Urban life

Lent and Easter, in blood, sweat and ink

The graphic tattoos that cover the bodies of millions of Russian prisoners symbolize their sins and crimes, their pain and suffering. Some of the tattoos are beautiful and hint at redemption. Others are disgusting, especially those etched involuntarily into the faces of victims by other prisoners as punishment for especially shameful crimes behind bars or on the outside.

Put all of these images together, said artist Scott Erickson, and they tell the stories of broken people. That's the big idea that gripped him as he studied tattoo culture while creating a set of "Stations of the Cross" images for a Lenten art exhibit at Ecclesia Church in hip, edgy Montrose neighborhood near downtown Houston.

For many young Americans, it's impossible to talk about their tattoos without needing to candidly describe the peaks and valleys of their own lives. The tattoos are like emotional maps that are hard to hide.

"We have lots of people who have tattoos. Some members of our church have criminal records. Some have been shamed and abused. Some have struggled with drugs," explained Erickson, who serves as "artist in residence" at Ecclesia.

"A lot of these people thought that needed to cover up their tattoos when they started coming to church. They weren't sure that they wanted to share those parts of their lives with others. ... What we're trying to do is tell them that their tattoos are part of who they are and now we want to talk about who they are becoming."

Thus, the leaders of Ecclesia Church -- created in 1999 by a coalition of Southern Baptists, Presbyterians and others -- have raised eyebrows and inspired headlines by embracing tattoos as the artistic medium for their eighth annual art exhibit during the 40-day season that leads to Easter. The title is "Cruciformity: Stations of the Cross on Skin."

The plan, explained the Rev. Chris Seay, was for 10 members to have Erickson's images permanently tattooed onto their bodies shortly before Ash Wednesday. These volunteers would stand in the church's gallery on the first night of Lent, surrounded by photos of their tattoos -- photos that would then remain on display throughout the season.

Instead, at least 60 members of the church have visited one of the dozen or so nearby tattoo studios to mix blood, sweat and ink and another dozen have scheduled appointments. Seay said as many as 150 may end up taking part, out of a flock averaging about 1,500 worshippers in five weekend services.

"I have spent way more time than I ever expected trying to talk some people out of doing this," he said. "People need to give this decision some serious thought. ... It's also good to seek the permission of your spouse."

The pastor decided to cover his right upper arm with an image of a tree growing out of an empty coffin -- Erickson's symbol for Jesus rising from the dead. Seay had a tattoo artist inscribe a tribute on the trunk in honor of his grandfather, a prominent Southern Baptist pastor who died this past year.

"I was a bit worried at first," he said, "but my grandmother said she thought it was beautiful."

One church member, who works with cancer patients, had the "Jesus is Laid in the Tomb" image -- a rose in a coffin -- tattooed on one foot and plans to add the resurrection image on her other foot. One mother selected the "Jesus Meets His Mother" image, which is a rose surrounded by symbols of suffering. Another member, with his wife's blessing, plans to have all 10 images tattooed onto his body.

The project has already created buzz in the tattooing community, said Erickson.

But the key is not that some members of this church decided get tattoos. The key is that more than half of its members already had tattoos -- like 36 percent of Americans between 18 and 25, according to a Pew Forum study.

"Our invitation to do this was not for everybody," said Erickson. "We're not creating a tribe, here. You don't have to have a tattoo to come to this church. ... But we already have so many people here who do have tattoos and those images are part of their stories. We're telling them that it's good for them, that it's normal, to add Christian symbols into that mix. They get it."

A rabbi, a preacher and a journalist

Mitch Albom has seen plenty of extremely large men, which isn't surprising after a quarter century as one of America's top sports writers. But he wasn't ready for the giant who met him outside the Pilgrim Church's dilapidated Gothic sanctuary near downtown Detroit. The Rev. Henry Covington was as tall as a basketball player, but weighed 400 pounds or more.

"His body seemed to unroll in layers, a broad slab of a chest cascading into a huge belly that hung like a pillow over the belt of his pants. His arms spread the sleeves of his oversized white T-shirt. His forehead was sweating, and he breathed heavily, as if he had just climbed stairs," wrote Albom, in "Have a Little Faith," a slim book that represents his return to non-fiction 12 years after his inspirational bestseller "Tuesdays With Morrie."

Albom's first impression was crystal clear: "If this is a man of God ... I'm the man in the moon."

Covington certainly stood in stark contrast to the other clergyman whose image was fixed in the writer's mind at the time -- the late Albert Lewis, the articulate leader of the Jewish congregation in which Albom grew up, in Cherry Hill, N.J.

The elderly rabbi had shocked Albom by asking him to deliver his eulogy, when that became necessary. This led to eight years of talks between "the Reb" and the skeptical journalist, who had walked away from his Jewish faith after college. This process resembled those philosophical Tuesday dialogues between Albom and a favorite college professor, Morrie Schwartz, in the years before he died of Lou Gehrig's disease.

But Albom wasn't looking for another book during his weekday visit to Pilgrim's Church. He had -- while working to boost Detroit charities -- dropped by to learn more about the tiny Pentecostal flock's work with the homeless.

Albom expected to meet people there scarred by life on the street or behind bars, but didn't expect to find one in the pulpit.

In "Have a Little Faith," Albom describes a dramatic sermon in which Covington explored the twisted road that led to redemption: "Amazing grace. ... I coulda been dead. ... Shoulda been dead! … Woulda been dead! … His grace … saved a wretch. And I was a wretch. You know what a wretch is? I was a crackhead, an alcoholic, I was a heroin addict, a liar, a thief. I was all those things. But then came Jesus."

At first, "I wasn't sure that I trusted him," said Albom, in a quick telephone interview. "I thought, 'Isn't there supposed to be some minimal 'goodness' quotient in all of this? How can you have done all of that and now call yourself a man of God?' "

As Albom met members of Covington's church and heard their stories, bonds of trust developed, followed by friendship. Then some of the lessons he learned there began to overlap and interact with what he was learning in his pre-eulogy talks with Rabbi Lewis. There was an emphasis on respecting others, doing good works and helping needy and struggling seekers.

The writer rediscovered his own Jewish roots, but he also had to confront the blunt, powerful claims of Covington's preaching. The rabbi's approach was broad, universal and embraced all faiths. The preacher's faith reached out to others, but remained rooted in the claims of Christianity. He didn't force the needy to convert, but he witnessed to them and prayed for their conversion.

This led Albom back to some of the big questions that emerged from the dialogues with his rabbi: "How can different religions coexist? If one faith believes on thing, and another believes something else, how can they both be correct? And does one religion have the right -- or even the obligation -- to try to convert the other?"

At the end of the book, Albom concludes: "God sings, we hum along, and there are many melodies, but it's all one song." At the same time, he chooses to worship in his familiar Jewish congregation, as well as at Pilgrim's Church.

"What can I say? I like Henry's sermons and I like the people and I like the spirit in that church. It is what it is," said Albom.

"I've decided that I'm not wise enough to tell you that one faith is better than another. God will have to sort it all out. That's in God's hands."

College life (Christian) in the city

Any list of great cities in the ancient Mediterranean World would have to include Rome, Alexandria, Jerusalem, Antioch and Corinth, or some other crucial crossroads near what would become Constantinople.

Thus, these cities became the five patriarchal sees of Christianity in the first millennium.

"From day one, there was a commitment to the dominant cities and regions of that time," said J. Stanley Oakes, chancellor of The King's College in New York City. "That's where the early church flourished. That's where the early church did its work. ... People who care about nations and culture and economics have to care about what happens in great cities."

Yet any study of American Protestantism in the early 21st Century would focus on Colorado Springs, Colo., Grand Rapids, Mich., Wheaton, Ill., Orlando, Fla., and, perhaps, Dallas. It would not include New York, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Chicago, Boston, Houston, Washington, D.C., or the other great cities that shape this culture.

Oakes thinks that's tragic, which is why he has dedicated a decade -- backed by Campus Crusade For Christ's vast network -- to building an evangelical college in the Empire State Building. The leaders of The King's College are convinced that if their students can make it there, they can make it anywhere.

The college is based in a 45,000-square-foot "campus," with offices on the 15th floor and classrooms, a small library, a workout room, student lounge and other basic facilities on two floors underground. There are only 220 students, but administrators expect 130 freshmen next fall, said Dean of Students Eric Bennett.

This is not a normal Christian college setting and everyone knows it.

Quartets of students live in one-bedroom apartments in two high-rise buildings nearby on Sixth Avenue. Student life activities revolves around flexible activities in nine academic houses named after leaders selected by earlier students -- Elizabeth I, Sojourner Truth, Winston Churchill, C. S. Lewis, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, Clara Barton and Susan B. Anthony.

It's hard to explain a college's mission to outsiders who consider its core values a kind of heresy against the status quo. As a Village Voice profile put it: "King's students adjust well to the style and pace of midtown, though their relationship with the city is never quite clear: Are they here to contribute to New York? Or save it?"

A recent Washington Post style feature contrasted an after-hours student chat group about the writings of Protestant hero John Calvin with what it called a more typical Saturday-night student scene in mid-town Manhattan, which would offer "mind-altering substances, which segue to deafening music, which ultimately leads to nudity."

Continuing with its "Sex in the City" theme, the story added, "Dating is permitted," but that "there are no rules against sex, but it's quietly discouraged."

Actually, Bennett said students pledge to follow an honor code backed by a handbook full of traditional doctrine. The sexuality statement, for example, says the college "promotes a lifestyle ... that precludes premarital and extramarital intercourse, homosexual practice and other forms of sexual behavior incompatible with biblical admonitions."

But the city is what it is. Thus, these fresh-faced Christians from 37 states and 11 countries are going to run into some New Yorkers who want to hook up, sell drugs, flash tattoos or worse. Bennett said that no one flinches when students sit in bars all hours of the night, studying for tests. No one wants to build a cloister.

"We're not out to police our students," he said. "You could try to live in a bubble here, too. But that's not what we're trying to do. That's what we're fighting against."

It would be easy to say that The King's College is about evangelism, said Oakes. It would be easy to explain that it hopes to help churches serve the poor and engage in other social ministries. That work is essential, but the goal is to build a college, not a church. And the long-range plan is to live and grow in New York City, as strange as that may sound.

"We love it when people mock us," said Oakes. "But we honestly believe that, if we keep doing what we do here, in about two decades people are going to be saying, 'Even though we don't agree with them, those King's people are interesting.' We want to make it hard for people to avoid us."