Using Art to Build Relationships and Foster Spirituality
July 09, 2019
When Mercy Street began deepening its outreach program four years ago, our congregation was exploring how to better welcome women from Santa Maria Hostel, one of the few substance use disorder treatment centers that serve pregnant and parenting women. A grant from TMF allowed us to expand an art program on two units at Santa Maria Hostel. I along with volunteers from our church bring art classes to the women on location to support them as they go through recovery. Art is a great way to connect people, and we can sit with them and work with them side by side.
Many of these women have experienced trauma or had a difficult childhood, and God is not usually a concept they are comfortable with. In some cases, the church was used to hurt instead of helping them. They may think: “I am a bad person. How can God forgive that? My kids were taken away. I was living on the streets. Does God accept a prostitute?” But, God is for everybody no matter what. We help them see God as a loving presence. Most of women we see arrive with no coping skills at all. Part of doing art, journaling and self-care is teaching them new skills they can use the rest of their lives.
They can do these activities to express things they have inside them and to tap into their creative, spiritual nature they may not have ever realized they had. They can also use what they learn to bond with their children. Often they want to make things for their kids during the classes.
We use creativity to help them express things they normally don’t get to express, but for some it is hard to begin. They might tell us: “I can’t do this. I’m not creative. I can’t handle it.” We start by having them pick a color or by asking them more about their child. Once they start thinking about it, they are able to do more but often they don’t think they can take the first step. We emphasize there are things they can do, and they don’t have to stick to the exact plan. We give them the idea to begin, and we tell them to use their creative spirit.
At the beginning, they might just sit there in class. They might be sad because they are missing their child or their family. Over time, they become engaged when it's time for art class, bringing us insightful ideas. They gain confidence in what they can do, and we encourage them along the way. The depth of the images and art they create, and the way they talk about it grows deeper the more they work at it. A year later, they might describe a piece of art as a light coming down or that their art is about gratitude. It helps them put words to emotions, and art is a way to bring these things to the surface.
Art can be a gateway to spirituality, and we have seen firsthand how it can improve the experience as women go through treatment. We help the women figure out how they are best connected because God is so much bigger than the box we put him in. We help them talk about it, so they can feel more connected and at peace. We all go up a mountain differently, and we encourage them to take their own journey. There are different ways to process our experiences. How we tick, how we connect, how we find strength, hope, and grace is different for each of us. If we can help them connect to their spiritual side and feel good about who they are, we help them see, “This is what I have to offer the world.”