not, before this, made a connection between the qualities of art and the qualities of community, but I find both entities essential to the world of faith. I am trying to start looking at community as a manifestation of beauty. It helps me attribute value and dignity to each person involved in an aesthetic kind of way instead of a rational one. It allows me to reimagine the existence of community, like art, as a medium of worship. Like the trees that we dressed in yarn, I want circles of fellowship and faith to enhance the space that they exist in, to add a humble splash of color. How remarkable would it be if passers-by could look at such a community and see the intentional and continuous coming-togetherness of a piece of artwork? Like the pedestrians who admire the trees, I want the beauty that people see in our communities to prompt them to ask, “What is this? And can I help?”

The gallery team celebrating the completion of the Yarn Bomb

Stitching the squares together

Put a Hold On “Hope,” For Just A Second

Today, at the subway station, a boy was wearing a bulletproof vest.  He looked just shy of his early teen years and he looked like he was traveling alone. No one else had a vest on, but if he found this fact remarkable or uncomfortable, he gave no indication.

I try to imagine who gave him the vest to wear, and I picture parents who are afraid for their son. Who pass the same street corners that I do and take a second to ponder the clusters of candles, bottles, and hand-written posters that commemorate blurry photographs of youth. I imagine that they recognize their son in those photographs and have promised themselves that he would not be honored in this way. He would wear a bulletproof vest and he would not be killed. Not by police or gang violence, nor more slowly by systems of poverty, incarceration and the discrimination of resources. Because those are old, familiar stories that are no less fresh in the present. This fear of not being killed is in no way native to my neighborhood. I do not know this type of fear.

Ta-Nehisi Coates speaks of this fear in much of his book, Between the World and Me. He calls it “Fear” with a capital “F.”  To Coates, this Fear is a distinct and defining trait in his experience as an African-American man. In his raw and poetic words, he explains how the Fear has dictated the way he moves through the streets, the way he sees the world, the way he was raised, and the way he is raising his son. In the undertones of these explanations is a sense of loss, a knowledge of the divide between this life with fear and and the lives of those identified as white Americans who live without it. In contrast to this Fear is the “Dream.” He writes, “I have seen that dream all my life. It is perfect houses and nice lawns…And for so long I have wanted to escape into the Dream, to fold my country over my head like a blanket. But this has never been an option because the Dream rests on our back, the bedding made from our bodies.”

The heaviness to this text does not just come from the rawness of his writing and the loss underneath it. To his audience, he makes a point of not offering hope. He does not use his pages to mention change to the readers or a greater purpose for the loss of black lives. He speaks only of his reality. He explicitly refuses the comfort of the church, an institution deeply entangled in the ongoing story of white supremacy. I also get the impression that he does not want his loss so easily chased down by the language of heaven and hope.

In my experiences in the American church, and American culture as a whole, I have not seen much space for the rhetoric of hopelessness. In dialogues about the continuous fight for civil rights, conversations are often concise and controlled, ending with an action-step or an uplifting conclusion. In most of these instances, I assume this move is done to ensure that such heavy talk does not shut the participants down or digress them from belief in divine promises of restoration. In times of death, I often hear mention of  “the Bigger Picture,” “God’s Will,” or Jeremiah 29:11 with no context.

This community needs to do a better job at sitting with lament, of allowing each other the time to feel pain and recognize hopelessness before reaching for the language of “hope,” a word which can be used so flatly at times. Without this time of heaviness, we risk alienating ourselves from those who live with this fear and hopelessness. More dangerous, we risk giving ourselves opportunity to shirk past blame and the confessions we need to answer for by irresponsibly replacing talk of repentance and reform with mechanical Christian-lingo and condolences. It takes the burden off of the American church, the policy maker, the white Christian, to admit being part of the problem and to commit to making hard changes. Fixing eyes on heaven should not devalue anyone’s body and their life on Earth.

Coates does not believe in heaven. He calls “destruction of the body” the destruction of everything and he dismisses any cosmic explanation for the deaths of African-Americans. He distances himself from the hope that the church points to beyond death. What his writings do offer the church is an example of how to live present to the vast array of lives that we share the earth with. An example of how to better co-suffer: to lament the losses, the injustices, the inequalities, the killings. To lament in a way that recognizes hopelessness as a state of being, even if there is hope to offer and change to be made. So after walking past the street-side vigils and encountering the boy in the bulletproof vest, I do not think I should talk now about hope. First, I want to take the time to feel sad and hopeless. Sad for the loss of life, and hopeless that my own quality of life benefits from it. I need to take the time to pause every night when out of my window I hear the pop-pop of fireworks celebrating summer in the city. And I must remember that last week, at least one of those pop-pops were not fireworks but a round of gunfire that took the life of an eleven year-old boy a few blocks away. “A child shooting child” as my neighbors told me.

And I think it is wrong for me to talk about how to change these things and how to be hopeful in the middle of the process of grief and the assurance of a fear that does not belong to me. I think it is wrong for me to respond any further to the writing of Ta-Nehisi Coates because any word I say would only divert an extra second that should have been used to pour back over his writing and further surrender to the heaviness of his words. There is a time to offer hope, and this time is essential. There is a time to talk reform and politics, to protest, to act, to fight for difficult changes. But this should not substitute the time of lament. Time to sit in silence next to the vigils, or reflect on the life of an eleven year-old boy whose name I could not catch.

Living in Proximity With 8.6 Million People

It has been over a week since I started the internship at City Seminary in New York City, a young seminary committed to questions of the city as a space of spiritual and theological growth. Together with other members of the gallery team, I have been helping to set up the newest art exhibition in the seminary’s Walls-Ortiz gallery.  The seminary uses this space as an opportunity to engage and invite neighbors in the Harlem community in relationship through the medium of art. This particular exhibition, titled “Planting for Peace,” draws attention to environmental justice and the tension between the earth under our feet and the urban systems that we created and rely on.  As I settle into the rhythms of this preparation, I am also learning the rhythms of the city, and applying my thoughts on theology to this context.

There is a certain feeling that often envelops me and I will try to describe it. It is attached to the recognition that at this very moment, the very moment that I write this and again at the very moment that this is read, over seven billion individuals will be experiencing their own moments at the exact same time. And all of our experiences of these moments must differ greatly. Is this thought not heavy? Some of us will be exposed to intense suffering, and others to immense enjoyment. For some, it will be an unremarkable moment, for others it will be life-changing. I am sure I am not the only person who thinks of this idea. But to me, this is a meditation on humanity.

The more I think about it, the more the awareness grows. There are always more stories to imagine. At the very moment I sit down for a meal, someone has not eaten. At the same time I lay down on a mattress, someone else sleeps on a sidewalk.

In a city like New York this awareness is much more than a feeling. It is palpable and real. It confronts me on every street and out of every window. With eight million lives stacked on top of each other in neatly numbered apartment blocks, privacy is somewhat impossible. Intimate moments intermingle with the mundane and the necessity of the A Train at rush hour. I hear couples flirting and friends fighting. I overhear business calls and children being chastised. On the street, I get the thrill of passing a woman robed in full West African glory: yellow yards of twisted silk crowning her head, dress flowing behind her. Another woman whisks around me in a wheelchair, another in a pinstripe suit.

The economic divide also looms in plain sight. On the blocks of West Harlem, where I spend most hours, new hipster coffee shops sprout around the barber shops and a Senegalese supermarket. A block away from the lines of Whole Foods, another line forms outside the food pantry. On the train ride home, a man who smelled of urine asked for change. No one acknowledged his request. No one even looked up at him.

It is easy to become desensitized by the sheer number of these encounters, full of personal moments and vulnerabilities. Desensitization is a common way of coping with the entanglement of lives in the city. When I witness these moments, I cannot help but feel small: an inconsequential piece in the scope of some greater cosmic narrative. I also wonder what responsibility I have to address the divide in the moments I encounter. Can it possibly be right to enjoy small luxuries knowing the expense of those who cannot afford to do so? How can I not feel contempt for those who live so lightly in the moments where I am in distress?

This kind of thinking may sound heavy, and it is rightly so. It challenges me to question a lifestyle that I can easily assume that I am entitled to. It challenges me with ever-evolving questions. What is my understanding of loving my neighbor? And what does the action of love look like when my neighbors and the moments that they live are each so diverse and so numerous? As a church are we prepared to understand humanity’s triumphs and trials as our own? Can we accept all of our injuries and injustices as collective and connected?

Yes, this is heavy, but it is essential if we believe that we see Jesus in the hungry, the homeless, and the marginalized. It can also be simple and freeing. To me, it is a meditation.  Thinking of these moments and witnessing some of them, I also feel gratitude. Not because I feel more or less fortunate than those experiencing life around me, but because I get to share in that existence. It is a reason to stay present.

“If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together”

– Lilla Watson, artist, activist, indigenous Australian