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“Golden States of Grace”
Reflections by CTS students Brian Blackmore and Andrea Davis on a multi-media exhibit at by CTS.
“Golden States of Grace: Prayers of the Disinherited,” is an acclaimed traveling exhibition of black & white photography which aims to give image and voice to nearly a dozen virtually invisible communities on California’s religious landscape. It opened at Chicago Theological Seminary on April 2, 2012 and runs through May 31, 2012.
“Golden States of Grace,” created by photographer and writer, Rick Nahmias documents groups ranging from a transgender gospel choir, to San Quentin inmates who have converted to Zen Buddhism, to a branch of the Mormon Church created by and catering to the Deaf, to a halfway house for recovering Jewish addicts. Each participating community in the project represents a different denomination, different part of the state’s geography, and different ethnic group.
The exhibit includes fifty six portraits plus text and an audio soundtrack taken from in-depth interviews with congregations and community leaders.
I believe that Art is one of the most powerful tools humanity has invented for making faith visible.
The arts have always been at the core of my spiritual journey. My father is an oil painter and I learned so much about the deeper meanings of the world by spending time in his studio. Something about the pungent smell of paint and turpentine, the cool feeling of paint on my fingers and the miracle of new worlds appearing on clean stretched canvas had a profound effect on me as a child.
I was honored and excited to have the opportunity to hang the artwork for “Golden States of Grace” in our new building. I quickly developed a special connection to the people in the images. They became so familiar to me. I knew all of them by their first names and I held each with great care and respect. They spoke to me. It was as if I could trust them to guide me to the right classroom, to teach me something about ministry which might not have been effectively communicated to me during a lecture. Most of all, they kept me mindful of why I chose CTS for theological education. I chose to study at CTS because what you learn is equally important to who you learn with. I do not relate to the people in the Golden States of Grace as if they were in the far distance, out of reach somewhere in California, somehow disconnected from my context. “Vanessa,” “Mark,” and “Brother Salim” are my colleagues, my friends and my guides as I seek the way which will open for me to “transform society for greater justice and mercy.”
The people in “Golden States of Grace” have been silenced, either because society has shunned them or because of their own actions. Opening our spaces at CTS for them to be visible and heard is a powerful testimony for what our school stands for. I believe we are saying with these photographs that CTS is committed to stories of faith that are not often told and less often heard. I am so proud to be a student at CTS, a school which is faithfully, creatively and courageously claiming for our world that all people who have been silenced contain stories which are full of God’s grace.
An image of Krystal, a transsexual sex worker who crossed the border from Puerto Vallarta into the United State, hangs as one of the many black and white photographs within the Golden States of Grace exhibit currently adorning the walls of CTS. In this simple photograph, Krystal holds near her face the one remaining piece of her alter, an image of St. Jude the patron saint of lost causes.
On Friday, April 20th, CTS hosted a powerful performance of The Other Side of Hurt, by the young people who are a part of YEPP, the Youth Empowerment Performance Project. YEPP, a new initiative which (in their own words) “combines theater and therapy,” is committed to emboldening the voices of Chicago's street-based LGBTQA youth and sharing their experiences through performance.
In mid-April, I had the honor of welcoming the performers of YEPP into the halls of the Seminary with a tour of the building. As we exited the Clark Chapel, there were audible gasps of excitement when several of the performers spotted the image of Krystal. For several minutes, the group stood before this photograph, gazing at her with admiration and respect. It was clear that the individuals in this group were not only seeing Krystal but were also seeing themselves, their friends, and their own life experiences in this image.
It is moments such as these that remind me why I chose to study at CTS – Our commitments to justice, multi-vocality and transformation are more than just words printed in our Mission, Vision and Commitments. Rather, they are consistently lived and practiced in action. May it continue to be so.