“Dance with the Saints” Friday Night

There’s a dance party happening in the undercroft of New Haven’s St. Paul and St. James Church: American Revolutionary David Wooster raises the roof with Joan of Arc; J.S. Bach leaps between Harriet Tubman and Black Panther Warren Kimbo; Moses’ sister Miriam twirls her purple skirt behind the wall outlet that keeps the coffee pot hot for “Loaves and Fishes” food-pantry guests.  The Wooster-Square Episcopal parish known as St. PJs celebrates its new mural, “Dance with the Saints,” Friday night, with Theodicy, the music collective that offers a jazz Eucharist every Sunday, and the Capoiera and Flamenco dancers who practice in the church basement.      


Last month, I went to visit the mural-in-progress, on the tail end of a narcotics anonymous (NA) meeting. As people were saying “see you next week,” one man named C. hovered around the artist who was outlining bodies on the 50-foot wall around us. “What’s the concept?” he asked.                      

Julie Dickerson, a recent Princeton grad who got a fellowship to paint murals in homeless shelters and community centers, spent two weeks last month painting figures on the 50-foot wall of St. PJ’s undercroft. She explained the project to C.: to paint dancing saints (not necessarily traditional Christian saints), community leaders and heroes, who represent the different people who use the space. They can see themselves, reflected in the dance mirrors, as part of the mural. She pointed out a body suspended mid-kick, her outline for the founder of Capoiera, Brazilian martial artist Mestre Bimba.                                                    

“Are you good at portraits?” C. asked.                                                                             

“Not amazing,” Julie told him. “But you should be able to recognize the face, when I do Martin Luther King.”          

“That’ll be the distinction,” he said: the faces.        

In the completed mural, MLK looks like he’s about to deliver an “I Have a Dream” speech. Miriam has strikingly high cheek bones. Charlie Mingus is sporting a goatee, the smoke from his cigarette rising to the arc of his halo. Joseph Cinque, the West-African who led a slave mutiny on the Amistad ship, rubs elbows with white abolitionist William Wilberforce.                              

Julie invites C. to fill in one of the saint figure’s robes, in an orange-brown base color she’s mixed. As he’s making crescent-shaped strokes on the wall, he tells us he’s an artist, mostly a poet. I tell him I write poetry, too. He invites me to the monthly spoken-word poetry slam at the New Haven People’s Center. (I go and find a familiar face, a man  who always introduces himself as Rick B., Rick B., the poet; who carries a briefcase full of his poems, a walkman, and thank-you notes from Sisters of Mercy for his contributions.)                                                                                                 

The fresh mural is already serving its purpose: to bring people from different walks of life together. Already, a Princeton art major, a New Haven resident in NA, and a Yale Divinity student have found common ground on a church-basement dance floor.

The Saturday after my first sight of the mural, I volunteered at Loaves and Fishes Food Pantry. I greeted all manner of people—a Jehova’s Witness, a biker, a young woman who’d been assigned community-service hours—at the door. Coats were hung on the hooks above the saints’ haloed heads. Donated clothes were laid out in front of an angel touching an abolitionist’s shoulder.

St. PJs serves diverse communities: the Latino, Caucasian, and African-American guests of the emergency food pantry; the dance troupes, NA and AA groups that use the church undercroft throughout the week; the church goers who come for jazz Eucharist. The Reverend Alex Dyer hopes the mural will bring more St. PJ’s parishioners down from the sanctuary, into the undercroft. I hope Friday night’s “Dance With the Saints” party will testify to that Capoiera-kicking kind of vision.

Ashley Makar works with refugees in Connecticut. She does community outreach for IRIS--Integrated Refugee & Immigrant Services, in New Haven. She has an e-book of essays, You Were Strangers: Dispatches from Exile. Ashley has published essays in Tablet, The Birmingham News, The Struggle Continues (the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute weblog), Religion Dispatches, and The New Haven Register.