A church in the Upper Midwest is enriching itself through the spiritual power of all-community murals, artworks that breathe fresh life into a congregation’s rich tapestry of faith with the fellowship their creation inspires.

Under the direction of Paul Oman—a congregation member and artist who’s also an ELCA pastor—Our Savior Lutheran in Amery, Wis., has so far completed two of the multipanel, paint-by-number pieces (for Christmas 2017 and Easter 2019).

“The congregational and community response to both projects was great,” said Keith Ruehlow, pastor of Our Savior. “What I treasure most is the way the community mural becomes a cross-generational work of art. There were Lenten days when we had both 7-year-olds and 70-year-olds painting on the same panel. It was a wonderful opportunity for people of all ages to work together to create something beautiful.”

More than 100 people were involved in the construction, planning, painting and setup of the murals, which made striking backdrops in Our Savior’s sanctuary.

“I see the value of the arts in the church today more than ever.”

“Special-effects lighting was used on the Christmas mural, where the stars of the Bethlehem sky, the angels, baby Jesus in the manger and more could be illuminated with the toggle of a switch and the singing of an anthem,” Oman said.

Oman, who served as a parish pastor from 2003 to 2011 and operates an artistic ministry called Drawn to the Word, is partnering with Our Savior on a pilot program in which new artistic ideas and projects, such as the murals, are tested and refined. Their goal is to make the pieces available to other churches through Drawn to the Word.

“I see the value of the arts in the church today more than ever,” Oman said. The reaction to the all-community murals at Our Savior suggests that Oman is far from alone in feeling that way.

“I can’t sing or dance and am a poor painter, but this gives me and many others an opportunity to add our touch,” said parishioner Jim Anderson. “I remember hearing an occasional ‘oops’ with a following chuckle as we all went outside the lines at times. As the small sections of each panel were painted, we had no idea what the finished product would look like, but when we raised each panel, the complete message came to life, and I think we all felt a collective ‘wow.’ ”

“Beyond anyone’s expectations”

Nell Anderson, a mural participant, is a retired educator who tutors English-language learners in the Amery community.

“[My students] are eager learners and do well with the textbooks we are provided,” she said. “However, real-life language situations can be a challenge. Looking for a language experience, I brought my learners to the Easter mural project. Not only did they enjoy the creative aspect, but we also had the opportunity to talk about religion in their home countries as well as clarify religious beliefs here in their new home. They shared their faith stories [about] God’s presence in their lives and asked me about my beliefs and faith.”

Ruehlow had similar experiences of making new or stronger connections with the people around him during the mural creation. “It’s an opportunity for me and others to spend time together with church members whom they may have not known very well,” he said. “I found myself one day painting between two men in the congregation and sharing great conversation together.”

While the creative process was filled with joy, completion brought its own exultation. “They were very amazed with the finished product,” Anderson said of her young adult students. “They easily identified the areas they worked on, taking pictures and sending them to friends and family.”

“This is healthy for our church and community, for building and bridging relationships. The results were beyond anyone’s expectations.”

Ruehlow said that type of pride is common among those who contribute. “I loved the moment Easter morning when I heard one of our high school youth proudly say, ‘I painted Jesus’ nose,’ ” he said. “When the murals went up, many people could point to the places they helped paint.”

Oman said the artworks exemplify the adage “many hands make easy work.”

“This is healthy for our church and community, for building and bridging relationships,” he added. “The results were beyond anyone’s expectations. Everyone waited in anticipation for the big reveal, when the fragmented canvases we had been working on piece by piece in various Sunday school rooms around the church came together as a puzzle to tell two stories: one of God’s faithfulness through the hope we have in Jesus, and the other of the people coming together side by side in our community to share in this experience.”

Ruehlow praised Oman for his “passion for bringing a congregation and community together.”

“He helped our congregation give thanks and praise to God through the creation of beautiful pieces of art,” he said. “I would recommend this opportunity to any congregation looking for a wonderful cross-generational project.”

For more information, visit paulomanfineart.com.

Steve Lundeberg
Lundeberg is a writer for Oregon State University News and Research Communications in Corvallis.

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