It was at an art show that I sang my heart out. Funny, as I look back at it, I think that was the point of the evening. We envisioned these art shows to be opportunities to meet people we didn’t know and get to figure out what we have in common with them, to learn about their world, to be together in the sacred space of the church sanctuary.
Our church is currently hosting the show of Helms Jarrell’s work called “Ordinary Saints.” She painted people in her neighborhood as saints, with wings and haloes and special gifts. There’s the man she envisioned carrying the cross named Frank. There’s the old woman with a walker she calls Saint Granny. There’s the man named Raynard who was wearing the sweatshirt that says, “Jesus is my BOSS.” It is a poignant expression of love and respect, to paint a person’s likeness. To paint that person as a saint says something more. It says, “You are admirable, you are a model for others, you are unique and beloved by God.” We had the show in the sanctuary of the church. Opening night, November 3, the artist was present as well as a few of her neighborhood friends, and members of our congregation and their friends, too. It was a momentary glimpse of our future story coming to life–the vision we had of art shows bringing people together and making people empathize with one another. There was a little conversation. There were people walking around and looking at the art. People who didn’t know one another chatted as the pianist played old standards and ragtime music. And then it happened.
Something so unexpected happened that everyone stopped what they were doing and watched. It was the end of the night. The pianist began to play “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” while his friend, our Minister of Music, sang the words. It caught us all off guard. A man who had been sitting in one of the pews all night, hanging out with teenagers, quietly watching people, stood up and started singing too. He, who had been almost silent all night, a stranger to most of the members of the church, became the life of the party. “One day I’ll wish upon a star and wake up where the clouds are far behind me! Where troubles melt like lemon drops, away above the chimney tops, that’s where you’ll find me!” The woman sang with her high soprano voice and he sang with his deep baritone voice. When they were done singing, after stumbling a little to remember the words, we all applauded and knew we had experienced something really lovely. But he wasn’t done singing. He then launched, a capella, into “The Impossible Dream” from Man a La Mancha, one of my very favorite songs. It was the song I used to sing as a little girl listening to my father’s records when I was growing up. I had a plastic horse with wheels that I’d ride around our apartment, pretending to be Don Quixote, the Lord of La Mancha. Pillows and stuffed animals would become Sancho or Quixote’s relatives or Dulcinea, and I’d navigate around them on our carpeted living room floor with my trusty magenta plastic horse. And so, when this man started singing, I couldn’t help myself. I started singing too. From across the room. And I made my way over to where the gentleman stood and there we were, remembering every word of this song about impossible dreams and refusing to give up when it is hard to keep going.
“To dream the impossible dream, to fight the unbeatable foe, to bear with unbearable sorrow, to run where the brave dare not go; to right the un-right-able wrong. To love, pure and chaste from afar; to try, when your arms are too weary, to reach the unreachable star! This is my Quest to follow that star, no matter how hopeless, no matter how far, to fight for the right without question or pause, to be willing to march into Hell for a heavenly cause! And I know, if I’ll only be true to this glorious Quest, that my heart will lie peaceful and calm when I’m laid to my rest. And the world will be better for this, that one man, scorned and covered with scars, still strove with his last ounce of courage, to reach the unreachable stars!”
In the middle of this song, I realized I had never met anyone who knew all the words to this song in quite this way. Like me, he sang from the heart, like this song was his personal identity statement. We were kindred in that moment, from the same tribe, fighting the same fight, dreaming the same impossible dreams. And then, when we were done signing, he picked a new song, “Old Man River,” and then another new song, “Bali Hai.” He had a lovely voice, and it seemed to me that this man was born to perform. But for all his other songs, I kept thinking about “The Impossible Dream” and the church pastor and the neighborhood mentor finding common ground singing about marching into Hell for a heavenly cause, even when it is hopeless.
The time came when everyone packed up, said goodbyes, cleaned up, turned out lights, and locked doors at the end of the night. We congratulated one another on the success of the evening we’d had together and how lovely it had all been. But in my I head, I was thinking about that impossible dream, wondering if I had ever really thought about how much ministry is like that and how the words to that song described the lives of so many people.
I know a man who walks around town with his portfolio. He’s an artist and he draws in ball point pen on whatever paper he can find. He’s also homeless and doing his work at night by the light of a street lamp. I try to imagine what it is like to walk through life, from one place to the next, always wondering when you’ll be able to stop and get back to that portrait of Jimi Hendrix or Bruce Lee. I know a woman who really just wants to work in her field again. She’s in HR, and she never in a million years thought she’d be living out of her car. I know a family that has great hopes for finding a cure for their loved one’s illness. It has been a long road for them. On Mondays our Fellowship Hall is filled with people who have what this world has decided are impossible dreams, as they come together–some to serve, all to eat– because of a phenomenal weekly meal. Frankly, there was a time when the soup kitchen itself was an impossible dream. It turns out, these impossible dreams are everywhere!
So, yes, I sang my heart out at an art show. I didn’t expect to, but perhaps I should have known that when you speak the language of the arts together–paintings and music and poetry–extraordinary things happen and people find out they’ve been walking the same path all along.
Helm’s Jarrell’s work is on display until November 30th, 2017, in the sanctuary of First Christian Church in Charlotte, NC.