Colleen Kwong on Using Art to Include Shut-ins

When strokes, illness or other challenges keep people from attending worship, they often fall off the congregation’s radar. Here are ideas for using visual arts to reconnect and include such people in worship and church life.

As an ordained pastor in the United Church of Christ, Colleen Kwong works part time as minister of arts at Christ UCC in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. She also creates liturgical pottery and offers workshops on the arts and worship.

What do you do during your ten hours a week as minister of arts?

When I preach, I often include paintings or photographs. I also teach painting at church and visit folks in homes, including the arts as much as possible.

How do you use art to include people who can no longer get out to church?

For Lent, we put together a Lenten booklet and asked everyone from the congregation, including children and regular attenders, to contribute. We talked about being in a season of baptisms, since we celebrate the baptism of Christ in January [during Epiphany] and often baptize people on Easter. Baptism uses water, and we think of waters in many ways. I asked people to think about this question for the Lenten booklet: If God is like water, how was God like water for you this year?

Children did drawings. Youth described what they did in confirmation classes. Some people that we might call “shut-ins” participated too. For example, one woman wrote, “When I was young, God rained in a gentle spring shower, and I grew….Now life is like a peaceful river, and I’m flowing with God.” She has been in and out of rehab because of falls. People hear her name during prayers in worship and know to pray for her but don’t really know her. Many didn't realize she was still so vital.

How else do you use art in your ministry?

I’m always making things. I've always thought of the visual arts in terms of who I am in the world. I’m a liturgical artist, forever looking for more ways to bring the church to people, especially those who can no longer go to church.

What do you mean by “bring the church to people”?

When I bring communion to people at home or in the hospital, I don’t like just bringing them little shots. Being efficient when visiting isn't the point. The point is bringing the church, in miniature, to the people. I make little travel communion sets with a chalice, paten and cloth so I can set a beautiful table of hospitality.

It’s important to have a chalice you can hold, bread you can smell, wine you can taste. One woman said to me, with tears in her eyes, “I miss the sanctuary so much. Thank you for bringing the church to me.”

Do you make other things to bring the church to people?

While I was wondering about how else I can bring more of the church, I started making anointing oil flasks and bowls. If you want to be efficient, you can just flip the flask and anoint someone. Or you can pour the oil into a bowl, take time to hold the bowl and warm it in your hands.

What made you think so deeply about the rituals, gestures and objects used in visitation?

I used to be a hospital chaplain. Many of those I visited were anxious, but they couldn't do things they’d normally do to calm themselves, like take a walk. I designed grooved finger labyrinths specifically for people who can’t see, walk or get out of their surroundings. A clergywoman in Wisconsin told me she has her finger labyrinth next to her coffee cup. She does it in the morning and does it again when she returns home. Using the labyrinth bookends her day of ministry, because it helps her focus, relax and give it all to God.

I started thinking that if I need these things to do hospice or visitation ministry, then other people may need them too. At the 2014 Calvin Symposium on Worship, I sold my liturgical pottery to people from all over. It’s nice knowing that I have a baptismal bowl and pitcher set being used in Singapore, and my traveling communion sets are being used in Scotland and Europe.

What’s your advice for people who don’t see much connection between their talents and their life of faith?

I’m an ordained minister and I’m a visual artist and have worked as either one for most of my life. Now I’m making a living doing both. 

For me, the message from the Who Is My Neighbor? art conference was to continue to do what I’m passionate about. I’d encourage everyone to live your gifts, whether it’s dancing, writing or music. Live it out and offer it to the church. Don’t limit your vision to what you think you’re “supposed to do.” God’s got a bigger idea.

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