This guest post is part of the Good Ways blog series, a collection of stories and practices for finding God in hardship.
A few years ago our family went on a once-in-a-lifetime family reunion trip to my homeland of Australia. While there, my husband had many meetings about jobs there so, after fifteen years away, I gave myself the luxury of calling the sea and the kookaburras mine again. But after we returned to our life in inner city Cincinnati, and heard that the job had fallen through, I fell into a dark place. The simplest tasks took all my energy and I could hardly get out of bed. The part of my soul which waits and hopes shriveled into a bitter lump. And all around me, instead of birdcalls and beaches, I found urban ugliness. As I walked the sad streets, my beach-combing habit continued but instead of shells, I filled my pockets with bits of broken glass and rusty bolts.
Around this same time, a friend asked me to make art for his inner-city counseling center. I wanted to make something hopeful but not sugary sweet, honest but not cynical. It had to acknowledge both brokenness and healing because the kids who visited the center would see right through any attempts to gloss over the challenges of life and certainly didn’t need any more darkness than they already had. So the natural medium for the art was the growing pile of junk by my back door. With a bit of care and a lot of glue, green wire twisted its way into leafy tendrils and smashed amber tail-light covers were reborn as golden sunshine. And somewhere along the way I got dragged into the whole rebirth thing. The habit of forcing myself to find beauty and meaning in brokenness leaked over into my life.
But the story goes on. While I was working on these junk creations, a young woman in our community (I’ll call her Sophia) was savagely attacked in inner-city Cincinnati. Her sister visited me and tearfully shared her family’s story and suffering. In the weeks following the attack, Sophia was too distracted to read and too disturbed by violent images to watch TV. Drawing on the healing I was beginning to experience, my first question to her sister was “Does Sophia make anything?” As I looked at the city around me, a city with a struggling school system, ongoing racial tension and more than its fair share of pollution, I knew I had to make the process available to others. And so I created a city-wide art project which I called The Collect.
For two months, all Cincinnati was invited to drop pieces of junk (we called them "artifacts") at local coffee shops. Cincinnati responded with bike wheels and sunglasses, doll parts and Christmas ornaments. Somebody gave an entire collection of watch-bands and someone else emptied out their camera lens case. People provided stories with their pieces: “This is a shoe that walked me through my college years.” “This is the rusty hoop that tripped me up and made me smash my teeth on the pavement.” Then I gathered all the "artifacts" and laid them out for one of the most unusual parties ever to take place in the basement of a church. Seventeen artists had finger foods and mingled as they picked through what looked like the remnants of a very dismal yard sale. In their eyes, the rusty jetsam became teapots and aliens on bicycles and all manner of marvelous things. And off they went, with boxes of junk under their arms, with the summer to work their magic.
In the Fall, my church’s cafe hosted the most motley and meaningful art-show I’ve ever seen. There was a delicate porcelain doll torso with a corsage made of old keys, a concrete table inlaid with a tiny nest filled with jewel-like eggs and a purple foot-bridge made of an old shoe. The grand finale of the month-long show was an auction event with free food and live jazz where all the proceeds went to ArtWorks, an urban youth art program.
There was no doubt that the artwork positively glowed with the message of brokenness reborn. But, of course, for me the best art from ugliness was the faith and friendship that was born in broken human hearts. At least, in this broken, human heart. Throughout the course of the six-month project I’d heard so many stories and made so many friends. In the eyes of junk-collectors, café owners, and artists, I’d seen a dogged determination to find meaning and beauty. It became apparent to me that the greatest work of art was the community that had formed around all this resurrection until eventually Cincinnati once more was safe and, to my surprise, home.
Originally from Australia, Mandy Smith is lead pastor of University Christian Church, a campus and neighborhood congregation with its own fair-trade café in Cincinnati, Ohio. She is a regular contributor to Christianity Today publications and the Missio Alliance Blog and the author of The Vulnerable Pastor: How Human Limitations Empower Our Ministry and Making a Mess and Meeting God. She is also the creator of The Collect, a citywide trash-to-art project. Mandy and her husband Jamie, a New Testament professor at Cincinnati Christian University, live with their two kids in a little house where the teapot is always warm.