Bringing the Outside In
Over the past several weeks I have been recovering from surgery. A running injury from nearly two years ago led to the need for a hip replacement. The recovery period has been a time to read and reflect, but it has also been a period for spending too much time on Facebook and reading endless reposts of newspaper articles and reports of what is going on in the world. At the end of the first 10 days of recovery, I discovered that I wasn’t doing myself any favors by spending so much time reading endless articles and while I really desire to know what is going on in the world—knowing the news informs my prayer life—I knew that I had to back away from Facebook and keep up with the news in a different manner. I decided to follow the news by reading BBC once a day and then to use the rest of the day praying, healing, and reflecting.
Most of my reflecting centered around places of beauty and the inhabitants of these places of beauty. I watched documentaries on beautiful places in the world, wild and captivating creatures, and people who live close to nature. As I spent time focusing on the beauty in this world I realized that the anxiety that I felt just after surgery was dissipating and I was thinking more positively.
Sometime during the second week of recovery I began to think about people and places that are making a difference in the world around them. After all, the teachings of Jesus encourage us, indeed compel us, to spend our days making a difference in someone’s life. This is a primary message in the Gospels, especially on the Sermon on the Mount and Matthew 25. In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus repeated this prophecy about himself:
‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.’
These words point to Jesus’ intention to make a difference to those around him, especially those who are least or lost or who are in need of help and support.
I began thinking about a particular church in New York City where I had the privilege of singing twice during my college years. I remembered the first time that I entered the Lafayette Avenue Presbyterian Sanctuary and how it inspired me at the tender age of 18. I remember “warming up” in the sanctuary before we sang and being captivated by the appearance and witness of the sanctuary, especially the walls where the images of countless people adorned the walls of the otherwise simple space. It was unlike any other worship space that I had ever seen and I remember that I couldn’t really warm up because I was busy taking in all of the images and beauty of this sanctuary.
The Lafayette Avenue Presbyterian Church was founded in 1857 in Brooklyn in New York City. Its organization came at a time when the discussion of slavery monopolized conversations throughout the nation. Their first pastor was Theodore Ledyard Cuyler, who was an abolitionist and who, through friends corresponded with President Lincoln on the issue of emanicipation, before and during the Civil War. Because of the congregation’s involvement in promoting the abolishment of slavery, the church became known as the “temple of abolition.” Since the establishment of the church, this congregation has continued to be involved in the struggles of social justice as they seek to live out the Gospel in the midst of their community.
After the congregation had been around for over a hundred years, the congregation wanted their space to reflect their multiracial, multicultural congregation and the diverse community that surrounded them. A young artist, Hank Prussing, was commissioned to paint a giant mural around the walls of the upper balcony of the sanctuary. This mural was to reflect not only the congregation, but the community around the church. So the young artist went out into the streets around the church and took photographs of people of the neighborhood. The photos portrayed the life of the community from children playing to men and women working, conversations among neighbors and the diversity of the cultures alive and living in harmony in that community. Prussing brought the photos to life by painting the images on the walls. The mural was entitled “Mighty Cloud of Witnesses.”
So, in January of 1980, I encountered this very sacred space for the first time. I remember wondering what it would be like to worship in this space Sunday after Sunday, to be surrounded by the family and friends both in the flesh and on the walls. The mural not only captivated me but was a powerful witness of this congregation and how they chose to live out the Gospel. It is said that each year people visit the sanctuary to find the images of their parents and grandparents, neighbors and friends painted so lovingly on the walls so many years ago.
I remember the image that captivated me the most. It was an image of a young African-American boy who would have been around my age when his image was painted. His clothes were the typical clothes of the 1970’s including the “loud” plaid pants that were so popular. I don’t remember why now, but something about that image caught my attention and I remember thinking that something in that boy’s life brought him joy because it was there on his face.
According to the pictures and stories on the church’s website, their witness to the Gospel is still powerful in their community. They welcome everyone, listen to all, and are involved in making the words of Jesus powerful in their own lives and in their community. Throughout the last few weeks of my recovery I find myself praying for this congregation, for the witness they offered to a young 18 year old during her first trip to New York City, for the stories they have told and will continue to tell, for the many diverse people they have embraced and have made them the loving congregation that they are today. After 160 years, they are still making a profound and positive difference in the lives of many people.
What if the inside of our worship spaces reflected the communities around us? What would happen to our Gospel witness if the people on the outside of our churches were also featured prominently on the inside of our sanctuary walls, especially if they could be portrayed as those that we love and cherish, though we are all different in color, shape, size, and culture? I wonder.
To God alone be glory!