“Looking at his disciples, he said: "Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.’” Luke 6:20
I should have learned by now that when Jesus makes statements like that, he doesn’t often mean what I think he means.
When I started working at Grace Church and began Lumina, I was longing for a place to explore my feelings about creativity and spirituality. I had come from many years of frantic hustling—trying to make it in the world of classical music and academia, feeling empty and burnt out, wondering whether or not my work connected to my faith at all.
I found myself reading “The Artist’s Way” which takes on these exact questions. Through the church, we started the first Artist’s Way Creative Cluster, which brought anyone who called themselves an artist into community each week to discuss and wrestle their way through Julia Cameron’s guided tour of their soul. It’s a tough book, albeit healing and formative. The book calls the reader deep into their past to discover (and attempt to heal) the emotional wounds that may be affecting their creativity and freedom today. Yet, the book has this ability to call you into the future as well—to bring your attention to your dreams and all that your “artist child” wants to express and explore.
Sitting around the table with that first group was inspiring, but what was about to happen would leave me standing on holy ground. Being new Wilmington, someone from that first group introduced me to Michael Kalmbach, director of Creative Vision Factory, a place (right near the church) that provides individuals on the behavioral health spectrum opportunities for self-expression, empowerment, and recovery through the arts. It’s this bustling peer-run art studio where members can come and make art, receive personalized instruction, and even participate in public art projects like building mosaics throughout the city. When we were due to start the next Artist’s Way Creative Cluster, I decided to reach out to Michael and folks at the Factory to see if anyone there would be interested in joining.
Soon that Creative Cluster was 15 strong. I’ll never forget pulling up twenty minutes before that first class to find 3 or 4 people outside of the church with suitcases and plastic bags full of all their earthly belongings. I quickly learned that those who are houseless often show up at unpredictable times. You would too if you had nowhere to put your stuff.
I’d never been in a room with a such a diverse group of people. On one side of the table was a wealthy retiree in her 60’s who’d just finished life-coach certification. Next to her was a highly tattooed recovering heroine addict. Across from them was a large man with nicotine stained fingers and a soft genuine smile who smelled like he hadn’t showered in weeks, and then there was the 50-something lady who mentioned she owned an orchard with 500 different kinds of apples.
These people looked so different from the outside, but at that table we all had one thing in common: we were artists.
The discussion we had over the next 12 weeks wasn’t always easy. There was a point I hired a certified art therapist to help me as the group got bigger and bigger. I felt out of my league. I went to the group feeling so anxious. I carried the stories I heard there with me when I left—ones of abuse, mental illness, and hard times...interwoven with stories of God’s faithfulness—hope, inspiration and healing through creativity. Without fail though, I left the group each week feeling I had witnessed something truly holy. This was what church was supposed to be—we show up and are accepted just as we are, because we call ourselves Children of God.
The group also showed me that many of the folks from Creative Vision Factory did not need to heal their creative impulse like I did. It turned out that they were far more connected to their Creator then I was, too. I had spent all this time relying on my achievements and success as an artist and yet I felt empty.
Those struggling with where their next meal was coming from had an abundance of hope and healing to offer me, and for that I am eternally grateful.
In his book, “Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion,” Father Gregory Boyle, a priest and advocate for the poor in one of the most impoverished neighborhood in Los Angeles, said, “Soon we imagine, with God, a circle of compassion. Then we imagine no one standing outside of that circle, moving ourselves closer to the margins so that the margins themselves will be erased. We stand there with those whose dignity has been denied. We locate ourselves with the poor and the powerless and the voiceless. At the edges, we join the easily despised and readily left out. We situate ourselves right next to the disposable so that the day will come when we stop throwing people away.” This Creative Cluster was the first time I had even come close to seeing the margin disappear, and it was hands down the most powerful spiritual experience I’ve ever had.
All along, I had read the scripture above and thought that God was only calling us to love and value the poor in our midst...and surely he was saying that. And yet, I’m starting to see the radical nature of this scripture’s deeper meaning. Through my experience of working with those the world considers “poor,” I’m realizing something about my own poverty, a spiritual one. For it was the folks on the margins that taught me how to really rely on God, when God is all you have. Their creativity and therefore their spirituality were their lifelines to staying clean, staying hopeful, staying alive. I had never had to depend on God like that.
So when Jesus says “Blessed are the poor,” maybe he’s saying: happy are those who are aware of the spiritual poverty within their own hearts, as well as the material poverty around them. Happy are those who are humble enough to see their privilege and can admit that all that they have comes from God. Happy are those who see that they aren’t so different from those the world finds disposable. Happy are those who can widen the circle of compassion until the margins disappear.
With this mentality, the Kingdom of God is starting to look a lot like the Creative Vision Factory, and for that, I am thankful.