This summer while leading Just5Days (a middle school summer mission experience), I was taken aback by the reaction of middle school youth to a small, simple thing. Of course, the youth loved providing service out in the community, participating in our community prayers, and all the games and activities we did. But, something else surprisingly captured their attention. As an artist myself, I understand the desire for creative outlets but the young people I worked with this summer showed me how they really hungered for opportunities to be creative. As project coordinator for Just5Days, I write the program manual and this summer I added a simple craft project to support our daily theme of being the eyes of Jesus. This summer we were exploring 1 Corinthians and St Paul's teaching on being the Body of Christ in the world today. During the evening programming, participants were given multiple colors of yarn and popsicle sticks and invited to weave a popular craft called God's eyes. Again, it was a simple project that I assumed many had already learned in elementary school or during a summer camp.
I was completely surprised to find that what I presumed to be true was not because many of the young people had never made this craft before. Even more unexpected was their enthusiasm for making a perhaps "slightly dated" 1970's craft. I barely had the yarn and popsicle sticks passed out before they were all huddled around in small groups deciding which colors to use. It was quite heart-warming to watch them spread out all over the floor with their friends, chatting, and eagerly making their creations. I even saw some going over to help others if they were having difficulty weaving or tying the knots. I was further amazed to watch many of the adult participants carefully choose their yarn colors and begin their own God's eyes. One adult gleefully exclaimed "I haven't made one of these since I was a kid!" It was fun to watch them "show-off their creations and complement one another on their designs.
Again, it wasn't surprising that they would enjoy making the art project. What was unexpected was how much they seemed to "need" to make art. I had one young boy who must have asked me at least three different times during the week for more yarn to make more God's eyes. Each day during free time, I had youth come and ask me for more yarn. There seemed to be something soothing, even comforting to the youth about just sitting and weaving the different colors together. In this simple art project, even if just for a small moment in time, they were experiencing "play." They were humans "being" instead of humans "doing." Art had freed them from the distractions of technology and the demands and pressures of everyday.
Despite research studies that show the benefits of art education, time spent on art can be viewed as time better spent on something "more useful". It helps to remind ourselves how art is important and contributes to our faith growth. From its very beginning, the Catholic Church has used art to teach and inspire faith. Skim through any art history book and you will find countless examples of religious art. The Vatican itself houses one of the world's most impressive art collections. Many of our parish communities commission artists to create beautiful works of art to inspire us. Art and human creativity come from God and therefore, is a means to a deeper understanding of God. As an artist himself, Pope John Paul II wrote in his 1999 Letter to Artists, "Beauty is a key to the mystery and a call to transcendence. It is an invitation to savor life and to dream of the future. That is why the beauty of created things can never fully satisfy. It stirs that hidden nostalgia for God…"
When youth draw, paint, sculpt, or even play with yarn, they are not only creating something, but they're also given the freedom to express themselves. Art gives youth a voice and it is extremely crucial during adolescence as it is a time when they are learning more about self-awareness, faith, and their identity in the world. At a time when statistics of young people struggling with anxiety and depression are growing, creative self-expression matters even more. In youth ministry, we have a unique opportunity to create sacred spaces and time for art and God-given creativity to emerge. So, this year, as your planning retreats, missions, weekly youth nights, and other gatherings for youth, consider including ways to nurture their originality by intentionally providing opportunities for them to develop their creativity. Encourage youth to pray, express social concerns, explore the sacred Scriptures, and deepen their relationship with Jesus through art. I hope you are amazed and inspired to discover how art speaks to the soul of youth.