A Sanctuary for Artists and Activists

April 25, 2019
Rev. Erik Martinez Resly, MDiv '12
Rev. Erik Martinez Resly, MDiv '12

Some people think that politics and art don’t mix. Impose a political message, they say, and art becomes contrived and manipulative. Bring too much art to politics and it becomes unserious and impractical.

Rev. Erik Martinez Resly, MDiv ’12, is not one of those people.

“Art is an expression of life—and life is inherently political,” he says. “I may choose to not speak directly to my religious identity in my art, for example, precisely because I have no other space where I’m afforded that privilege. That decision is itself political.”

Not only is art inherently political, according to Martinez Resly, but it also serves as a powerful political tool. That’s why, as founder and now co-director of The Sanctuaries, an interfaith arts community in Washington, D.C., the Unitarian Universalist minister helps people of many different religions—and no religion at all—experience art as a spiritual practice and put their creative imaginations to work for social justice. For this spiritually innovative project, the HDS Alumni/Alumnae Council will recognize Martinez Resly on Thursday, May 2 as a 2019 Peter J. Gomes STB '68 Memorial Honoree.

“Spiritual innovation is as much about the process as it is about the product,” he says. “It's being with the questions long enough to notice and embrace the answers when they manifest. HDS taught me how to think in this way. The Sanctuaries has challenged me to live in this way."

Personal Empowerment in Service to a Higher Cause
At The Sanctuaries, Martinez Resly not only brings people together from different traditions, but also connects the devout with the “nones,” the burgeoning group of Americans who identify with no organized religion. The common thread is the process of creating art.

“For the people in our community—particularly folks who didn’t grow up with any specific tradition—making art is an incredibly meaningful, often transformational, and even transcendent practice,” he explains. “It surfaces what [HDS Professor] Cornel West calls the ‘raw, funky, stanky stuff of life,’ and the sacred so often dwells in those depths.”

Rev. Erik and artists at The Sanctuaries help residents screenprint wearable protest art
Rev. Erik Martinez Resly and artists at The Sanctuaries help residents screenprint wearable protest art.

Martinez Resly’s organization puts the power of this experience into practice by helping to create more vibrant, diverse communities. When the local United Methodist Church found that their congregation was becoming more multicultural, for instance, they partnered with a couple of teaching artists at The Sanctuaries to do arts-based community organizing within their own church.

“Since their founding in 1814, they had never had a non-white, non-blue-eyed Jesus in their sanctuary,” Martinez Resly says. “Our artists worked with them to connect Christian stories with multicultural imagery that was sourced from the different life experiences present in the congregation itself. They then collaboratively painted four 12-foot tapestries that now hang in the church as a reminder not only of how the community is changing, but also of the importance of having an open and honest conversation about what those changes mean. Through making art, we made these hard questions discussable.”

In the face of rising Islamophobia, The Sanctuaries also teamed up with the grassroots Justice for Muslims Collective (JMC) to combat hate and fear in the nation’s capital.

“There is very little comprehensive political education around the ‘war on terror,’ its rhetoric, and its relationship to the way we’re witnessing Islamophobia play out,” he says. “Our artists are collaborating with JMC to create a visual timeline of the war on terror to use as a political education tool. They think creatively about how to use visuals to teach across cultural, religious, and theological boundaries.”

Arts-based community organizing is central to The Sanctuaries’ mission. So, when there was pressure to tear down the Barry Farms housing project in Washington’s Anacostia neighborhood, the group worked with organizers at Empower DC to fight the move. In response to the complaints of residents who said that they felt shut out of the conversation about the future of their community, a singer and a spoken word artist from The Sanctuaries created a poetic history of Barry Farms. Residents were so touched that they urged the composers to record the work. The Sanctuaries then partnered with local radio stations to get the music on air and to offer any proceeds from the sales of the recording to Empower DC.

“I’m not interested in giving people a voice,” Martinez Resly says. “I’m interested in amplifying the voice that people already have. That’s why our artists started by listening to the residents and then used the arts to get the rest of the city to listen to them too.”

To Create a Life of Art and Embrace the Art of Life
Only five years old, The Sanctuaries is still evolving—as is the city where it is rooted. Martinez Resly acknowledges the value of enabling people to connect with their own creativity and with each other at one-off events, but says he wants to deepen rather than broaden his group’s work.

“It takes deep discipline, deep commitment, and deep and lasting mutual support to activate artists to both create a life of art and embrace the art of life,” he says. “The civil rights movement is a powerful example of this. Activists trained for months, even years. We need to invest in those who are most invested in this work.”

Fellows in the "Art for Social Impact" training program at The Sanctuaries
Fellows in the "Art for Social Impact" training program at The Sanctuaries

The vision for the future, Martinez Resly says, is to grow the base of spiritually grounded, strategically trained artist/leaders who work with communities “to build power, to shift culture, and to heal spirits using the tools of their artistic and spiritual lives.” The challenge, as always, is sustainability. Washington is an expensive base of operations with a transient population. Gentrification increasingly displaces the very communities in which artists at The Sanctuaries live and work. Martinez Resly is hopeful that the institution he’s helped build can play a part in shifting the balance of power back to these communities.

“There is a soulfulness that people experience and embody in our community that is magnetic,” he says. “It’s one of the reasons that we’ve been able to grow so quickly and bring such different groups of people together. Giving people an opportunity to discover that sanctuary within themselves, within one another, and to live that out in their work for justice and healing—I think that can have a tremendous impact.”

—Paul Massari