If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away---Henry David Thoreau

Monday, October 27, 2008

Breaking through urban concrete

This past weekend I was in New York City for a gathering of Mennonite Urban leaders. The title of the conference was Breaking through Urban Concrete: How Agents of Good News Can Infiltrate Heirarchies of Power. An image that was used was of seeds, though small and vulnerable, that have the power to break through the cracks and spaces of concrete in the inner city and bring life.

It was my second time in Manhattan. The first time I visited, preached and drummed in three churches in the Bronx, North Bronx, and Manhattan. I drove my car, which was a big mistake. It was a nightmare getting around the city, especially following someone at a break neck pace and trying to find parking in that concrete jungle.
This visit I decided to take the train from Lancaster and take the subway to my conference. It was first time on the subway trams. I walked into an underground city jammed with people. When I rode the trains passengers were packed into these mobile cans like anonymous sardines. Emerging from the underground world the streets were crowded with people walking by each other going their own separate ways. Out my window at St. Hilda's House on 113th Street I could see rows and rows of tall tenement buildings with people stacked like blocks one on top of another floor upon floor. All in their separate spaces, living in their own separate worlds.

The subway ride, the tenements, the packed streets visually reminded me of the socially conscious art of Irving Norman. He has been called an "artist of the human predicament" and his work as "social surrealism." He painted the city as an Orwellian dystopia of modern life. His canvases from the 40's are stabbing social critiques of modernization, urbanization, dehumanizing technology, a mindless workforce, and the atrocities of war. Norman was under FBI surveillance for 20 years because of his political convictions. His large scale canvases are crowded with jewel colored images of clone-like, dehumanized people packed into a dense landscape of buildings, caught in rush hour traffic, or crucified by the machine of war. They were painted with the hope for social change. A book of Norman's works were exhibited at the Crocker Art Museum as Dark Metropolis. Coincidentally, there is an exhibit of Irving Norman's work this month in New York City.

Breaking through urban concrete. It was an appropriate theme for the seeds that these Mennonite churches in New York are planting in hope for change, for life to break through the urban concrete of dehumanization, violence, anonymity, and the power structures that dominate people's lives.

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