"There is a kind of extravagance that belongs to any proper act of charity."
—Robert Ellsberg, author of Dorothy Day: A Radical Saint
From an early age, we are conditioned to see beauty in the people and places where our dominate culture sees it—generally in people and places that have “made it,” that are manicured, well-cared for and afforded opportunities and privileges to stand out in our purview.
But there is much beauty to be seen on the margins of society that many of us born and raised amidst more privilege tend to overlook. That is where Jesus seemed to be drawn—to beauty on the margins: to people who were dismissed as ugly, unclean and untouchable or to towns where nothing good could possibly emerge.
In his poetic treatise Until Justice and Peace Embrace, philosopher Nicolas Wolterstorff reminds us that beauty is not optional in working out shalom. Beauty is a moral right, he claims, and no one should live in aesthetic squalor; that would be an injustice. (Wolterstorff, 124) He goes on:
A community of shalom, for one thing, is a responsible community: where shalom exists, there we enact our responsibilities to one another, to God, and to nature. But shalom is more than that. It is fully present only where there is delight and joy in those relationships. (p 124)
Our own Catholic saint and community worker Dorothy Day is a beautiful example of this delight. Day biographer Robert Ellsberg, who has written extensively on Day and sought her canonization writes this:
She knew what needed to be taken seriously. But she was never too serious to forget what Ruskin called “the duty of delight.” In the face of desperate suffering in the world, she felt we had a special obligation to attend to life’s joys and beauties. ‘We would be contributing to the misery of the world if we failed to rejoice in the sun, the moon, and the stars, in the rivers which surround this island on which we live, in the cool breezes of the bay.’ Frequently, in her column, she cited Dostoevsky’s words: ‘The world will be saved by beauty.’” (Dorothy Day from Robert Ellsberg’s intro to By Little and By Little: The Selected Writings of Dorothy Day, New York: Knopf, 1993) (xl)
Ellsberg goes on to recount a story of Day giving a diamond ring that was donated to the Catholic Worker to a poor, lonely old woman. When someone argued that the ring could have paid for her rent for a year she responded that the woman had her dignity and could use it for rent or for a trip to the Bahamas! “Do you suppose God created diamonds only for the rich?” (xli)
Do we believe God creates diamonds or beautiful artwork or gardens only for the rich? While we may not outwardly believe this, it’s easy to segregate beauty to our churches, to quaint neighborhoods or college campuses while our service work and charity remains bland and “practical.” But, some are catching this vision of extravagant charity, of a duty to delight. They are retraining our eyes to see, to celebrate and recreate beauty in the overlooked places of an overlooked city. Here are just a few examples.
Community Minority Cultural Center Gallery: Restoring a Vision
The Community Minority Cultural Center in Lynn is a powerful symbol and vestige from the Civil Rights Era. Founded by local African-American leaders Virginia Barton and Abner Darby, its mission is to be a resource for all those working toward the prosperity of Lynn through social and economic justice and to be a reconciling force for Lynn’s diverse communities. However, as its funding and programs diminished, so too did its storefront window. In fact, the neglect was so severe that a few years ago, the storefront seemed more like a visible closet, displaying old Christmas decorations and boxes of books.
Office of Community Engagement Director Val Buchanan imagined a service-learning opportunity through partnering Gordon art professors and students with the CMCC to help recover the beauty and dignity of this vital organization. Through a series of meetings, professors Tanja Butler and Jim Zingarelli with their classes came in to ask questions, take pictures and learn more about the stories and vibrant cultures the CMCC celebrates. At the end of this listening process, a colorful mosaic of tiles depicting members and scenes of the Lynn community as well as historical figures like Martin Luther King and Gandhi, decorated the window front like a beautiful quilt. People passing by now stopped and lingered with delight and pride for their community.
After two years, the mosaic was moved into the lobby and with the help of Tim Ferguson-Sauder (Design) and Leo Cleary (Physical Plant), a shadow box gallery was installed in the front window and lobby to accommodate a rotating display of art work from the community.
Boys and Girls Club: Reclaiming the Imaginations of our Youth
Walk through the doors of the old historic building which houses the Boys and Girls Club in Lynn at 2:15 on a weekday and you’ll be met with a thick silence. Come back 15 minutes later and the halls will reverberate with the screams of 300 children from ages eight to twelve years. As one of the handful of affordable after-school programs in Lynn (youth are asked to pay a $5 annual fee to attend), the Boys and Girls Club offers an invaluable service to working parents and caregivers.
But, like most struggling non-profits in the city, funding has been cut and limited staffing carries extra responsibility. Gordon in Lynn has had an ongoing partnership with the Boys and Girls Club by bringing in freshman SALTeams (Serve and Learn Teams) lead by two Gordon in Lynn interns each week to help in whatever way they can—tutoring, mentoring, playing sports or simply hanging out. In the past few years, this partnership has taken quite an artistic turn with Gordon students engaging kids through theatre, dance, and art. Eight middle school girls performed a gutsy autobiographical play they devised with one theatre intern; others have practiced dance routines in order to perform for their proud parents with a Gordon dancer; still others designed and painted, led by two Gordon visual artists.
The Food Project : Redeeming the Land
This past summer I attended a harvest feast in an unexpected place. In one of the more densely populated neighborhoods of Lynn behind an elementary school, The Food Project has brought new life to an otherwise empty and chemically-infested lot.
Today, the quarter-acre garden plot where we sat and feasted now produces thousands of pounds of delicious chemical and pesticide-free vegetables every year. Towering sunflowers and vibrant zinnias line the path I walked down to sit under a tent with proud youth and community leaders from across the North Shore. We feasted on roasted chicken with sautéed chard, roasted root vegetables, herbed-salad and finished it off with local cinnamon ice cream melting over mixed berry crisp.
Before I left, the current director, J. Harrison, pulled me aside and recalled the historical significance behind this place that we shared: Six years ago, a group of Gordon students were among their first volunteers who put hours of sweat equity to lay the healthy foundation that would yield all these pounds of fresh produce. The Food Project in fact began by someone who had a vision for beauty. Ward Cheney, farmer, educator and activist, imagined a local and national movement reconnecting youth with the land and the beauty that would come about with the re-covering of vacant land.
So how do we train ourselves, our students, our churches, our businesses to see and help re-create beauty in these overlooked places?
First, we need to cultivate the faculty of the imagination. Gregory Wolfe, editor of Image Journal explains: “Beauty is a mode of knowing…[it] allows us to penetrate the reality, through the capacity of the imagination to perceive.”
But beauty, he continues, is not the same as faith or reason. Christians are primarily comfortable exercising faith and reason through the faculties of our heart and mind but the imagination, and the beauty it fosters, has too often been relegated to the back seat. Laurel Gasque, church historian notes:“the arts are threatening. After three centuries of valorizing certainty and control and the reductive literalism this has often led to, the ambiguity of the arts, with their suggestive and metaphorical quality is hard to get used to and can be deeply disturbing….They seem impractical in a pragmatic world.”
I was recently at an artists’ retreat in Texas where Gideon Strauss, CEO of the Center for Public Justice, explained that one of the roles of artists is to educate our moral imaginations. (Similarly, philosopher Elaine Scarry, in her book On Beauty and Being Just posits that “beauty is a starting place for education.” 31) If, as Strauss argues, “artists are responsible to educate our imaginations to everyday living,” then artists must help our imaginations encompass the whole of life, not just the beauty found in polished privilege. Moreover, artists or not, we need to step outside our logical and rational selves a little, allowing ourselves (perhaps like our Old Testament prophets?) to see and dream Kingdom visions that our rational intellects likely wouldn’t dare.
Secondly, we need to risk extravagance. Like the woman who “foolishly” broke an expensive jar of oil on Jesus’ feet or like Dorothy Day’s generosity toward the poor old woman, we need to be open to loving our neighbors extravagantly, especially our overlooked neighbors on the margins who are increasingly being located in close proximity to neighborhoods of privilege like never before.
One could even argue, as Scarry does, that beauty can compel us to right wrongs and bring about justice. She explains, “beauty seems to place requirements on us for attending to the aliveness or (in the case of objects) quasi-aliveness of our world, and for entering into its protection.” (90) Beauty has certainly existed alongside people doing horrible injustices throughout history. But, beauty does have the power to draw us or push us toward being more just, especially a beauty that speaks truthfully to the good and the true. Each of us likely has a story of a film, a novel, a song, an artwork that has moved us greatly toward social action.
As I walk by the galleries of the CMCC, visit the mural at the Boys and Girls Club or enjoy vegetables from the Food Project’s garden, I can’t help but feel drawn to preserving these spaces of hope and beauty.
Ellsberg concludes his story about Dorothy Day with this point: “there is a kind of extravagance that belongs to any proper act of charity. Tillich called it ‘Holy Waste,’ a term Dorothy would have appreciated.”
To what overlooked people and places are you being called to love with holy wastefulness? How can you (with your family, business, church or class) re-imagine beauty alongside these people and places?
For more information about how you can join us in seeing, creating, celebrating or preserving these spaces of beauty in Lynn or across the North Shore, please visit us at the Office of Community Engagement: www.gordon.edu/oce