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Jesus 2000 images stir reflections in retreats, parishes, colleges

NCR Staff

In education and ministry, the art of NCR’s Jesus 2000 contest is provoking discussion and reflection on images of God in a multicultural society.

For teachers and pastoral ministers, the winning image, Janet McKenzie’s “Jesus of the People,” which was modeled on an African-American woman, provided a good starting point to see God through the lens of different cultures -- a crucial perspective for their work with increasingly diverse staff, students and congregations.

“Jesus of the People” was among 60 artworks featured in a special supplement delivered with the Dec. 24, 1999, issue of NCR. The supplement is being used in a variety of academic and ministry settings as an instructional or meditative tool. The art was chosen from over 1,600 entries in NCR’s worldwide competition to find an image of Jesus for the new millennium.

“Too often we project God to be only who we are in our small corner of the world,” said Felician Sr. Kim Mis, who heads the United Stand Family Counseling Center in Chicago. “We are beginning to embrace God in the many unique versions he or she takes in this world.”

Mis shared the supplement with the center’s staff at a gathering to “ponder the sacred in the new millennium.” She said there is “unbelievable diversity” among the center’s 60 staff members, including African-Americans, two rabbis and people from Kuwait, Jordan, Greece, Chile and Turkey.

The Catholic agency provides counseling services to families in inner city Chicago, working mostly through Catholic elementary schools, where many of the students are African-American. One principal told Mis she wants to display “Jesus of the People” at her school. “Her observation was that the winner looks as if he could be an African-American youth,” Mis said.

The counseling center is “always trying to find models the students can identify with,” she said. “The students are exposed to so much violence. They need models they can look to and say this is someone I want to be like. But often the models are not ones that are easy to identify with because of differences in race, culture or sex. New models like this can present them with a new way of being in society.”

Joan Thiry, director of religious education at St. Lambert’s Parish in Skokie, Ill., has shared the art at retreats and meetings with teachers. At St. Lambert’s, children in the religious education program come from 51 different countries, she said, so the teachers there “are used to picturing Jesus in many different aspects.”

At a retreat Thiry led for teachers from another parish, participants discussed how they picture Jesus. Then Thiry handed out copies of the Jesus 2000 supplement “and blew their minds,” she said. “It got both older and younger people talking about how they see Christ today and how to bring him to others.”

Timothy Charek, director of lay ministry certification at St. Francis Seminary in the Milwaukee archdiocese, also sees the Jesus 2000 art as a tool to explore how images of God affect ministry. “It’s important to be able to look at Jesus in a variety of ways,” he said. “We’re trying to take a multicultural approach to ministry that’s more effective for a diverse church.” Charek added that the art also speaks to what candidates will encounter working in AIDS ministry or with the poor.

Bill Rose, director of adult ministries at Holy Name of Jesus Parish in Medina, Minn., folded the idea of multicultural images of Jesus into discussions of ecumenism and reconciliation, part of the Renew 2000 parish-based spiritual program. An element of ecumenism, he said, is “looking for common ground, and also looking at some of the ways our images of God and Jesus are too small.” The Jesus 2000 art “expands our image of Jesus for the 21st century,” Rose said. “It caught my eye in how it breaks down traditional stereotypes of Jesus.”

College professors teaching Christology have also used the art to compare more traditional images of Jesus with contemporary versions. “It helps the students think about the word made flesh in more than the typical European male,” said Michael O’Keeffe, professor of religious studies at St. Xavier University in Chicago.

Christine Bochen, professor of religious studies at Nazareth College in Rochester, N.Y., said that her students in a class called “In Search of Jesus” struggled with the images of Jesus identified with the poor and oppressed. Those images were “challenging in that they force a confrontation with some of the most troubling issues of our time,” Bochen said. The skeletal figures in “Those Who Love Me Will Keep My Word” by Paul Gerhardt Trost “evoke something of the holocaust and starvation around the world,” she said. “These images are making all of us think a little bit more about what we see as integral to our understanding of Jesus and, more important, what is integral to becoming a follower of Jesus.”

Many students wanted to talk with the artists to understand what they wanted the viewer to see. “I’m glad that I got the opportunity to see the variety and diversity that is connected to the image of Jesus,” said one Nazareth College student, Adriane Smith. “I would have liked to have more commentary explaining what the artists were saying with their artwork. It is interesting to note how each individual sees Jesus differently.”

Bochen plans to return to the art of Jesus 2000 at the end of the course to see if the students’ perspective has changed in light of their reading from theology texts throughout the semester.

Art “gives expression to more intangible convictions,” Bochen said. “It’s one thing to talk in words about various ways people have seen and understood Jesus. It’s another thing to see that reflected in a visual image that invites us to participate in and experience the vision of the artist. In lots of ways, the work of theology is a work of envisioning and artists help us do that.”

Even before the winners were announced in December 1999, art professor James Williamson brought the contest into the classroom at Rhodes College, a Presbyterian-affiliated school in Memphis, Tenn. Last fall, he assigned a beginning architecture class a hypothetical project to design a truck that would function as a traveling exhibition space for the contest winners.

Some students brought spiritual themes into their design. One young woman, who was considering becoming an Episcopal priest, based the look on the catacombs in Rome. Another created a labyrinth that spelled out the name of Jesus. “What [the entries] all had in common was that they were a journey, in one end of the truck and out the other -- a metaphor for a spiritual journey,” said Williamson, who had entered his own art in the contest.

When he got the winners, he showed them to the students. “Nobody expressed any great shock, unlike some reactions we heard,” Williamson said. “They had been through the experience of imagining what the paintings might be like. They were prepared for these to be fairly unconventional.”

National Catholic Reporter, March 3, 2000