"Hey, did you know there is an art club over there?" a lady wearing a Pink Floyd T-shirt asked as we pushed our kids on the swings at Rancho Cucamonga's Red Hill Park. Actually, we did know. It was the whole reason we came out to the park on that particular Saturday. But still, we wanted to press her for information.
"Are you with that group?" we asked.
"No, but I think it's such a good thing for my kids. I'm gonna go check it out. My daughter is already over there, because she's not shy," the lady said as she walked toward the group gathered around two tables in the grass. Over the next hour, she chatted with the leaders of the group while her daughter learned painting skills and had fun with art.
We had been invited to the park by Giovanna “Gia” Minardi to check out her cell church's arts ministry, Studio On Location. The pastor of the church, John Henry, had the vision to use arts as a ministry back in early 2007. After much prayer, deliberation, and discussion, the group started their arts outreach about six weeks ago, in the autumn of 2008. They presently meet each Saturday at Red Hill Park in Rancho Cucamonga.
"We're getting out there, into the community. This is church for us, reaching out," explained Kim Henry, the pastor's wife. While they do have what they call "celebration" services on Sundays, they consider this ministry such a natural extension of their cell church that they see the lines blurred between church and outreach. "Sometimes we paint during our celebration services, too. That's becoming more common. Lots of churches now use painting as part of their worship and celebration."
A person who stops by Red Hill Park on any given Saturday will find many interesting things. On the particular Saturday we went, one family was having a big birthday party, with a rented jumper and four reserved shelters. Several baseball games were taking place. A quinceañera party clad in bright magenta was piling out of a limo for photographs before the night's festivities. Many families were having picnics under the shady trees, and kids squealed as they played on the playground and in the sand.
Within this context, this group of artsy people set up shop to reach out to their community. They usually set up north of the parking lot, nearest the corner of Baseline and Vineyard streets. On the day we went, they had a clothesline strung between two trees with photographs on display, hanging by clothespins. Several young adults and teenagers had professional cameras and were obviously trying to hone their artistic skills. On a blanket nearby, some people were working together on guitar chords. Some others had video cameras, and, as Kim Henry explained, later they work on editing the videos and put them on YouTube. Kim also makes jewelry and perfumes on the side. It seems like everyone in the church has an artistic bent.
The focal point of the art activities on this particular Saturday was a class where seventeen-year-old Kalie Henry was teaching kids to paint using shape and color. They used art paper and regular acrylic paints in several colors, and a variety of brush sizes. "When we started, I bought some cheap brushes, but they were really bad. The bristles came out on the paintings. We're trying to get better brushes, slowly but surely," Gia said. The kids in the art class ranged from approximately three to ten years old. The youngest person in the small cell church is twelve years old, and there are many teenagers and young-twenties who are friendly and eager to teach and reach out. The Studio directors ask each person who participates in lessons to provide his/her name and contact information, so that the church can follow up later.
"Sometimes we do vision painting or vision poetry," Kim Henry explained. "We pray for God to give us a vision for a person in the park, then we walk up to a person and ask if we can write a poem or paint a picture for him." Some vision poems are centered around a single word for the willing participant, even though the participant is a complete stranger. They have also written impromptu songs in the same manner. "Sometimes people look at us and think, 'Oh, okay. This is kind of strange,' but we have had other people cry right there saying, 'You've been reading my mail! How did you know? I really needed to hear this.'"
Starting a ministry like this at another park around the Inland Empire would be easy enough. This particular ministry set-up consisted of a square card table and a longer, rectangular table, along with a few blankets for people to sit on the ground, and the attention-grabbing clothesline strung with photographs. Since they do not use a shelter, they have not needed to get permission from the city to conduct their art classes in the park. "These things should be checked, though, because every city is a little different in their rules," Kim Henry advises. Eventually the Studio wants to branch out into series of classes, where students can return each week to learn a new skill, as well as offering instruction in dance and other art forms.
The process from idea to actual ministry took about eighteen months. During that period, the participants spent a lot of time on their knees. "We did some prayer walks around the park, and we prayed together in church," Kim Henry said. Although they have a studio space, they have found the ministry in the park to be more successful in drawing the public. Studio On Location has a contingency plan with a church down the street in case of rain, but they see that as a compromise out of necessity, should they ever need it. "We like being out here, outside, in the community. This is where God wants His people. We try to make this as un-churchy as possible during this time," Kim said.
A few larger canvasses leaned against one of the shade trees nearby, and they attracted a lot of attention. One of the paintings was of a small blue hand holding a larger red hand against a yellow background, an interesting painting that attracts attention with its size and color scheme. The artist who created that particular work, Kalie Henry, had painted it during the church's art ministry time on the Saturday prior to our visit. "She sat over there and just painted and painted. She did the whole thing in just a short time, and she had lots of people all around just watching. It attracted a lot of attention," Gia said.
"I didn't really notice if there were people around me or not," Kalie said later. "I was focused on painting." She explained that the inspiration for the painting was a boy they had met while they ministered at a nearby skate park. "He got shot when he was standing up for his friends and he did not survive. We never really knew the impact we had made on him, but later, someone found us and told us that he had started going back to church and gotten off drugs because we had reached out, and we never knew."
Kalie took art classes for two years, but when her teacher moved, she could never find another instructor who clicked with her the way the first one had. She improves by trial and error and by reading about techniques in books. She's a senior in high school and plans to take a year off after graduation to go on a missions trip to Thailand and Kenya. She has paintings stacked up in her bedroom, and she has never attempted to sell a painting. We suggested that she sell some or have prints made to fund her missions trip.
"Why can't Christian art have a hidden meaning? The message doesn't have to be out there in plain sight all the time," Kalie said. Other participants in the Studio echoed her ideas. This is a Christian ministry that is unashamedly Christian, but not overtly Christian. They believe in making contact, beginning relationships with people to draw them to Christ. They use art to start the conversation, and to make people think about deeper things. What some people think is just another day at the park could turn out to be an appointment with God.
For more information:
Facebook: Studio On Location