Last spring, the photographer Julia Comita came to me with the following story: "Just over a year ago, a very dear friend, and muse, of mine told me she was in remission from cancer, something she had kept quiet, and wanted to take advantage of her time and energy to do a cross country tour making art. One of the last stops would be New York City. Having known her for years, I asked her what she wanted to express in these images, what could I give her through my imagery? Together we came up with the concept of being reborn. She was given a second chance at life, and felt compelled to express herself as a new creature, a new woman." Julia asked me if she could use St. Paul's Church for the photoshoot. I said yes. But I also said that her project sounded theological, so I asked her to plan an exhibition of the photos to share with the congregation and neighborhood. I asked her this having no idea what her work would look like. This is what Julia came back with.
When Julia shared this photograph with me, I wanted to do more with it than just put it on the wall, I wanted it to fill the church building in the same way that the photo filled me with awe. So together, Julia and I came up with the crazy idea of suspending 3 foot prints of the pictures from wires so that they would float in the center of the sanctuary.
The effect was that when you walked through the sanctuary you were surrounded by a visual narrative of, in Julia's words "two women being torn down and rebuilt. Transforming into stronger beings than they were before."
The final images, the image of triumph, of rebirth and resurrection, hovers in front of the altar and the cross on which Christ stands, not crucified, but risen.
When we put on this show, we invited a dozen other women to share their artwork depicting life rising in the midst of life for them. And then we open the doors with a party and left them open for the following two weeks. Throughout the day, passersby would stop, peer into the church that is so often gated, and wander in. Some would ask questions, some would pray, all would stand transfixed by the beauty of the artwork. When passersby would ask why a church would transform itself in this way, I would offer them the following explanation printed on the show's program: "At the heart of Christianity is an absurd belief that a man three days dead came back to life. And while this belief influences how Christians think about death, the goal is that it changes how we live. We strive to live as if the powers of death cannot defeat the strength of life, as if, through God's grace, the addict can withstand his addiction, the oppressed can claim her freedom, the outcast will be celebrated with love. Such hope is not just naive optimism, but a willingness to stare into the cross, into the places of death, and to see God's transforming presence. As this show is specifically about the empowerment of women, staring into the places of death requires me to recognize that, for women, the church has often been one of those places. While early house churches, convents, and home missionary societies all began as places of female independence, throughout history, Christianity has repeatedly denied women places of leadership, controlling their bodies and silencing their voices.
Since the 1970s, the Lutheran tradition has sought to become a place of life for all women, starting with the ordination of women and recently electing our first Presiding Bishop, Elizabeth Eaton, to lead the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. But four decades alone cannot undo twenty centuries of patriarchy. We find ourselves on Holy Saturday, the day between crucifixion and resurrection. Two millennia ago women were the first to proclaim Christ’s resurrection; it is my hope that through this exhibit, the voices of women might proclaim the resurrection in their own lives and the church might come one moment closer to being reborn into a reality where male and female are one in Christ."
Thank you to Julia's dad for the photos!