I was scared the first day I stepped into the Rose Hill Safe House, not the bodily harm kind of scared but the kind of scared you might feel when you are approaching a close-knit group of folks that have known each other a long time, and you are wondering whether or not they will give you a chance. That was the kind of scared I felt walking into a group of people whose common bond was the lack of a structure of their own to call home.
To be quite honest, financial need is foreign to me. I have never wanted for much of anything materially, so deep in the recesses of my heart, I feared I would not be able to minister to them, that I would not be able to give what they needed. I feared I would be rejected, judged for what I have, that they would write me off as another wealthy white woman trying to feel good about herself for reaching out to the poor.
But I knew God had called me there, and it felt as if He was pulling his pocketwatch out of his coat, telling me that I was late for a very important date, so I followed Bo Bartlett and his team up the stairs of the Rose Hill Safe House. I smiled as unawkwardly as I could at the men and women lounging on the concrete steps leading to the door, their eyes penetrating deep into mine, attempting to see what I was all about.
Just inside the buliding, there was a small doorway leading to a turning flight of stairs blanketed with weathered carpet to keep the weak from slipping. I could smell the aroma of food and dishwater coming from the kitchen and could hear feet scrambling back and forth and pots and pans clanging in the kitchen in the unknown below.
And I felt at that moment, a little bit like Alice, like I was quickly slipping down a rabbit hole into a world I did not know existed. In reality though, I did know it existed. I just had chosen to turn a blind eye to it, not because I didn’t care, but because I didn’t know what to do about it. I didn’t know how to reach men who slept on the streets without a place to call home.
That first day, men and women stood in line as we took styrofoam plates and poured out small piles of paint hoping to reach their hearts through art. And the participants did what I thought they would. They looked deep into me to try to understand why I was there, to make sure I didn’t have some self-serving motive. And those first few weeks, it felt a little like a strange tea party underground. A deaf and mute man usually greeted me on the steps pointing at his ears and mouth to remind me he could not speak nor hear as I attempted to say "hello". I called a half-toothless man by the wrong name for the first three weeks because he wrote the wrong name on his name tag. Some chose to paint angry comics with all sorts of obscene words on the page. Some wrote lists of their friends who had been killed on the streets, and seemed angry at me for venturing into their world but not understanding it.
But after six months of pouring paint and washing brushes, and tripping over my tongue when I don’t know what to say or do, I don’t fear anymore. Because I see that every man’s need is really the same. One simply needs to hear, I value you. I value you enough to keep coming week after week even if I don’t understand your world. I value you enough to look into your phone and see the drawings you made outside of the class. And I value you enough to listen to the pain that’s coming out onto canvas from losing a child to drugs. And I value you enough to teach you.
That is really all they have asked for, to be valued.
They have not asked me to relate to their hardships or judged me for the awkward silence when I am at a loss of words. They have only asked me to be their friend, to sit and paint with them and listen. They have forgiven me when I have called them by the wrong names. And little by little, I think they are forgiving me for being born with a silver spoon in my mouth. Not because I have performed any miraculous wonders, but simply because I show up. I keep sliding down that same rabbit hole a few times a month, and I think they are beginning to welcome me into their wonderland.
Many a time, my children have fallen down that rabbit hole with me and have helped pour paint onto plates while trying to make conversation with those living in an entirely different world as they come to us wanting to know we value what they do and make. And we try to speak life into them and laugh about the simple things we’ve learned, like the stark white truth that donuts seem to call the masses into the art room.
And over time, as canvases have been covered with paint and as we have sat and chatted with the participants, the Safe House has begun to feel just that, safe. And again, not the unbodily harm kind of safe, but the kind of safe that says that God can equip us even when we fall short in faith.
Shorty, who calls himself the class clown, now draws me pictures to hang on my wall at home. Bobby, who has never had any formal training in art, pulls the wonders of God out of his satchel each week as he shows us what he drew in his free time. Women hold up their collages with smiles spread wide across their faces, children beg me to photograph the paint on the ends of their fingers, and Gary smiles and laughs through gapped teeth as he tells me about his “old lady” who is about to have a baby in her fifties.
In one of the first sessions we offered, the jail chaplain, looking down at one of the participants painting, shook his head and said, “Something is being birthed here.” And I felt what he meant. Like a baby coming to Abraham at the unlikely age of a hundred, I felt down deep in the recesses of my heart, that art was birthing something in the old run down basement of the Rose Hill Safe House. Like Jesus being birthed in the humblest of places, a lowly manger. I have yet to put my finger on exactly what that is or what his birthing plan looks like, but this Christmas I saw a tiny thing birthed in the heart of my child sitting at her bedside table writing a letter to Santa on behalf of the people at the Rose Hill Safe House.
Although I know Santa Claus will deliver plenty of gifts Christmas morning for Virginia to take to “Home is Where the Art is”, I have prayed about a way to personally say “yes” to Virginia’s letter. Initially, I thought I would ask the community to donate supplies and money and the outpouring would feel like all the whos in whoville coming together on Christmas morning in spite of the ISIS grinch, but something in my spirit felt unsettled. Because I have seen the expressions on their faces as they ask for one more canvas, and at times, it's covered in shame. So I wanted to find a way where they could participate in saying “yes” to Virginia, and "yes" to themselves.
Over the Thanksgiving holiday, I saw a lot of businesses offering sales in which ten percent was donated to certain causes, so at the time, I thought I would host something similar in order to raise funds for the program. But as I was thinking about how to structure the sale, I felt a gentle nudging to turn those percentages upside down, so I decided to give away 90 percent and keep ten percent whenever God provided the opportunity for the sale. And the keeping ten percent is only because I believe it is important the participants see that there is receiving that comes with hard work.
So we are going to sell art in the Upside Down Sale and the participants of “Home is Where the Art is” will package the orders so that they are a part of raising funds for the program. They will learn about products that can be produced from simple images in art, and I pray that the scriptures on each painting would encourage them during this Christmas season as they package prints and notecards.
So long story short, the Upside Down Sale is my way of saying “yes” to Virginia’s letter and "yes" to my friends in the basement of the Rose Hill Safe House, because after all it was the lack of art on the pages of her sister’s book that sent Alice slipping down the rabbit hole. And I believe we see the wonders of God, when we step into the deep recesses of the unknown with art. And I believe He uses art to grow hope in the shattered heart because I know He did it in mine.
So instead of a discount, I am giving you an opportunity to give. And I am praying that each little purchase is one small step in God’s birthing plan, encouraging us all to take more steps down rabbit holes into unknown wonderlands.
Click here or on the photo above to go to www.helenbrooksart.com and support the sale.