For a number of years I have been involved in ministering to people in what are commonly known as ‘creative access’ countries. In other words, countries where people are marginalized and where the creative voice has been suppressed. Within this context we mentor artists cross-culturally and assist them in their creative process.
Over the years I have noticed a trend: in the atmosphere of missions and the visual arts, there is a perceived need for product and an unrecognized value of the facilitative and creative process. I have also observed that the unlocking of the imagination and restoration are fundamental needs in communities where individuality and creativity is suppressed and discouraged. This makes arts ministry in the context of ‘least-reached’ or ‘creative access’ countries both a challenge and a great opportunity. Allow me to give a few examples.
Working amongst people in North Africa who have limited resources, but a deep visual heritage that goes back thousands of years, can be a curious assignment. Within this context, and with much prayer, my national colleagues and I have seen time and time again that there is a desperate need for the creation of safe places that facilitate hope. Cultures dominated by fundamentalist religion or gender abuse have lost any desire to create. Many of the people we work with have become numb, and they feel that they have lost the ability to imagine. It is so important to provide safe places where young and old have permission to dream and imagine without the fear of judgment or comparison. One difficulty with a product-driven arts ministry is a strong drive toward a culminating exhibit, which inevitably excludes some people because of their abilities.
Sometimes we minister to expatriate workers in country, and at other times to those who are a part of an intricate network of underground churches. Both groups are looking for new ways of seeing and of helping others to imagine hope. We have found the arts to be a great source of encouragement for those who have experienced multiple traumatic events and oppression in their country.
We also help missionaries who are already on the ground. Some have been working diligently for many years and others have come to the region only to find that the ‘going’ is tough. Some have experienced traumatic events, such as war and violence, but they choose to stay in the country. They are looking for ways to process their own trauma, and for ways to think creatively in order to continue to minister in their communities. We have seen tremendous times of healing and visual awakening through a series of personal and group art activities.
Often our projects focus on a deeper relationship with the Lord and encouraging one another in community. Participants may sometimes be asked to create what they consider to be a “safe place”. This helps them to both envision a place where they can minister to other people and a place where they can go to restore their own soul. While debriefing after creating a piece of artwork, we find that participants are often able to imagine and hope again.
Engaging in creative processes helps missionaries and national church leaders to see the community in a more holistic perspective – emotional, spiritual and relational. Based on my experiences, I believe the process of artistic creation can move people—particularly those in challenging environments—to imagine and to experience something of the creative heart of God and bring about restoration in difficult missional contexts.
J. Scott is a visual artist and full-time christian worker. She has been on the field for the past 20 years in Africa and more recently in the Middle East. She is working along side artists and others in ministry whose heart is for those in the margins of society who have no perceived voice. She recently designed a book specifically on this subject entitled, “A Voice for Tamar” which can be purchased from www.lulu.com.