God’s Healing Presence
They live in Camden, New Jersey. By choice. Their decision to move to an area replete with drugs, violence, and gangs was a deliberate one. And the heart of their mission is bringing art, in all its beauty and healing power, to youth and young adults. They are William and Ronja Butler, an inspiring couple who partnered with the Vincentians of the Eastern Province for a very special work of art.
On February 23, the Butlers spent their day at St. Vincent de Paul Parish in Germantown to help the Vincentians kick off their year-long 170th Anniversary celebration. This parish is the place where the Vincentians first started serving the poor in the East Coast. It’s the place where the first Catholic church in Germantown was built. It’s the place where 25 Vincentian priests and brothers are buried.
At the church, the Butlers joined students; Vincentian priests, brothers, and sisters; and employees of the Central Association of the Miraculous Medal for an interactive art experience. Placed between the front pews and the sanctuary were a large easel and two tables covered with jars of paint and brushes. On the easel was a canvas that already had orange and yellow outlines of Vincentian images painted on it.
Ronja started out in prayer. She thanked God for His presence in Germantown and for the Vincentians’ dedication to helping the poor and needy here. And she thanked Him for everyone who was going to make their imprint on the painting. William, a professional artist for 25 years, then set the tone by explaining how everyone was going to help paint the image.
Two by two, people would go up to the tables and choose between the vivid hues of blue, red, and purple that were set out. Armed with paint and vivid imaginations, they’d have five minutes to paint any part of the canvas they desired. After five minutes, they’d go back to their pews, listen to the quiet music playing in the background, and absorb God’s presence. Then, two more volunteers would step forward to add their touches to the canvas. The process would continue until the canvas was finished.
William reminded the group that “whenever we’re creating, we’re revealing the Creator.” He paused for a few moments and then said, “God has you here to start this painting. We look to you to lead us in this example.”
The fifth, sixth, and eighth grade art students, who filled two first pews, had their eyes fixed on him. They listened intently and asked questions.
“Can we paint a design in that round area?” “Can we use bright red?” “What if you mess up?”
William smiled and replied, “There are no mess ups. Don’t be concerned about that. Sometimes drips add to the painting.”
The students were respectful. They were well-behaved. They were impressive.
They’re the students of Marriya Mobley, an art teacher at DePaul Catholic Elementary School in Germantown. The school was started by the Vincentians, and has, like Germantown as a whole, undergone many transformations. But St. Vincent de Paul continues to permeate the school, inside and out. Inside, the teachers support the students in achieving their potential academically, spiritually, and socially—while also helping them live the values of faith, respect for one another, and perseverance. Outside, St. Vincent’s portrait (and those of St. Louise de Marillac and St. Martin de Porres) scale the walls in a colorful, 40’ x 85’ mural painted by Vincentian Br. Mark Elder, CM.
It’s no wonder, then, that Marriya’s innovative art classes have made a profound impact on the children. Some walk into her class without any interest in art; they’ve not yet learned, or participated in, anything artistic. Marriya’s goal is to expose them to the arts—and the vocabulary, artists, and history—and teach them to try their best, to persevere, and to look. “Art is everywhere, and it’s in everything,” she stresses in her classes.
When they first come to her classes, most of the students say frustrating things like, “I can’t do this.” But their attitudes change the more they’re immersed in it. Marriya says quietly, “I see them move from pushback to knowledge and then to confidence.” After reflecting for a few moments, she adds, “I see the ‘Aha’ moments.”
The sixth-grade class painted self-portraits this year, and many of their pieces had a Van-Gogh flair. It’s an incredible experience to talk with a sixth-grade boy and watch his face light up when he describes Van Gogh’s work and uses phrases like “vibrant colors” and “abstract with a lot of strokes.”
Through Marriya’s classes, these students have become more creative, more self-assured, and more knowledgeable. They’ve grown in patience and perseverance. They’ve learned history, architecture, cultures, and even math—through the geographic shapes in some of the artwork. They’ve worked together in teams. And now they’re excited about art.
So are their teachers. Marriya has been told by her peers that since the students started taking art classes, they’re more interested in their other courses, as well; they’ve also noticeably matured. And they were more than eager to participate in this interactive art experience.
As the group listens to quiet refrains of praise and worship music, the afternoon takes on a meditative quality. In silence, the students and adults paint. Somehow, God is more tangible through this, and the beauty and healing of art—mixed with God’s presence—begins. The day has been a perfect metaphor for the Vincentians’ presence in Germantown for the past 170 years: bringing God’s beauty and healing power to everyone they meet. What a fitting way to punctuate their momentous anniversary.