By Melissa Lauber
The church and community exploded in a beautiful cacophony of color, design, dance, flavor, and hope as Salem UMC in Baltimore and the Casa de Cultura unveiled a mural Aug. 12 that celebrates the one-year anniversary of the partnership between the two.
Painted by the Mexican artist Came Moreno, the mural features a vast array of birds and symbols of the city. Entitled, “We are Baltimore,” it is a vibrant representation of the Latino community of Highlandtown. It covers the wall of what used to be the parsonage and is now. the Casa de Cultura.
“Salem is becoming the home and heart of this community,” said the Rev. Wanda Duckett, superintendent of the Baltimore Metropolitan District. A little more than a year ago, the parsonage was uninhabitable. The Rev. Cassy Núñez saw potential and approached Angelo Solera, the founder of Nuestras Raíces, which promotes the richness and diversity of Hispanic/Latino culture, art and heritage.
Nuestras Raíces transformed the building into offices and gallery space, inviting the diverse community to come together to use the space for dance classes, art exhibits, and other cultural pursuits. One creative local man, visited and was encouraged to pursue his art. He was given space to show his work at a monthly art walk and sold several pieces. Today, he knows he is an artist. While he doesn’t attend worship, he looks upon Salem as his church, and Núñez as his pastor.
His story is echoed in the way Núñez and the people of Salem UMC do ministry. Deep listening, responding to the needs of those in the community as they arise, being willing to accept messiness, and loving people authentically is at the core of all they do.
Like the mural outside their sanctuary wall, they embrace imagination. In a recent sermon, Núñez shared ideas about creative ministry and possibility when she preached on the parable fish and loaves of bread.
“The disciples saw what they had, and felt limited by what they had,” Núñez said. “They forgot they were in the presence of a God who can use everything around them to get the mission done. When I first came to Salem, I heard all the limitations from all over. People said, ‘we can’t do that because we don’t have enough funds, or people-power or relationships.’ They got focused on their own resources and forgot that we serve a God who gives in great amounts, a bountiful God who provides.”
Part of finding that provision is seeking out partners in the community, Núñez said. Nuestras Raíces has been working in Baltimore for five years and has become a vital force for promoting Hispanic/Latino culture. They took the lead in transforming the house that became La Casa Cultura and are proving to be outstanding neighbors, lending expertise, and becoming true partners.
“A lot of the time, churches feel that they need to be leading every project,” Núñez said. “But I don’t do anything on my own. I’ve been working on my Savior complex; I don’t have to go out and save the world. A lot of the time, the answer the church can give is to provide support to what is already happening. Working in partnership helps us relate to great leaders in our communities and to see how God moves – even outside of us, even outside of the church.”
In the beginning of the process of painting the mural, the theme was immigration. But Came, the artist, wanted to bring in the spirit of all the people in the community. Over a month, he explored and painted faces, birds and other colorful symbols to create “We are Baltimore.”
On his website, Came writes about how his work “talks about the duality of space and time, between the earthly and the spiritual that exists in life,” and how folklore, imagination and his conception of the world combine in a colorful aesthetic to create a unique atmosphere of energy.
“When the artist really paints something and the people really watch, we are working in the right way,” Came said. “The people see themselves in it. It belongs to them, too.”
The painting gives the church “street cred,” Núñez said. “People pass by and think that’s a cool church, they did that.”
But at the unveiling, Came, Solera and Núñez were all excited to see what the people had to say, and what their interpretation was. “It’s next to our church. I want them to ask, ‘How is this speaking to me about God,’” Núñez said.
For her, it reinforces Salem UMC’s identity as a place of joy and celebration. “There may be horrible policies out there, but here -- you are celebrated,” Núñez said. “We have so much to lament over. But this is something beautiful. Sorrow won’t take over us. This is who we are. We are joyful.”