(Dec. 16, 2019)—When Alex Chiu created a painting of Mary and Jesus during a recent worship service at West Hills Covenant Church in Portland, Ore., the experience was a revelation, inspiration and comfort, said co-senior pastor Stephanie Ahn Mathis, an American-born daughter of Korean immigrant parents.
“To see my people and our place in the biblical narrative profoundly helps me to visually connect to the Creator whose image I am made in,” said Ahn Mathis, who pastors with her husband, Mark Mathis. “Being born and raised in a country where it was not common to see people who looked like me in mainstream media, dolls, books, leaders or theology, it was easy to believe lies that my people and I were less valuable. This painting made me swivel my head, like when a lonely traveler in a foreign land hears someone speaking their native tongue—like an old companion joined my trip.”
During Advent, West Hills invites artists to present their work during worship and offer a reflection around a theme. This year, the theme is “Go Tell It,” stories on God’s hope, joy, peace and love.
The church has a history of being an “artist church,” said Ahn Mathis, incorporating painting, poetry and plays into worship. One year, a Bible study group wrote short plays for every sermon.
This year, the church hosted a storytelling workshop inspired by National Public Radio’s “Moth Radio Hour” in preparation for the season. The popular show features people telling their own stories without notes in front of a live audience.
“Mark and I were trying to not have the typical ‘sermon-centric’ service and wanted to empower the voices of the people in the church,” Ahn Mathis said. “It’s been powerful.”
As Chiu painted, for example, Mark reflected on the topic of joy from the first-person perspective of a shepherd; two members of the congregation also told stories.
Not all of the artists are professionals like Chiu, who recently painted a 150-foot-mural at Portland International Airport. Other participants include an 18-year-old recent high school graduate who painted on the topic of peace. This Sunday, a high school student will paint on love and the adoration of Christ’s birth.
Ahn Mathis explained that artists may choose to come prepared with a completed piece of art, or they may arrive with a partially completed piece and paint the rest during the service. Some, like Chiu, may create an entire painting from start to finish during the 1.5-hour service. The sanctuary is designed with prayer niches where art can be hung, so each artist fills a niche.