This guest post by Suzanne Campise, MDiv, is an excerpt from a sermon she preached at the Nauraushaun Presbyterian Church in Pearl River, NY, shortly after the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers. In this excerpt, lightly edited for our blog, she offers a reflection on racism through the lens of the painting process. We're grateful to be able to share her words with you.
I once took a class called “The Painting Experience” at a retreat center. It was unlike anything I had ever done before. It wasn’t about doing still life or water color techniques or anything like that.
We all started with a rectangular sheet of paper taped against the wall and a few brushes to choose from. Behind us, there was a long table with containers of paint in all sorts of colors.
The white page terrified me. What was I going to paint?
The teacher gave us some ground rules:
- We were not allowed to comment on another person’s painting, not even to offer a compliment. We were not “producing” a product for others; we were getting in touch with ourselves.
- He said we could paint whatever we want, but we were not allowed to paint over something. I didn’t quite know what he meant by that. Not yet.
“So, how do we start?” Someone asked.
“Just pick up a brush, and pick up some paint, and see what happens.”
“Let there be….” (Genesis 1:3), I thought.
I started to paint. Not long after, I found myself painting as if I was on a journey. Images and symbols and memories started to form themselves on the page. It was almost mystical.
And then, “the thing” emerged.
The thing I did not want to see.
It was a symbol that represented a painful moment in my history. There it was on the page, looking right at me.
I did not want to see it. I did not want to face it.
And so, when the teacher wasn’t looking, I painted over it.
A few minutes later he came by and asked how I was doing. He knew exactly what I had done.
“You can’t avoid it,” he said. “See what happens in your next painting. It won’t go away . . .”
I took a new page and started with new colors. But soon, there it was again.
“This time,” he said, “paint your way through it. Paint your way through the pain.”
Paint your way through it.
And so, I stood there, staring. And got focused. Honestly, I did not know how to face it. But I knew he was right.
I couldn’t hide from it anymore.
So, I said a prayer, picked up the brush, and let myself encounter “the thing.”
Racism is “the thing” on our page.
The interlocking systems of white supremacy, racial injustice, and violence are the things we as a society do not want to face. We, as people who identify as white (and I include myself in this), do not want to deal with the pain we have caused Black and Indigenous communities of color through individual and systemic oppression. In many ways, we have turned away, not wanting to look at it, or at ourselves.
But unless we do, it will keep coming up over and over and over again in the paintings of our history. It will keep coming up.
Unless we find a way to encounter, to engage it, to do our work, there can never be reconciliation. There can never be true healing. There can never be equality or justice. There can never be peace.
We need to paint our way through this.
I noticed in my personal painting process that there was something to engaging my fear there on the white page that brought a kind of resolution in my own spirit. Something shifted.
We need to paint our way through this as individuals.
We need to paint our way through this as a community.
And we do so with the help of our Creator, the one who made us in God’s image, equal to one another, created in love.
So, let us pray . . . and then pick up the brush together.
Suzanne Campise, MDiv, is a graduate of Union Theological Seminary in New York City and Secretary of the Kingston Interfaith Council (KIC). Her passion centers around ministries of hospitality, social justice, and creative worship. She has facilitated workshops on anti-racism, scripture and social justice, holistic stewardship, vocation, and creative expression. A firm believer in the vastness of God’s love, Suzanne is particularly interested in ministries that deepen ecumenical, interfaith, and inter-spiritual relationships, and that create community. She is a Candidate for Word and Sacrament Ministry in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA).