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Glimpsing God on George Street: beauty from a city we haven’t yet visited

Thursday, 16 January 2020  | Jo Kadlecek




I start my morning commute with a sleepy bus ride to Bridge Street in Sydney, then a walk up George Street past Martin Place. Each morning I notice a new construction shape for the light rail as dozens of other commuters hurry by, dressed in track suits and boots, suits and heels, speaking languages — if they’re speaking at all — I sometimes can’t recognise. Some emerge slowly from a blanket on a corner; others stare at their phones, astutely navigating the human traffic as part of their routine, coffee in the other hand. A few smile to no one in particular as if the ear-pods they’re wearing just explained a joke the rest of us will never be privy to.

It might sound odd, but by the time I reach my office near Town Hall, I feel ready. Encountering the diversity of faces, strolling past the colours and patterns of clothing and ‘classes’, and imagining the countless stories behind each offers morsels of perspective that I, now awake, didn’t know I was hungry for. Each points to a grander narrative, as Dorothy L. Sayers calls it, one of which every human, made in God’s image, is part, whether she knows or believes such theology or not. It is the wonder of Glory revealed in a thousand different paces, steps God Incarnate takes alongside all of us, inviting us to marvel at the artistry and earthiness of the Creator on George Street, or any city street for that matter.

Such ‘people-watching while walking’ is grounds, I’d submit, for better understanding Christ-centred worship, suffering and devotion. Certainly, there are those who would rightly argue that a beach or waterfall or starry night inspire contemplative awe of God’s glory, the very stuff of worship. His glory after all is often defined as that which displays his beauty and worth, his brilliance and radiance, sights (or sounds) even the hardest soul can’t help but respond to in awe. Others might say that no, suffering is the stuff of spiritual formation and worship, that from hardship emerges a newer perspective of life, sacrifice and God’s presence. And though each is certainly true — that the natural beauty of all creation does indeed beckon a sense of a ‘grander narrative’ just as fiery furnaces shape our souls — cities are equally ripe for encountering both, revealing to us the majesty and character of God in the faces and bodies around us.

In an understated exhibit this past June (2019), for instance, I saw somehow familiar black and white images hung on the walls of the Museum of Sydney. ‘Street Photography’, a stunning exhibit from Anne Zahalka, one of Australia’s most respected photo-media artists, drew from photographs from the 1930s-1950s captured from commercial street photographers ‘snapping everyday people on George Street’, as the museum described it. These ‘everyday people’ — like the ones on my commute — were on their way anywhere in Sydney: leaving perhaps a bad situation, hurrying to a job, reuniting with an old friend at Martin Place.

Long before the days when iPhones captured every modern moment, ‘Snappers’ earned their rent photographing people in such spontaneous moments. Often they would jump in front of a pair, ‘snap’ their shot, hand the innocent subjects a business card and, if the pair wanted, they could buy the glossy memory later that day at one of dozens of development kiosks that had popped up around the city. Many did, though some chose not to for fear of compromising evidence.

Most of the exhibit came from family scrapbooks or safely guarded envelopes of photos, responding to a public call from Zahalka for such pictures. The candid portraits themselves offered the public ‘a vital record of daily life mapped against the urban space of our city’, Zahalka said:

They embody its citizens’ movements and social behaviour through their gait, their clothing and the accoutrements they carry. While the images themselves are not “artful”, they document the appearance and mannerisms of the people collectively. They illustrate an exchange (in most instances) between the photographer and the photographed, strangers to each other yet joined in this captured moment.

I believe they also documented the Creator’s work. Since some of the Sydney backdrops were the same as my daily commute, these captured moments somehow joined me ‘to those same strangers’ and stirred a new sense of wonder at God’s urban beauty. As I studied each stare and story — and so many fantastic hats! — I felt a joyful connection with, and surprising lessons from, the heavenly city to come. Perhaps because there was God-like justice and mercy in the portraits; the lens did not discriminate yet each face was equally valued, cared for, their stories of the singular moment esteemed. To be honest, I didn’t want the exhibit to end, much like a moving Sunday morning church service or a delicious dinner with close friends.

Still, the more I considered the collection of portraits, the more I realised that it wasn’t the works themselves that captured me; it was the hand behind them, as it has been each morning I walk through Sydney — or any city where I’ve lived before. C.S. Lewis explained it this way in The Weight of Glory:

The books or the music [or the photo exhibit] in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was a longing. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.

Lewis suggested each work of art that stirs beauty and invites response is Kingdom-made, a heavenly shadow, if you will, that intersects both the now and not yet making of Glory. And nonetheless, we know how that which is to come does so only through creative suffering — the wilderness leads to the promised land, the cross precedes the empty tomb.

Perhaps because of the congestion and demographics, such tensions are amplified in urban settings, where poverty exposes greed, immigrants embody displacement, addicts cry for community. The raw confrontation of each is itself an act of a merciful Maker, reminders and opportunities of grace for Christ-followers to take up his call to compassion, to suffer with those made in His image yet wounded by the world’s brokenness.

It was from similar tensions that Zahalka’s collective was first inspired. She’d been working on a photo album for her mother when she discovered what turned out to be the last photograph of her grandmother before she was murdered in the Holocaust. Zahalka then found a portrait of her mother as a young woman with a friend on the streets of Prague in 1947, taken by a ‘street photographer’ and representing, as she said, ‘an ordinary moment, filled with a sense of freedom after having survived the war’. Their freedom, though, was quickly stolen when Communists invaded Czechoslovakia, displacing her mother and sending her as a refugee to Australia in 1950.

That shared history led the artist to conclude that street photographers around the world, including Sydney, had provided both a gift and a record of each city’s people, all with their own unique history of suffering and hope. I translate that conclusion this way: the now of the moment (captured on film) confronted the not yet (hope in their faces) through a suffering both creative and redemptive, seen again in the hard beauty of urban landscapes across the globe.

Like Harlem, New York. When African American evangelical Dr John Perkins preached in the 1980s and 1990s that: ‘Jesus did not commute from heaven’, he called many Christians to relocate to urban settings. It was for me the echo of a tune I had not heard. It resonated. I took my suburban middle-class white girl-ness to live intentionally in diverse multi-cultural/economic neighbourhoods, often experiencing life as a ‘minority’ and learning from low-income neighbours far more about gospel generosity than I ever offered.

Harlem became home. Its literature and legends, stories and sorrow, music and magic apparent at each brownstone building. For from the suffering of a people long denied their humanity and stripped of their dignity emerged nonetheless one of the greatest artistic movements the U.S. has ever known: The Harlem Renaissance. The spirituals, work songs and fiery sermons of a culture clinging to the hope of the ‘other side’ — the news from a country not yet visited — prepared the way for a period that captivated the country and changed the course of aesthetic history, all in a mere five-mile radius just north of Central Park.

Jazz was born. From the 1920s onward, Harlem became the centre of creativity and exuberance for African American writers, painters, musicians, actors and poets, artists who framed their collective pain in new expressions, new beauty, new freedom.

Each time I walked out of my brownstone, I heard the echoes of a long overdue vitality. The steps to my apartment — the ‘stoops’ — once sang the clatter of polished Sunday shoes, tapping up and down in unharnessed excitement, springing out into a new world of pride, rhythms and camaraderie. A chorus of brown lives rode the wave of this new movement, one full of transcendent purpose, creative anxiety and astounding buoyancy. A block away from my building on Malcolm X Boulevard, I could almost hear the saxophones that heralded the coming battle for aesthetic justice, and the voices of wordsmiths exploring faith and culture, identity and race with abandon never before allowed or seen, let alone applauded as they were in the 1920s.

Neighbours would tell me where blues singer Billie Holiday lived, pointing out that she’d lived ‘just next door to bandleader Duke Ellington’. Seven blocks away the novelist Zora Neale Hurston once wandered the streets driven by her relentless thirst for story and, a few corners from her, poet/essayist/dramatist Langston Hughes shaped some of Harlem’s most daring sentences. I learned, in fact, that when Hughes returned from a European trip as the Renaissance was beginning to stir, he wrote:

Strange,

That in this nigger place

I should meet life face to face;

When, for years, I had been seeking

Life in places gentler-speaking,

Until I came to this vile street

And found Life stepping on my feet!

(Arnold Rampersad, The Life of Langston Hughes: Volume I: 1902-1941, I, too, Sing America)

Yes, Life was busy and full, hard and beautiful in Harlem, then as it is now. As it is in urban centres everywhere. And from the convergence of so many gifts, ethnicities and risks come glimpses of the extraordinary, the daily pressure of which forms constant reminders of God’s grace in humanity.

I’ve come to understand that Harlem, the Snappers and even (or especially) daily commutes along George Street are tools of mercy, helping us learn to see, honing our skills of observation, teaching us to pay attention and discover the beauty of God in the cities of man. These urban walks are apprenticeship classes for the city to come, where the nations will gather in praise of the One who makes all things new (Revelation 21).
And where the real scent of a flower will be revealed, the tunes familiar and the news ‘from a country we had never visited’ will always be good because it will always be home.


Jo Kadlecek
is the creative director at Anglican Deaconess Ministries in Sydney, and the author of several articles, plays and books including her recent memoir (in print and audio) Woman Overboard: How Passion Saved My Life (Upper Room Publishing, 2009).


This article first appeared in Urban Spirituality: Zadok Perspectives 145 (Summer 2019), 11-12. You can subscribe to Zadok here.


Comments

Ken Rolph
January 17, 2020, 3:48PM
My wife has three photos from the early 1950s of herself and her parents. These were taken by street photographers. Some years ago we had them framed and they hang in her study.

During the 60s and 70s we spent a lot of time talking about being stardust and needing to 'get back to the garden'. It was only towards the end that I realised that the Bible begins in a garden but ends in a city. That was inspired by reading The Meaning of the City by Jacques Ellul. You would enjoy this if you get a chance to read it, especially the very last sentence.

It is perhaps difficult for Australians to get onto this because of our particular historical circumstance. After studying settlement geography I came to the realisation that Australia is the most urban nation on earth, yet it contains no cities.

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