When I went to Hungary in 2011, on my first trip with OM Arts, the first thing our team did there was to spend a couple of days in prayer, walking around the city, trying to sense for what God was saying to the people of Baja. After spending that time together, the sense which grew on us was the way God was bringing beauty from brokenness which we saw all around us. When we asked our Hungarian translators, they said they actually had a word for that concept: “Csodálatos”. There didn’t seem to be a good English translation of the word, but it carried the meaning of wonder and beauty and awe, and the sense of birth and new life.
We needed to be able to present this art (whatever form it took) in the middle of a concert which the band was planning to perform in the middle of the main city square at the end of the week. We decided that the best way to reflect this was to create a “wall”, using a large 5′ by 12′ canvas stretched over a frame, and paint it like graffiti, or street art. The team created a design for the painting based on the word, incorporating the ideas and symbols of death transformed into new life. During the actual concert, we were able to execute the painting in less than five minutes, using stencils and spray paint in alternating teams, as the band performed one of its last songs.
The people watching us from the square seemed to catch what we were trying to say through the word on the “wall” we had created. When we were done, the leader of the band came forward to talk about how this new life we were talking about, this Csodálatos, came from following Jesus. At the end, he gave a call for people to follow Jesus.
What he did next is an illustration of how art speaks to people. He had arranged to have a couple of team members with extra paint spread on a couple of paper plates, standing at the edge of the stage. He then invited the audience, if they wanted to have this Csodálatos in their life, to come forward, put their hands in the paint, and then press them against the canvass wall to leave their hand print there.
I had been standing behind the stage up to this point, catching my breath. When I slipped around to the front of the stage to see what was happening, I saw more than 30 people, mostly young people who we had spent the previous two weeks working with in the art camp, coming 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 visible sign that one of them had made, stating that they were giving their life to Jesus, and that He was giving them this new birth. As they were visibly identifying themselves with this piece of art, they were making their own statement about the internal commitment they were making.
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. A bridge passed over a part of the river which we walked over several times a day, going between were we were staying and the youth center where we were sharing art classes with the Hungarian teens from the city. The area under the bridge had a particular reputation in the community as a place of darkness — where the drugs were sold, sex bought and sold, where the young people would go to get drunk and stoned.
He saw the image we had done on the canvas during the concert, and imagined it bringing a message of light, healing, wholeness, and new life to that part of their city. Tagging the underpass was still… legally questionable, but as the local pastor, he was the one who would take any heat if it came to someone complaining.
So, that night, under cover of darkness and grasping our little hand held flashlights, we took our stencils, spray paint and guts, and started painting over the profanities, phallic doodles and tags of the bridge. We were able to expand on the original image and add a few other Scriptural references.
About half way through our work, a small group of teens came up on us and started asking questions. Not wanting to get involved 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 little 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 really excited! In short order, the young people on our team were exchanging social media contacts with the teens there!
About two years later, the pastor sent us a note saying that he regularly visited that spot under the bridge. The local town leaders were very impressed when they saw 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. There, across the top of the paper, in bright red text, proclaiming the heart and message of the city, was their new theme word: