The paintings began appearing on the walls of some of Philadelphia’s toughest neighborhoods in the late 1980s, when the city launched the Mural Arts Program as an anti-graffiti initiative. Contemplative, revealing, stirring and uplifting, the paintings have been embraced by the city. Over the past two decades, the program has brought together muralists, neighborhood associations, faith communities and more than 3,000 public school children a year to create more than 2,700 murals — more than any other city in the world. The vast majority of the wall-sized art emanates from neighborhoods struggling with the dehumanizing effects of concentrated poverty. And roughly 25 percent of the 300 applications for murals each year come from faith communities.
The benefits of the program are numerous and stem from the relationships created among neighbors, muralists and communities throughout the city in the mural-making process that is characterized by dialogue that privileges the stories and visions of the neighbors. This develops partnerships within communities and engenders a sense of neighborhood pride. There is also healing. Prisoners have worked on murals that eventually reside in communities where they have committed crimes, and a mosque worked with a Jewish and Catholic muralist as well as neighbors after 9/11 to decorate the exterior of their building with vibrant colors and patterns central to Islamic art. But for Maureen O’Connell, Ph.D., an assistant professor of theology at Fordham College at Lincoln Center, the murals also reflect each community’s sense of God.
“The murals are a visual expression of the worldviews, spiritualities and sense of discipleship of these communities,” said O’Connell, who grew up just outside of Philadelphia and attended Saint Joseph’s University, another Jesuit institution. “But they also prophetically ask passersby to rethink our assumptions about that community, our ideas about how people understand the encounter with God, and what it means to live discipleship in urban contexts.”
With support from a Luce Foundation Faculty Fellowship, O’Connell is looking specifically at the murals created in collaboration with faith organizations — like churches, mosques and synagogues — or that contain spiritual or faith-based themes. And she is thinking about this urban art in the context of her research interests in both systematic and political theology.
“Systematic theology considers basic questions: Who is God? What does it mean to be created in God’s image? How do we understand our world in relation to God? How should we relate to one another?” O’Connell said. “It also explores the way that different communities of faith and different thinkers have either answered these questions or continue to wrestle with them.
“Political theology is a type of systematic theology that attempts to answer these questions while maintaining a focus on unjust human suffering. It offers a critical stance for theology in that it points to how we are falling short in our responsibilities as disciples, usually in allowing certain injustices to happen. The images [in the murals]remind us of where we missed the mark and have fallen short for this community.”
On the other hand, the murals also allow people to contemplate the crossroads of faith and public life, she said.
“They are expanding our notion of what constitutes public space and public art,” she said. “I think that the murals point to a new and much needed constructive intersection for religion in public life.”
O’Connell spends her time outside the classroom driving around Philadelphia, cataloging certain spiritual murals through photographs, and interviewing the muralists and community members in the hopes of getting a sense of their underlying spiritual ideas and how those concepts became the subjects of the murals.
“People are trying to make sense of their own experiences — violence, HIV/AIDS, immigration, overcoming concentrated poverty — through these murals,” she said. “And while they and are not explicitly about God, they do visually point to what it means to live in a community, what justice requires beyond material needs, and just how limited our notion of the common good really is in urban settings. They prophetically proclaim these ideas and wrestle with these questions. … They are calling others to acknowledge the wrong assumptions we have about the African American church and the community and trying to survive in concentrated poverty.”
Her emphasis is on investigating the mural process and the work that is done in building relationships, which is where she said the spiritual moments generally arise.
“I am looking at the murals through a theological lens and lifting up the theological significance of the art,” she said. “And it’s fantastic. I can’t believe how much fun I’m having.”
She hopes her work engenders a level awareness about the influence of spirituality both in the artist involved in creating the murals and those who view them. “The community might be selecting images without an eye to faith,” she said. “I hope to help them be aware of how spirituality and faith are working with the art in a significant way.”
Very few of the murals have been defaced since the program began, and O’Connell believes that is a recognition on the part of the community that the murals represent a true emotion. “When we recognize an authentic expression of faith,” she said, “there’s respect for that.”
The Mural Arts Project has asked O’Connell to consult on an appropriate image for an anti-religious-hate mural to be created with school children of different faith traditions. It’s in keeping with her focus on urban injustices. “There’s a thirst people have to want to address social injustices,” she said. “One authentic way is to build relationships with people.”
Whether she is building relationships through her participation in Fordham’s Global Outreach program or through the mural program, O’Connell is never far from the nexus of faith and public life — and seeking ways to draw the two together.