My first trip with OM Arts was to the city of Baja in Hungary in 2011. We spent the first couple of days in prayer, walking through the city, looking with our physical and spiritual eyes to see what God was speaking to the people of Baja. The sense which grew in us was God bringing beauty from the brokenness which we saw all around us. We asked our Hungarian translators about this and they said they had a word for it: “Csodálatos”. Roughly translated, it carried the feeling of wonder, beauty, and awe. What particularly caught our attention was the sense of rebirth and new life.
We needed a way represent this idea through some kind of visual art form as a part of the final concert which the band was planning to perform in the heart of the main city square at the end of the week. Some of the team members were familiar with graffiti as an expressive form, so we created the idea of a “wall”, using a large 5′ by 12′ canvas stretched over a frame, to paint in real-time as street art. We designed it around the word, incorporating ideas and symbols of death transformed into new life. During the concert, we executed the painting in less than five minutes, using stencils and spray paint in alternating teams, as the band performed one of its last songs.
When the performance was finished, the leader of the band came forward to talk about how this new life, this Csodálatos, came from following Jesus. At the end, he asked for people to follow Jesus.
We had arranged to have a couple of team members with extra paint spread on paper plates, standing at the edge of the stage. He invited the audience, if they wanted to identify with this Csodálatos, to come forward, put their hands in the paint, and then press them against the canvass wall to leave their hand print as a part of the art.
I had was standing behind the stage at this point, catching my breath. When I slipped around to the front of the stage to see what was happening, There, more than 30 people, many of them the teens we had just spent the previous two weeks working with in the art camp, came forward to add their hand prints to the canvas. What took my breath away was the realization that each one of those hand prints there represented a changed life. Each print was a tangible sign that one of them had made, saying they were giving their life to Jesus, and that He was pouring into them this new birth. As they visibly identified themselves with this piece of art, they were making their own statement about the internal work of God which they were experiencing.
I have never been the same since that evening.
The story goes on from there….
The pastor of the church we were working with had a crazy idea. Several times a day, on our walk between were we were staying and the youth center where we shared art classes with the Hungarian teens from the city, we crossed over a bridge which spanned the river. The area under the bridge had a particular reputation in the community as a place of darkness — a place where the drugs were sold, sex bought, where the young people would go to get drunk and stoned.
The pastor saw the image we created on canvas during the concert, and imagined it bringing a message of light, healing, wholeness, and new life to that dark part of their city. Tagging the underpass was still legally questionable, but as the local pastor, he said that he would take any heat if it came to someone complaining.
That night, under cover of darkness and grasping our little flashlights, we took our stencils, spray paint and guts, and proceeded to paint over the profanities, phallic doodles and tags of the bridge abutment. We had room to expand on the original image and add a few other Scriptural references.
About half way through our work, a small group of local teens came up on us and started asking questions. “Why are you painting over our peni**es?” Not wanting to get entangled in any conflict, we tried to ignore them as they went through all the different languages they knew to get our attention, We just kept on working. However, after a while, we heard another voice–the local pastor–begin speaking with the teens in Hungarian, and explaining what we were doing. Of course, as soon as they heard we were a bunch of foreign artists painting their bridge, they were very excited! In short order, the young people on our team were talking away and exchanging social media contacts with the teens there!
Two years later, the pastor sent us a note saying that he regularly visited that spot under the bridge. The Baja town leaders were impressed when he showed them the artwork, and commented that the entire atmosphere of that area had somehow changed. Two years later, the paintings were still there, and hadn’t been covered over by other graffiti.
The pastor also sent us a copy of the town’s new official letterhead. The City Manager, who crossed over that bridge on a regular basis, had come up with a new theme for the city. There, across the top of the paper, in bright red text, proclaiming the heart and message of the city, was their new theme word: