Iconoclast Artists: Standing as Close to Jesus as We Can


December 16, 2019

We’re turning our Christmas Season Spotlight on Houston to highlight Iconoclast Artists, a free arts program in Houston and Galveston, Texas, that gives young creative minds from disadvantaged situations a chance to speak out through written, visual and performance art. It is an innovative ministry whose founders and staff believe that art can block the school to prison pipeline for youth at risk. In 2019, Iconoclast Artists piloted its social-emotional learning program, supported in part by a grant from TMF. Experienced specialists work with teachers, students, and student leaders, both individually and within various specialized support groups, in order to create social and emotional awareness, enhance psychological well-being, and promote academic success.

Executive Director Matt Russell, also a pastor at St. Paul’s United Methodist Church in Houston, explains the incredible and life-changing impact that creating art has had on young lives through the story of Neto.

What are you most proud of accomplishing in 2019?

Our mission to stand with students living in poverty and attending schools that are under-resourced has been a deep blessing to our lives. It is these students and their families that are showing us the way of Jesus. Late last year, we had a student approach us who asked if we would teach a class in Spanish, Marlon Lizama, our program director said that if he could get 12 of his friends together that we would do it. The next day the student showed up with 40 Spanish-speaking only students! We now offer six classes in Spanish to students who have been in the US for less than two years. We also published our fifth book of student writing and our first book of Spanish writing and poetry from this community of students. I am proud of the community that these students are creating in these contexts and for how they continue to summon the church to live into its mission.


Describe the qualities of the people who are contributing to your organization's success. As a leader, how do you sustain and nurture these qualities?

Compassionate, innovative, inspiring, funny, generous, gritty, community-focused, active, thoughtful, adaptive. The folks on our staff, board, volunteers and contributors are a bunch of ninjas of grace – they understand that ministry, love, transformation happens in close proximity to the deepest point of pain. They are dedicated and orient themselves towards this context. I am not sure how much I sustain and nurture these qualities as much as I am sustained and nurtured by these amazing people!

Can you share an experience or observation that influenced how you pursue your mission?

Last year in one of our classes, Neto read a poem about his father who walked through the desert of Mexico and Texas 20 years ago to pursue a better life for his family. Neto was born in the US and is reaping all the benefits of his father and mother's sacrifice. They live in a tiny apartment that has experienced a number of ICE raids this past year and there is a constant presence of fear that he experiences on a daily basis. Neto’s father works as a laborer for a tree company and leaves the house before dawn and comes home past dark every night. Neto stood in front of a class of his peers and read his poem about his father. In one of the lines, Neto describes the best part of his day as lying in bed at night hearing his father outside the apartment as he takes off his boots and places them inside the house. It’s this sound, this ritual, the opening of the door and the sound of the boots on the floor that he waits for every night before falling to sleep. He knows then that his father has made it home safe. I stand in awe of how these students comport themselves in a hostile world with compassion, tenderness and a gritty love that holds their fragile life together. Many of these students carry around numbers and a “what to do if….” in their backpacks if they arrive home and find that ICE have taken their parents. They have played this scenario out in their minds every day. These students, these young people who are carrying more than their fair share, have become our tribe and our lives are intertwined with them, and they continue to constitute the real presence of Jesus for many of us in this world. Our mission is to stand as close to Jesus as we can. We have found the best way of doing this is to stand as close as we can do these students.


Do you have a favorite quote, Biblical or secular, what is it, and why?

There are so many people and authors that continue to point us towards this new humanity that Jesus makes possible. One of those folks is Father Greg Boyle, his book Tattoos on the Heart gets at a way of loving and being that makes it easier to call myself “Christian.” He says this in his book: “No daylight to separate us …. Only kinship. Inching ourselves closer to creating a community of kinship such that God might recognize it. Soon we imagine, with God, this circle of compassion. Then we imagine no one standing outside of that circle, moving ourselves closer to the margins so that the margins themselves will be erased. We stand there with those whose dignity has been denied. We locate ourselves with the poor and the powerless and the voiceless. At the edges, we join the easily despised and the readily left out. We stand with the demonized so that the demonizing will stop. We situate ourselves right next to the disposable so that the day will come when we stop throwing people away.”

What are you most looking forward to in 2020?

I am looking forward to being a part of a movement that pushes the edges of this circle of compassion farther out! I am also looking forward to the research project that we have begun with our students, and the app that we will be rolling out that will bring critical resources closer to where these kids “live, move and have their being.”