Lection Connection - Spirit Sightings

February 9, 2020: Shine

From Sandra Rooney

Newnan is a small southern town, not far from Atlanta, Georgia. Like many small towns across the country, it has undergone dramatic changes over the past couple of decades or more. Not only has the population of Newnan more than doubled, it has become increasingly diverse – the share of Hispanics has doubled, the small Asian population has grown more than fivefold, even as the black population has dropped from about 42 percent of the population to 28 percent.

During the Civil War, Newnan was a hospital town, treating soldiers on both sides. At one time, it was one of the wealthiest towns per capita in the United States, much of its prosperity due to the cotton industry. The town prided itself on its quiet charm. Those days are gone and many of the townspeople are anxious where the future is taking them.

Some in the community were eager to embrace the change, others were fearful about what the demographic changes would mean. Robert Hancock, a lawyer and real estate consultant – also president of Newnan’s Artist-in-Residence program – was one of those wanting to address the town’s change directly. He had met and admired the work of photographer Mary Beth Meehan when he attended an art conference in Providence, RI, back in 2015. He talked her about the town’s race and class tensions, about residents who grew up there and had watched the population explode and change. “We were in these little bubbles,” he said, expressing the hope that the project could pierce the bubbles.

Meehan first arrived in Newnan in 2016 as part of the Artist-in-Residence program. As a white liberal from the North who had not spent much time in the South, she was met with mixed reactions. But she spent more than two years visiting Newnan, getting to know the people and understand the community, before deciding they were ready to begin the conversation.

Hancock admits to wondering more than once if he had done the right thing. Would Meehan’s work celebrate Newnan’s growth and diversity, or reinforce its differences. “Seeing Newnan” features 17 large banner portraits hung all around downtown, images of ordinary people living in Newnan. The portraits include an African-American woman who worked for years at a sewing factory, a white worker who folded and packed blankets at a local mill, a Mexican waitress, and two sisters wearing hijabs. The sisters were born in Georgia and have lived in the community for 12 years, their father an engineer who moved to the U.S. from Pakistan.

On one of Meehan’s last trips to Newnan, the portrait of the two Muslim sisters was among those she showed Hancock. He admits he had a moment of pause, recognizing that picture, in particular, was likely to be controversial in their conservative culture, and it was. But the portraits were intended to be inclusive, to shatter preconceptions and force people to see the reality of their community. He made the decision that it should be included: “People needed to open their eyes and see what a beautiful, diverse place we live in,” he said.

The portraits, which will come down in June, have already prompted many personal stories to be shared, and some deep conversations between people who had never met before. The Rev. David Jones II, the pastor of Newnan Presbyterian Church, plans to use the art installation to organize a retreat about race, gender and identity this year. “We need to talk about who lives in our community and if they are different, why does that make us uncomfortable?”

Explore…Matthew 5:13–20

  • What does being “salt” or “light” mean to you?
  • Where do you see individuals or groups bringing light to dark places?
  • Where in your community is there a need for light?
  • How might you or your faith community bring light to that situation?

Prayer links…
May we be courageous enough to seek out the dark corners of life and bring light. May we remember also that when we bring light to another’s path, it lightens our path as well. Amen.

Learn more…
How 17 Outsize Portraits Rattled a Small Southern Town

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