Art and Whimsy in God’s House

Cheryl Cornish

I was in a hurry when they caught me off guard, sitting together on a bench in a hallway corner. A serious eye glance would have meant a conversation or possibly a pastoral follow-up, and I really didn’t have time. Only as I passed by later that afternoon could I give a careful look. They weren’t real! They were figures of young adults very skillfully designed from straw, dressed in shabby coats and worn-out shoes that spoke of need in the cold December air.

I had asked one of our church members, a talented artist, to create nativity figures, and suddenly here they were – Jose and Maria. Finding them in our hallway forced me to admit that I was more like the innkeepers of the Christmas story than Magi or shepherds. I had not made room in my schedule for these two weary travelers that day.

I watched others in the hallway do a double take, followed by a penetrating stare, then a smile of recognition. Jose and Maria moved, each week of the Advent season, closer and closer to the sanctuary. Maria appeared to be pregnant by Week Two. It was obvious by Week Three.

On the last Sunday of Advent, Jose and Maria sat among the congregation. During a children’s sermon, we heard of the journey of this young couple, struggling to find shelter where the baby could be delivered. The children sat close enough to detect that the figures were not real. Some of the adults, sitting further away, were still confused. I received several emails that week. “Shouldn’t we have a baby shower for that young couple?” one asked. Another wondered where she could send a financial contribution to help them. There was an inquiry about immigration status.

The Christmas story had become alive for us through these figures of Jose and Maria, casting all of us into different roles, wittingly or not. I was the busy innkeeper. Others were bemused spectators. Some responded generously to these strangers in our building. Others were suspicious. No one, however, could question that the Advent work of a gifted artist in our congregation had involved each of us in a new and profound way.

Becoming Our Own Artists

Nearly a decade ago, when our congregation moved from a traditional sanctuary (with pews for about 150 people, pulpit, and front altar) to a large former televangelism center, we faced many obstacles. As the 200 or so of us gathered on Sunday mornings to worship, we literally could not see each other in the 6,500-square-foot auditorium, with its 1,000 seats arranged theater-style for TV broadcast. The raised pulpit was nearly half a city block away from the first row. Surrounded by carpet, paint, and electronics, we lost access to natural elements – tile, stone, wood, sunlight. We knew we had to change the worship space in order to make it work for our purposes.

But to change it, we realized we had to change,too. We would not be able to make this imposing building a true spiritual home without putting our mark on it. And to do that, we had to understand ourselves and our mission with new clarity.

In congregational dialogue that extended over a year, we talked with fresh intensity about the power of the gospel in our lives. Three priorities emerged: to live simply and reject consumerism, welcome the stranger, and work for peace and justice.

Could we find creative ways to express this discernment in our new worship and mission space? Our budget limited our ability to commission sanctuary art. Quite simply, we had to become the artists we needed.

Be Not Afraid

We learned to take risks in our huge, intimidating space and not be afraid of mistakes. We agreed that no one should offer a creative idea if they feared criticism or censorship. We listened to each other’s ideas and practiced compassion when well-intentioned designs didn’t turn out right. Fabric didn’t always hang the way we envisioned it. Something that seemed dynamic on paper didn’t translate into a three-dimensional space very well. Humility and tolerance became part of our artistic adventure.

We learned to pay attention to our environment, trusting that God would give us the resources we needed for our new church space. When a church member saw a downtown hotel discarding old linens in a dumpster, she called. These sheets were sewn together, painted, and used many times over in our sanctuary art.

One of our large stage backdrops came from recycled plastic bags. Fused together, these bags made a colorful design. We learned never to throw away paper that could be recycled and fashioned into bright confetti, papier mâché designs, or textured paper for orders of worship and church stationery. Large bare tree branches could be gathered to embody the wilderness experiences of Advent or Lent. Wire and colorful duct tape created whimsical human-shaped figures that became part of our congregation during the Pentecost season – some of them sitting among us, others dancing, playing instruments, or posing as children on swings floating above our heads. Mosquito netting, foam core, colorful beans, wallpaper … these become ways that God speaks to us out of everyday materials at hand.

Our focus was the sanctuary, but we found quickly that many people accessed our building through the main hallways and offices. Could that space, too, be used to share the gospel? Soon the front porch of the church, the yard, the hallways themselves became vehicles for sharing our theology.

Peace Tent and Ticker Tape

In the days leading up to the U.S. invasion of Iraq, our congregation’s Advent witness included images of peace projected onto the exterior of our building each night. We created a “Peace Tent” inside, and tiles were painted by church members with messages of peace. A ticker tape – made from rolls of adding-machine tape, with quotes about peace – guided people through the entire building, top to bottom, as part of a peace journey.

Inspired by our efforts, neighbors started bringing objects that testified to their desire for peace. They would leave signs and written prayers on our church steps, grateful for the church’s witness to the desires of their heart. Our Advent witness became a Lenten witness, as a large wooden cross covered with photographs of Iraqi children was placed in our church yard.

Sympathetic local citizens saw this art as the reclamation of protest space. Several significant marches for peace and other justice issues began on these steps. We were pleased to see the wider community experience a sense of welcome and “home” on our church porch. It had become “holy ground” for many, whether or not they would call themselves Christian believers.

Unpredictable Blessings

Our congregation’s visual art effort has sharpened our questions about our faith and ministry. At a recent staff meeting, we asked, “What does our space communicate about our understandings of God?” One staffer answered, “I often feel surprised … I am reminded that I can’t predict the blessings that a day will bring.”

Another said the art spoke to her of humor and whimsy as a legitimate part of the life of faith, in contrast to her more authoritarian religious upbringing.

“I feel benevolence,” another said: The creativity and care present in the art speaks of a compassionate, intimate God.

This dialogue reminded us how significantly the visual messages of worship and art communicate our theology. So we continue to ask questions: Are we being hospitable? Do strangers feel a sense of wonder, joy, and benevolence when they enter our space? Do they experience the sense of delight and surprise of gospel life?

One of our justice ministries, “Freedom Journey,” invites students to come to Memphis, where they study the struggles of prisoners and listen to their experiences, as well as LGBTQ activists, environmental advocates, and others. Participants seek their own growth as advocates for peace and justice. During a concluding exercise, they select a piece of art from our hallways that speaks to them about how the journey has changed them. Amazing testimonies and revelations are shared – and we realize that the visual images in our church building have transformative power.

During another busy day in our church, I introduce myself to a man standing outside the sanctuary. He’s with a labor union, stationed in the hallway so he can guide folks to a room where a press conference will take place. I tell him that our congregation is supporting the call to “Fast from Fast Food” in favor of higher wages for fast food workers. He looks intrigued. “Would you like to step into the sanctuary?” I ask.

He hesitates. But when he walks in, the surprise on his face is visible. “Wow! This is beautiful!” he says, staring at the hundreds of colorful paper stars that create a ceiling canopy. In the season of Epiphany, I explain, we celebrate the star that guided the Wise Men to the manger – and the way we celebrate God’s guidance in our own lives.

The Conversation Turns

From there, conversation turns to the communion table, designed to look like a large kitchen table. “We share this bread together here at the table as a community, and then” – I point to the many racks of food pushed to the side of the sanctuary, ready for distribution after worship – “500 families will be welcomed in here soon. They come for the groceries, but also want to be in this space and among this community. Many worship with us now.”

Later that week, a group of young nurses from Denmark, in town for medical training, spend an hour studying the “Stations of the Cross” on display in the sanctuary. The “Stations” link Jesus’ last days to the experience of mental illness. They are fascinated by this reinterpretation and start talking about the struggles faced by friends, patients, and family members they know who live with mental illness.

They walk the sanctuary labyrinth and talk about what it means to have God at the center of life. A baptismal font, designed to look like a leaf-filled tree, stands at the center of this labyrinth. We talk about baptism as a beginning, a journey, a source of life and connection. One nurse tells me about a tree in the yard of her childhood home that always offered her shelter. God’s love is like that, she reflects.

Would these conversations have taken place without the sanctuary space and art to guide us? I doubt it! Our ministry of art brings its own grace, inspiring our congregation to grow in new ways as we pursue gospel life together.

The Rev. Cheryl Cornish M.Div. ’83 has been minister of First Congregational Church UCC in Memphis since 1988, transforming the church into a growing, progressive voice in the city. In 2008, she was awarded by YDS for Distinction in Congregational Ministry. She currently serves on the YDS Alumni Board. In 2012, First Congregational was a participant in the annual Congregations Project hosted by the Yale Institute of Sacred Music.