Uganda: Finding Identity in Art
by TJ McCloud, Missions Coordinator
It was kind of a crazy idea...what if the poorest people in the world were treated like rockstars and artists? Let’s face it - we pay lots of money and attention to what artists say, and truthfully, very few of them actually say much worth listening to. As a songwriter, I know that art is deeply connected to identity. When we create art that reflects who we are, we are affirming that our stories, feelings, and dreams matter. That they’re important to us, and to the world.
But, instead of self-obsessed, overpaid singers - what if we listened to and affirmed the worth of the poor and the vulnerable as they tell their own stories, empowering them to speak through music and the creative arts? These are people with little education and many have even less experience in artistic self-expression. Would they have anything to say? Would it work?
Over the last two weeks, a small team of student artists (Meleia Fisher, Rebecca Klaas, Corey Ramsey, Matthew Proctor, Bailey Werner, and Annelise Kitching) from Lipscomb asked these questions in Jinja, Uganda. We spent time listening to testimonies of pain and hope, then helping the women and children involved in HEAL Ministries’ mentoring program to write songs, create visual art and creative movement that told the stories of their lives. (Corey, a Christian rapper, even taught street kids in the area to rap about Jesus!) Most of the women and children we got to know had been abandoned one way or another. Many of them had lifelong illnesses. A large portion of them had lost friends, husbands, parents and children to the war, violence and sickness that often comes with extreme poverty. Amazingly, few of them had ever been asked to share their stories, let alone write them into songs, paintings, and dance! After just a few moments of hesitation, they did wonderfully, creating some really beautiful works of art. All of them had amazing testimonies, whether they were coming through the fire of their life’s trials, or still in the thick of it, being burned by the flames. One group of women wrote these lyrics together - lyrics to a song that would become an anthem for the week:
“(God is there in) Fear, Anger, Sickness, Death - Enemies and Loneliness
We have Overcome - With our God, We Have Won!”
From HEAL Ministries’ founding director Tina Wier’s blogpost, reflecting on the trip:
HEAL Ministries has worked with at least 50 teams since 2007. All teams have been very different. But out of all the teams, we just said good-bye to the most unique one. Lipscomb University sent Lipscomb students along with their leader, Lipscomb Missions Coordinator TJ McCloud, to run a creative arts week here at the James Place (HEAL’s Ministry Center in Jinja).
Over 100 women and over 600 children worked with this team. All the women were in HEAL’s program, 300 children were in HEAL’s KIDS CLUB, 200 were at a village school that we work with, 100 were at Canaan Children’s Home and even more were at CRO of Jinja and Jinja Secondary School.
Working with that amount of people in one week is an accomplishment but the BIGGEST accomplishment is that each person felt love and excitement. Each person was able to reveal his/her own personal story expressed in art. Each person used art to glorify God in all that He has done. Each story was beautiful. Some revealed happiness and sadness through dance. Some painted representations of God’s glory in her own life. Some wrote lyrics of the past, the present and the future.
There was song-writing, singing, playing musical instruments, dance and art. Some of the songs and art made me smile and some of it made me cry. One of the songs that stands out to me this week is a sweet lady that sang about God’s love and how it changed her. She sang that she “used to be a drunkard, a thief, and a liar but God’s love changed her.”
Another piece of art that stands out is the one of a home and around the home it says “I want my family to be like the James Place.” At first when this was pointed out to me it made me sad because I thought of it as a person wishing for something. But as I pondered over the art, I realized that God is doing a BIG thing here. He is showing family love to so many people. He is showing what a family is supposed to look like. He is changing things.
As I think about the little miracles that happened over the last few weeks, the amazing thing isn’t that these women and children created beautiful art - that part came naturally to them, because they’re all beautiful images of our creative God. They were always rockstars in His eyes. The amazing, and heartbreaking, thing is that we’ve never stopped to listen to them before now.
For more information about Lipscomb Missions’ partnership with HEAL Ministries and the upcoming recording project that will come from this team’s trip, visit www.heal-ministries.org.