How Some Churches Are Turning Empty Buildings into Artist Spaces

Judson Memorial Church / RNS

Abhay Singh & Friends performs during Arts Wednesdays at Judson Memorial Church. Photo via Judson Memorial Church / RNS

On the north side of Indianapolis, the historic First Presbyterian Church is now the Harrison Center for the Arts. Its owner, the upstart Redeemer Presbyterian Church, is landlord to two dozen artist studios, three apartments, four galleries, an annual music festival, and the Indiana office of VSA, the John F. Kennedy Center’s nationwide arts program for people with disabilities.

Redeemer is among a host of churches that own old buildings and have embraced the arts as a way of enlivening hallowed spaces, breaking down barriers with neighbors, and paying the heating bills.

He Doesn’t Just Listen to the Sunday Sermon; He Draws It

On the second Sunday of Lent, John Hendrix sits in one of the pews near the back of Grace and Peace Fellowship, a Presbyterian church with stained glass in green and orange, and a giant, organ pipe front and center.

Casually decked in a striped, button-down shirt and jeans, he looks like any other member of the hip and young crowd. With his wife, Andrea, and his two children, Jack, 8, and Annie, 5, Hendrix stands and sings and partakes of gluten-free communion.

But as soon as the sermon starts, Hendrix sets himself apart, whipping out his sketchbook and pens to draw the pastor’s sermon.

Prophet in a Cracker Dress

Nora Howell modeling her dress made of crackers

ONE RECENT WINTER day, Nora Howell stepped out of her house in the Sandtown neighborhood of Baltimore and took a walk down the street. People in the predominantly black community did double takes as this white woman promenaded past them in a sundress made of saltine and oyster crackers. Some stared in disbelief. One man doubled over laughing. In the corner coffee shop, one of the regulars warned Howell not to walk by any homeless people because they might just eat her up.

Later Howell, a community artist and director of the neighborhood Jubilee Arts program, set the video footage taken during her walk to Mister Rogers’ classic refrain, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” The piece, which emerged out of Howell’s ponderings on what it means to be white living in a black neighborhood, became another part of her answer to a call: to use art to address systemic racism and bring about the kingdom of God.

From Race Riots to White Suburbia and Beyond
In 2001, Howell was an eighth grader living in a biracial community in urban Cincinnati. When race riots erupted after a young black man was shot fatally by a white police officer (sound familiar?), her family took to the streets on a prayer walk through the riots. Howell remembers being shocked and terrified, thinking, “Why do we still have race riots? Cincinnati is so far behind the times.”

In the aftermath, Howell talked with peers at school on the reality of racial tensions and observed with curiosity how white and black churches throughout the city responded. She realized race riots weren’t just a relic of the ’60s. “When you lived in a place where different racial groups interacted daily, [racial tensions] could no longer be denied or ignored,” she said.

Read the Full Article

​You've reached the end of our free magazine preview. For full digital access to Sojourners articles for as little as $2.95, please subscribe now. Your subscription allows us to pay authors fairly for their terrific work!
Subscribe Now!

‘God is the Best Artist’ Takes Off on Social Media

Screenshot of post on Carrie Underwood's Instagram feed. Photo courtesy http://i

Screenshot of post on Carrie Underwood's Instagram feed. Photo courtesy

The notion of God as an artist is hardly new. In the Middle Ages, the concept of a divine artist, or architect, was often invoked. The biblical artists Bezalel and Oholiab are described as being “full of the spirit of God.” In Catholic art, angels often guide St. Luke’s hand when he draws the Virgin.

But when Twitter and Pinterest users take to their smartphones to snap pictures of sunrises and sunsets and attribute those “masterpieces” to God, they are exhibiting a new sort of adoration.

Now THAT's Epic: 'Brother of the Year'

The chalk drawing by Wes Noyes, 17, with his superhero brother, Jonah, 8.

The chalk drawing by Wes Noyes, 17, with his superhero brother, Jonah, 8.

“What I do every day is get a pencil, take a piece of paper, and draw,” Wes Noyes said.

The 17-year-old artist hopes someday to work in animation or as a graphic artist. Wes works for more than an hour a day, takes classes, and to date has made more than 500 pencil drawings.

After Wes playfully collaborated on a chalk drawing made by his mother Rebekah Greer, his work as a cartoonist gained national attention.

Greer, a photographer, musician, and the mother of five, had drawn fanciful backgrounds — a cityscape, an ocean scene among them — on the family’s driveway one evening this past summer and took portraits of her children posing in front of them. Wes added to the drawing she had made for son Jonah, then eight, by adding flames and interjecting himself into the picture as Godzilla.

When Greer posted the photo to Facebook, it quickly went viral.

“It sort of spread around,” Wes said simply.

The picture, titled “Brother of the Year,” has indeed “spread around.”

Artist: Petna Ndaliko

Petna Ndaliko

Petna Ndaliko


“The practice of peace and reconciliation is one of the most vital and artistic of human actions.” — Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh

How do you combat violence, institutionalized rape, a corrupt government, and years of injustice? With more violence, better weapons, or more strategic strikes?

For Petna Ndaliko, you do it through art. In spite of attempts by the Congolese government and militia groups to silence them, Petna created a stage for local youth to express themselves. They sing about oppression, about corruption, and about the people’s ability to overcome.

Art heals. It unites a community. And it can ignite a spark for change. Film can inspire rape survivors to find their voices and tell their stories. From a grassroots level, music moves people to action.

Petna calls himself a small light from which a huge fire starts growing. For many Christians, this echoes Matthew 5:14, “You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hidden.”

Petna’s hope is for the flame to spread through the youth of Congo, to carry the message of hope forward to future generations, finding creative ways to combat injustice.

Thank a Nun: Whimsy, Color, Theology, Social Justice and Sister Corita

Sister Corita Kent. Image via

Sister Corita Kent. Image via

Bright bold text danced across expansive white-framed serigraphs lining our college student center. The first moment I set foot on my college campus, Westmont College in Santa Barbara, Calif., the artwork of Sister Mary Corita Kent captured my heart and imagination. 

One playful print, about the bread of life, features the signature bold red yellow and blue Wonder Bread wrapper.

Another featured Beatles lyrics: “I get by with a little help from my friends.”

One, playing on the name of the West Coast grocery chain “SafeWay,” points to the One who called himself “the Way.”

Another — the commentary of one Roman Catholic upon another?— employed Scripture to reference JFK: “There was a man sent from God whose name was John.”

Yet another, in patriotic red, white and blue, features the words of Camus, “I should like to be able to love my country and still love justice.”

At 18, not yet knowing myself to be called as a bearer of color and words and truth, my voice was unleashed by the prophetic artwork of Sister Corita.

++ Join us in showing our appreciation for Catholic women religious (aka nuns or "sisters") on Thank-a-Nun Day, May 9. Click HERE to send a thank-you note online. ++