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Saved by beauty

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By Nancy Kennedy

At my church we talk a lot about beauty.
The ancient Greeks and the early Christians elevated three prime virtues: truth, goodness and beauty, and as Russian novelist Dostoevsky wrote, “Beauty will save the world.”
A longing for beauty is primal. A lack of it brings despair.
A year or so ago, Christianity Today launched a project called “This is Our City.” In the overview it says that a new generation of Christians believes God is calling them to “seek shalom” in their cities by using their gifts and talents in all areas of city life — commerce, government, technology, media, education, the arts.
Their goal is to see their cities transformed. Not just see souls saved, but to see their cities become beautiful.
The Christianity Today website posts essays, articles and documentary videos about what these Christians are doing and the effects on places like New York City, Phoenix, Detroit, Silicon Valley, Richmond, Va., Portland, Ore., and a place they call “7th City,” which is “your” city, opening the project up to include anywhere and everywhere.
Every place needs the transforming power of beauty.
One of the “This is Our City” projects is a neighborhood youth garden in the Brightmoor area of northwest Detroit, started in 2008 by a Dutch woman named Riet Schumack. She is “gardening to make beauty out of blight.”
When she first moved to Brightmoor in 2006, almost half the houses were abandoned. Surrender to despair and apathy was rampant, especially among the young.
She says in the documentary, “When we live in ugliness and blight and it doesn’t bother us, we are very, very broken, and very far from where God intended us to be.”
She says of gardening, “It feeds me. It’s like breath. I inhale it. The Lord has created everything beautiful for us, and we are built to bask in that.”
As she gardened, the kids in the area became interested, so she started showing them how to grow vegetables and flowers. The young people began taking pride in what they grew and took their vegetables to market, earning money for their love and their labor.
Since 2008, the one youth-owned, youth-operated garden has grown to 50 farms, gardens and pocket parks. There’s still despair in Detroit, but hope is gradually overcoming it as beauty moves in.
In other places, a nurse in Phoenix provides free medical care to the poor and to undocumented immigrants. A Phoenix entrepreneur bases his software company on “collaboration, transparency and honesty,” and has opened up his company’s workspace to smaller companies in the area that can’t afford to pay rent.
In Seattle, an art collector hangs her artwork in a local coffee shop in a rundown neighborhood.
Little by little, God is using his people to transform the places where they live by using beauty and grace, the beauty and grace of the gospel and the gifts God has given them.
In many churches, the focus is on Christ’s imminent return, as it should be, but not to the neglect and exclusion of the corner of the world we live in.
We’re to be light in the dark places, a preserving and healing presence like salt. We’re to produce great art, build grand buildings, create music that stirs the soul. Not for ourselves, but for those around us, to spark in them a longing for beauty, the beauty of Christ.
In his book, “Beauty Will Save the World,” Brian Zahnd writes, “Christianity has suffered a loss of beauty — a loss that needs to be recovered. With an emphasis on truth, we have tried to make Christianity persuasive (as we should). But we also need a corresponding emphasis on beauty to make Christianity attractive … Christianity needs to be presented as beautiful. Often where truth cannot convince, beauty can entice.”
Dear friends, if we say we love, then we cannot let blight win. This world is our home even as we wait for our eternal home.
I think we honor God by dreaming big and doing what we can to bring the beauty of Christ into our surroundings, not by force and arrogance, but in humility simply being who we are and who he has made us to be, using the gifts and talents he has given us as we proclaim the gospel of the kingdom.
This is our city, wherever we may be. What can we do to make it beautiful?
Nancy Kennedy is the author of “Move Over, Victoria — I Know the Real Secret,” “Girl on a Swing,” and her latest book, “Lipstick Grace.” She can be reached at 352-564-2927, Monday through Thursday, or via email at nkennedy@chronicleonline.com.