New Yorkers tend to be skeptical about, well, everything, and perhaps nothing more so than religion. It goes without saying that the art world has more to say about money than God. But how different are we from the rest of America? While Tim Tebow, the NFL’s poster boy for faith, has dominated headlines, the Republican primaries have thus far managed to avoid a full-fledged dialogue about faith, be it Mormonism, Catholic conversion, religious hypocrisy, or Christian fundamentalism. Perhaps the rest of the country is starting to catch up to those who believe public prayer is best left to ESPN.
Was it so long ago that art and religion were intertwined? A recent article in the Wall Street Journal notes that “great works of devotional art have been created by skeptics, not a few of whom were fire-breathingly militant about their doubts.”
I was skeptical when philanthropist and photographer Elizabeth Jordan asked me to visit Saint Peter’s, a church at 54th St. and Lexington to see her interactive exhibition, Written Offering. When I arrived at the address, I walked past the Citigroup building several times and could not find the church. Cursing google maps and about to give up hope, I realized it was built into the side of a fifty-nine story corporate building.
I always assumed the strange protruding building was part of the skyscraper behind it, but the reality is that in the 1970s the church sold the plot of land to a bank that would later become Citibank. The deal left a large, multi-floor church and community center hidden amongst financial institutions, law firms, and the endless midtown hustle and bustle. I wondered how many millions have walked by this corner over the years without noticing Saint Peter’s.
Inside there was no pesky midtown security anywhere to be found, and I followed some people heading to a crowded dinner buffet. There was no cashier, no judgement, and not a power suit to be found. This dinner is one of many weekly free events open to anyone in NYC fighting AIDS. The volunteers were also regular people, not a lawyer or banker in sight. One server worked at the Wendy’s down the street, another was out of work herself. None of this should seem odd—religion and charity exist in every community—but just not in our town. I headed upstairs to the lobby, where several people had just added graffiti to one of Elizabeth Jordan’s photographs. A woman smiled and thanked Elizabeth for the experience, saying she felt inspired by the work. Earlier in the day, another woman had brought her own paint and added biblical references.
Members of the church (Elizabeth is not a member) had seen her previous projects with organizations like Donna Karan’s Urban Zen and Women for Women International, where Elizabeth donated the proceeds to charity. They invited her to mount an exhibition about random acts of kindness. Elizabeth struggled with how to capture the split-second flash of a random act, so she asked visitors to “graffiti” affirmations and prayers onto her favorite photos from charity-related travels in Haiti, Africa, and the US. The show includes a mirror on which viewers can see their own reflections as they write their wishes. Elizabeth told me she was spending as much time as she could watching the works evolve and meeting the people they inspired. Perhaps we too, the thousands of New Yorkers who walk blindly past one another, bump our way through gallery show after gallery show, and forget to pray, religiously or not, should remind ourselves to perform a not-so-random act of kindness.