For more than twenty years my husband was in charge of creating the settings for worship for the Holston Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church. The artistic endeavor involved the design and creation of large backdrops for the stage in Stuart Auditorium at Lake Junaluska, NC (some as large as 24 feet wide x 18 feet high). In addition he created altar settings – visual representations of the themes for worship. Throughout Ashley’s ministry he has emphasized the involvement of the whole person in the act of worship, and feels that visuals serve as a springboard for a deeper and more spiritual experience and expression of worship. He is continuing to offer his gifts at our church, Long’s Chapel United Methodist Church, by creating the altar settings for each Sunday’s worship services. The photo above is of the setting he created for the tenth anniversary of 9/11/2001.
Each June the entire Conference holds its annual gathering – a three-day event that includes administrative work of the Conference as well as a time for fellowship, renewal and worship. In June of 2002, the year after the events of 9/11/2001, Ashley designed and painted a beautiful depiction of the ways he feels God was at work in the midst of the despair of that day and the days following, and offered hope to all those who needed and sought for it.
Part of what inspired him to create the magnificent work of art was the following story, which Ashley has graciously agreed to share with all my Gentle Readers:
“During the summer of 2002 I was invited to conduct a workshop for the Upper Room Prayer and Bible Conference, now called Soulfeast, at the Lake Junaluska Assembly of the Southeastern Jurisdiction of the United Methodist Church in the western North Carolina mountains. The title I gave to the workshop was “Making Prayer Visual”.
As an exercise in that workshop I led the participants in a guided meditation on scripture. They were then given the opportunity to reflect, to respond by drawing, painting, writing, or whatever way they found to express themselves. It was wonderful observing the various ways by which they each responded. One woman sat quietly looking out at the beautiful lake visible beyond the windows. I noticed her wipe away tears from time to time. Everyone who wished to share their responses was given an opportunity to do so.
When everyone else had shared, the woman who had sat quietly during the exercise told us this story:
On 9/11/2001 she and her husband were touring France. They happened to be in a village in the remote countryside where almost no one spoke English. That day they began to see the images of the World Trade Center being struck by planes, burning and collapsing, of the plane crashing into the Pentagon, and of a smoking crater in a field they later learned was near Shanksville, PA. The commentary they were hearing was in French which neither of them could understand. They were terrified and despairing. It seemed major cities or even the whole USA might be under attack. They could not reach their children in America and vice versa. They were desperate to learn what was happening.
Feeling despair and utterly forsaken and alone, the woman began to wander through the village thinking, trying to arrive at some course of action, praying. She spotted a small cathedral and went inside to pray. It was cool and dark inside with light filtering through the beautiful stained glass windows. As her eyes adjusted to the darkness she saw there was a spotlight on the altar. Lying across the top of the altar table in a pool of light was an American flag intertwined with a long piece of black fabric. She was transfixed. As she sat for a long time in a pew she felt a flood of emotions, but finally consolation, peace, and hope in the midst of her despair. She felt the presence of God.
As she left the cathedral and her eyes adjusted to the light of day, she noticed hanging out of windows of houses and shops along the winding streets, one after another, banners made of bed sheets, pillow cases, and lengths of other fabrics on which were written words she recognized that read “America” and “Américains.” Without being able to read or speak the language she knew that included with these words were expressions of sympathy, comradeship, and solidarity. She no longer felt alone. She knew she had friends even if they didn’t speak the same language, friends even among strangers in a strange place.
There is hope in despair, always. Those of us listening to her story were wiping away our own tears. We had heard and felt the truth of that message.”
— Ashley M. Calhoun
My thanks to Ashley for sharing this story with all of us for this blog post, and for helping me to understand that there is, even in despair, hope enough. . .