Pandemic painting mural offers community creative outlet to cry, contemplate, contribute and celebrate
By Lindsay Peyton En Español
For everything there is a season, and a time for every purpose under heaven – including a time to paint. Houston’s Westminster UMC invites the community to pick up a brush and join in creative expression for its Pandemic Project. The final product, a mural in the front lawn of the church, will symbolize how creativity became essential during the pandemic. The artwork demonstrates that making something positive out of this dark time is still possible.
Senior Pastor, Rev. Meredith Mills was inspired by Ecclesiastics 3:1-8, “For everything there is a season.” She wondered, “What is it time for now? How does the church be the church now? What is the ministry that has been set in front of us in the season in which we are in?”
Creating art is a perfect analogy to the uncertain times today, she explained. “A blank canvas is in front of you,” she said. “What do we do with that?”
Come paint your boredom away. Unleash your inner Bob Ross. Those were some of the memes Westminster UMC is using to promote the Pandemic Project.
Getting involved is easy. Registration is online to reserve a time slot on Saturdays for “Paint and Picnic.”
Church members were also asked to extend the invitation to a friend – whether a coworker, a neighbor, a family looking for an activity they can do together or a young adult who has been stuck at home for months during the lockdown.
When participants arrive, all of the materials and instructions are provided on a picnic table in the church’s lawn. Each setting is equipped with QR codes, and individuals simply scan the code to “check in.” Then, they can get down to the business of painting, with Houston artist Tyler Kay there to guide the way.
The Pandemic Project spans the four weeks of October, and each week centers on a theme: cry, contemplate, contribute and celebrate. Those themes will be explored also on the panels of the mural, as well as sermons delivered by Mills the following Sunday. In both, the narrative of Jesus’ guidance, regardless of the season of life, will emerge.
The first session, “Cry,” held on Oct. 10, took inspiration from the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem. Participants learned about the practice of lament, and they were provided with wooden tiles to write a prayer or to describe a source of pain in their lives. Their creations will be placed inside a shadow box in the mural.
The second week of the project, held on Oct. 17, focused on the theme, “contemplate.” In addition to painting, the church provided prayer stations and prayer beads to participants.
Next Saturday, Oct. 24, centers on “contribute” – and participants will be able to drop off donations in the church. The final event for the Pandemic Project, on Oct. 31, is dedicated to “celebrate” – and will feature a confetti explosion. Mills explained that even in the midst of COVID-19, where people can struggle to find joy, this conclusion of the project will be all about delight. Guests will be given confetti eggs – and encouraged to take a Boomerang photo in front of the mural.
Everyone misses life before the pandemic, Mills explained. In the last few months, events were canceled and routines rearranged. Still, she hopes to find ways to move from “all my plans got canceled” to “let’s dive into the work of God.”
Only three months remain in 2020 – and a whole new year awaits, Mills explained. That means there is still time to process the events of the past few months and to create something new.
“For some, 2020 has been an inconvenience, but for others, it’s been devastating,” she said. “If people find a little bit of hope, that’s enough – and maybe we can offer them more. Maybe they can build a community. Maybe they can gain insight.”
Originally, the Pandemic Project was created as a way to get young adults more engaged with the church. “It’s become something for anyone who wants to do it,” Mills said.
That includes anyone who passes by the church, sees the action and wants to get involved. “I want them to get comfortable with walking on the campus,” Mills said. “They know that we’re the church, and we exist. Now, they can remember doing something cool with us.”
The effort is a collaboration with Gastrochurch, a ministry through sharing meals, started by Mills. Now Haley Brown serves as director.
Brown was a key part of creating the Pandemic Project. At the time, she was working with Mills on a grant-based project to attract younger people to the congregation. COVID-19 threw a wrench in their original plans – and they went back to the drawing table.
“2020 is the most epic problem-solving challenge of all time,” Brown said. “We had to come up with a project that took place over the course of a month. It had to be a way to create a personal experience and to experience community. It had to be something we could measure, who was coming and how many times. Then COVID came with a whole new set of challenges. It also had to be something that young people would want to do – and that was a big hurdle to overcome.”
A number of options were on the table, but Brown, who was on a trip to Israel when lockdown began, kept thinking of the Wailing Wall. “That’s a space where there are thousands of prayers and thoughts,” she said. “How could we create something similar? How could we provide space for catharsis during this time?”
Brown also pictured a mural, covered with wildflowers and the words, “Just Keep Growing,” that she saw years ago, when out with friends. The artwork was created by local artist Tyler Kay.
Brown’s vision of the wall and the mural started to merge. “Haley cold called Tyler, and Tyler actually answered her phone,” Mills said with a laugh.
“They were like, ‘Help!’” Kay recalled.
The church was finalizing a grant-based project focused on young adults. Kay ended up being the ideal person for the job. She holds a master’s degree in arts leadership from the University of Houston, and her graduate studies focus on public art and community engagement.
“That’s my passion,” Kay said. “I wanted another opportunity to provide community engagement through art.”
She also wanted to create a space where Houstonians could react to the myriad of emotions stirred up by COVID-19. “I was up for the challenge,” she said.
Kay went to work on designing each of the four panels of the mural to fit with the themes provided by the church. Before long, the church built the panels and began spreading the word about the project. The slots for the Paint and Picnic days started filling up, with all ages signing up. “People are excited to paint,” Kay said.
After Mills’ sermons on Sundays, church members can also contribute to the mural. “We’re using art as a facilitator for conversation,” Kay said.
Once each panel is painted, they will be pushed together to become one large mural that will be a perfect backdrop for a photo opp. The church is also hosting a pumpkin patch in the yard – adding to the options for selfies and portraits with friends and family.
Mills said that the mural also provides an opportunity to join together, in a whole different way, in a time when so many are missing community. With art, like with Gastrochurch meals, Westminster is offering fellowship, connection and relationship building.
“This is evangelistic in the best sense of the word,” Mills added. “We’re inviting people to come into this space where the Holy Spirit tends to show up.”
As we move into a new season of life, the pastor reminds everyone that there is a time to lament the losses that have come with COVID-19. There’s a time to cry, a time to contemplate, a time to contribute and a time to celebrate, a time to paint and picnic, to converse with neighbors over a mural. She hopes that the Pandemic Project will provide a way to process current experiences, as well as offer a renewed sense of purpose and joy.
For more information, visit www.wumc.com and www.gastrochurch.org.