Holy Murals: how a new WPA could save the church

We don’t really make murals anymore. Not like we used to, at least. Lots of old post offices or fancy lobbies from a certain era have sweeping wall art, mosaic or hand painted, depicting industrious Americans or verdant farms or, sometimes, nothing specific at all. Most of these are a creation of artists employed by the Works Progress Administration of the 1930s, where artists unemployed by the Great Depression were hired by the federal government to beautify public spaces and enrich American culture.

San Pedro, CA post office

These WPA murals are from the 30s, but if you’re like me you almost think of them in a similar class to the ubiquitous murals behind altars in churches. These reredos or apse walls tend to date more to the 60s, when there was a huge boom in contemporary church architecture. They tend to be gold.

Cabrini Shrine, NYC

Although the WPA had branches funding all the major arts, the murals are the most striking example of that cultural infusion today. There are, of course, the many important buildings created under the auspices of the WPA, but we now consider those remaining structures simply part of the fabric of our cities. The music and theater and writing have been relegated to libraries as trends changed. The murals, though, seem trapped in amber, a relic of a different time; stylized with distinctive Deco details, they remind us of an inter-war America that seems like a story told by our grandparents. There are so many of these murals in part because so much of the WPA budget was allocated for their creation.

Nearly 90 years later, we are, once again, facing wide-spread unemployment amongst artists. The ongoing shutdown has put many out of business entirely, while others survive only on enhanced unemployment opportunities. Additionally, churches have been unable to meet regularly, which has caused communities of faith to struggle both financially and spiritually.

We can look to the past for an answer to this problem. We can create a New WPA.

Georgette Seabrooke working On Her WPA Federal Art Project mural,  Recreation In Harlem, for the Nurses’ Recreation Room in Harlem Hospital.

The WPA appropriation in 1935 was 6.7% of GDP. A similar amount in today would be less than $1.5 trillion. The CARES act, passed in the infancy of this emergency, was well over $2 trillion, and we didn’t get a SINGLE mural out of it. A new WPA could be funded with a fraction of the amount we’re already freely willing to give to mega-corporations who have plenty of money in the bank. Funding artists instead not only stimulates the economy and provides for struggling Americans, but also enriches our culture, furthers artistic development, and beautifies our public spaces.

Of course, the current challenges make music and theater productions difficult, but visual art, construction, and writing can largely be done independently. As we understand more about the risk involved with gathering for performance art, we can fund new and innovative ways in which people in those disciplines create. In the meantime, artists can pass along the technique of their trades by teaching (remotely), and a large scale arts education initiative would both save artists and enrich schools. Other countries are already doing this.

If this New WPA is also allowed to install public art in churches, this could be a way to save our struggling houses of worship. Doesn’t your church need some refurbishment? Maybe a renewed exterior, complete with outside art for everyone to enjoy? Or perhaps there is a large blank wall, waiting for some benefactor to fund a fantastic mural on it. Of course, there are problems in using secular funding for sacred art, and people would probably be more amenable to funding church art publicly if churches paid their fair share in taxes (a discussion for a different time). Still, this could be a productive, creative way to support churches, artists, and communities in a way that doesn’t simply throw money at an ever-increasing problem.

Why Church is Deadly (right now)

It’s easy to exaggerate when we have little information, and nobody benefits from fear-mongering. We are becoming increasingly aware, though, that church itself could be the most dangerous place to be during the current pandemic.

Why are churches so dangerous in regards to the spread of this disease? Because we do all the things the church that are most likely to spread the virus: we sing, we happily greet each other, we recite readings together, we commune, we gather. In particular, singing seems to be especially hazardous, based on information we have from a specific choir gathering in early March. The amazing thing about this specific story is the amount of information we have: one infected individual, who thought they only had a slight cold, unknowingly infected at least 45 of the rehearsal’s 60 participants. Two eventually died from complications with the virus. Several more were hospitalized. They didn’t hug or shake hands, they used hand sanitizer, they even spaced seats slightly farther apart.

The first instinct as this relates to churches is simply to cut the choir. Unfortunately, that isn’t enough, or even the major concern as far as churches go. Churches are one of the few places where we communally sing, even regardless of our interest or ability in music. Singing together, even informally, seems to intensify both the distance and the concentration of the spread. Even spaced 6 feet apart or more in a large space may not be enough to counteract the additional aerosolization of particles.

I had never hoped for this to be a COVID blog and I prefer to read and write about things unrelated to the virus. But this is such a sticking point for churches right now, and it will continue to dog religion for the near future. We’ve already looked at how the foster religious community when you can’t meet, but virtual interaction only seems like a stopgap until we can gather again. How can we sing in a strange land? Must we hang up our lyres on the willows there? How can we experience joy at church when we’re constantly in fear of an invisible spectre? What is church without songs, or speaking, or even greeting one another? And of course, why hasn’t “God’s saving hand” spared us from this?

It represents a cataclysmic obstacle for churches. Of course it doesn’t spell the end of religion, which has survived plagues plenty of times, and it doesn’t even mean things will be different in the future. But how this challenges believers today, and how believers and non-believers alike react and recover, will alter the face of organized religion in our lifetimes.

Communion in a Hazmat suit

The thing that grabbed me about this article in Time was mostly the picture: a priest in full robes with a surgical mask and an individually wrapped communion wafer.

Its striking of course, and a little silly. Drive-by communion kinda defeats the point, no? Isn’t the whole point of communion, well, to commune?

It demonstrates a much larger problem in the practice and theology of the modern church: too many believers have fallen into this insane trap of believing that the physical communion itself will grant supernatural powers or protection while totally disregarding the meaning of the tradition itself. To believe that the wafer itself grants some sort of supernatural powers or protection, well, I don’t even know how to argue that point, since its so clearly ridiculous. But what else could people be thinking if they’re willing to ignore everything else about the ceremony and focused entirely on ingesting the wafer at any cost?

When I was a kid it always struck me as gross that we all drank the sacrament from a communal chalice. Wouldn’t this be an easy way to spread disease? But I was assured that, in this setting, God will protect us.

Immediately this raised more questions! Why couldn’t God protect us from illness all the time? Why was God only concerned with us ingesting this tiny amount of wine once a week and not purging all foodborne illness? What was so special about the wafer and wine that could only be conferred by eating them, but couldn’t simply be granted by a God that was powerful enough to protect us from germs?

Figuring out how to get communion to people is missing the point. Churches should be figuring out how to get community to people, figuring out how to bridge the gaps of isolation.

What To Do When You Can’t Go to Church

Worldwide circumstances have forced an end to public gatherings, and although I’ve been wanting to not read or hear about the havoc this has wrecked across the world anymore than I already have, it has created a fascinating situation for churches. Of course, congregations are finding that they can’t meet in the normal way and even the ones which are attempting to do some semblance of a normal gathering have found that even a physically distant compromise isn’t enough. What becomes of a church when they can’t have church?

The church I work at is already equipped with comprehensive video technology, which they use to stream Sunday services worldwide every week. Broadcast has been a big part of their ministry for decades and they were an early adopter of live streaming. I don’t know the total viewership, but they claim to reach thousands across the world and in every US state.

Another major NYC episcopal church where I have connections started live streaming Sunday service two weeks ago for the first time. They brought in cameras, a crew, lighting, and installed a control booth, all somewhat makeshift but stable enough to make permanent. This seemed like a great option at the time, but even meeting with a skeleton crew has become untenable as the situation develops.

Two Sundays ago we had church in the church without the church; the clergy, staff, liturgists, and musicians showed up, along with the broadcasting staff, and no one else. It was a pretty normal service, actually. Instead of a resounding “amen” after a prayer it was a hushed chorus of a dozen voices, and instead of a ringing congregation belting out hymns it was just the choir, but otherwise it looked and felt like a regular Sunday. From the perspective of the livestream viewer, assuming they didn’t show the empty pews very often, I assume it felt almost normal.

Last Sunday they made the decision to suspend all gatherings, as even this barebones crew numbers close to 40. There was still a live streamed broadcast, made of prayers and sermons from clergy in their homes and hymns and anthems excerpted from previously recorded services. Watching it online felt like a clip show of sorts, and while the novelty of it was engaging it isn’t something I’d religiously tune in every week.

When you’ve discounted the theology of a religion, the ceremonial and communal elements of the tradition become even more important. If a believer feels like they have to hold on to the faith to spread some idea of truth in the world, it doesn’t matter the specifics of the rituals. But when we realize that no faith tradition has a monopoly on truth and that the supernatural elements of any faith are simply made up, the meeting have to be about something more than the myths upon which it was founded.

Where two or more are gathered, there is the Holy Spirit. But what happens when two can’t gather? Is a virtual gathering enough? Jesus didn’t specify, but the tenor of his allegory is clear; there is strength in numbers. There is grace in a group. We find hope in the best examples of our peers. And those things remain true, even when we’re physically distant.

The Body of Christ isn’t dependent on any physical rules. It isn’t a physical thing! It’s a concept, a metaphor, an allegory. Just like the communion of saints; there isn’t a place where dead spirits commune. We don’t think that disembodied ghosts come together in the sky. We simply recognize that people who have passed enter a pantheon of memories which we hold sacred. We know that even though we are physically distant from the saints, there’s a metaphorical communion in which we join them daily.

The communal aspects of church are paramount, even when we can’t engage them physically. We have to reach out to our church, either the literal people who go to our churches or maybe the friends and family who represent our personal living communion. Church happens anywhere- sometimes in a grand building, but sometimes in video chat or at the kitchen table.