Ian North is the Director of Communications for Refugee Beads. He and some fellow artist friends have started a project called Storyboard that is a great model for helping churches see the dignity and strength of their neighbors, rather than just their needs. As they are doing this, it is also reconciling a too-common divide between artists and local churches.
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Background: A Troubled Triangle
There can be a dysfunctional triangle formed by artists, churches and the neighborhoods where they reside. Artists and those on the margins can be seen with suspicion because of perceived disrespect. Artists can be too critical to participate in the lives of churches. And those who live in difficult neighborhoods can resent the church or feel that they are under-qualified to speak its language.
There was a time when these tensions paralyzed me. My wife and I chose to move into neighborhood with immigrants and refugees in Atlanta. I remember feeling like the life of Christ was imminent there, a place where the Spirit and the movements of evil and grace lived near to the surface. Yet when I attempted to bring the church into the neighborhood and the neighborhood into the church, the stress of connecting seemed to overwhelm the relational gains.
Bringing the City into the Sanctuary
A few years ago, I remember visiting a church that asked its members to go out and take pictures of their community for use in Power Point backgrounds to song lyrics during the services. The idea of transforming worship through an intentionally cultivated awareness of the surrounding community thrilled me.
I thought of the immigrants and refugees who lived in our neighborhood. I thought about the young single moms, the drug dealers, the prostitutes, the taxi drivers, and the soccer teams that ran across the local fields, back and forth every day.
Our church was located in a place in our city that is rich with story. Our leadership was eager to connect with it. We had a community of artists in the room. On that Sunday, I felt a calling to bring these things together.
Storyboard is Born
I called our pastor, David Park, and told him we needed to get the artists together and start telling the stories of the neighborhood. David had already been thinking about using story to understand who we were as a community, and embraced the idea.
The next Sunday, I gathered about twelve interested writers, designers, audio techs, photographers, and videographers. I pitched the idea of serving the church by telling neighborhood stories.
Josh Feit, a good friend of mine who worked as a graphic designer, called me and suggested we call this venture “Storyboard.” We had a name, a group of interested artists, and a congregation eager to see our work.
For about six months, David and Josh worked to create opportunities for storytelling within the church community. We had nights at Josh’s house where we gathered to swap stories and share food. We dedicated services entirely to working out themes in story.
Suddenly, things started to happen. My friend Jake wrote a rich, nuanced story about a troubled friendship. Catie, a teacher at a local school, wrote a poem that climbed into a prayer for her students. Josh Feit journeyed out to California to learn video with The Halle Project, a group of filmmakers we both admired.
As Mother’s Day approached, we shot, edited, and scored our first video about a mom in our neighborhood who crossed the border from Mexico then sent for her son Miguel years later. We’ve been working steadily and consistently on neighborhood-centric videos and written pieces since then.
We have settled into a rhythm of sharing one piece each month, on communion Sunday. We hear about the neighborhood at the beginning of the service. We remind ourselves of Christ’s body and blood before a benediction sends us back to the neighborhood.
Engaging Christian artists in neighborhood stories is a work of reconciliation.
Through Storyboard, we as artists feel supported by the church in our work of listening and seeing well. In our bi-weekly meetings, we grapple with stories and pray together through how to understand and present them. We all feel alive in this work, and it binds us to the church and its mission.
We are in the early stages of this work of reconciliation, but already we have built and deepened neighborhood relationships. We have listened and expressed appreciation to immigrants, teens working out their faith, an aging gardner, a teen mom, a young man with a disability and a teacher.