Hosting Redemptive Possibilities through the Arts:
Olivet-Covenant Presbyterian Church
Rev. Greg Klimovitz
When you walk to the second-floor of Olivet-Covenant Presbyterian Church, the smell of primer and paint overwhelms the senses. This fragrance does not come from a fresh coat of color applied to aged church walls. Rather, the aroma is from endless strips of in-progress murals pieced together by resident artists who have repurposed the sacred space as their redemptive studio.
Since 2004, Olivet-Covenant Presbyterian Church has partnered with and hosted numerous local artists who have imagined and developed elaborate murals that now line the walls of Philadelphia schools, historic cells within the Eastern State Penitentiary, and the body of a SEPTA train that runs along the El. Located within walking distance of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Olivet-Covenant Presbyterian Church has learned that God’s mission for the church is not always birthed internally. Instead, the Spirit is just as apt to nurture innovative ministry and congregational identity out of the hearts and minds of neighbors beyond the confines of established church programs and related leadership.
According to Rev. Linda Jaymes, pastor of Olivet-Covenant since 1998, this is what has occurred through their tenants. “The artists created for us a reason for being beyond the traditional calling of a church,” Rev. Jaymes remarked. A small congregation with grand intentions, Olivet-Covenant has regularly wrestled with a sense of call in light of membership decline common to many city churches. While occasionally tempted to close, they have remained open to bold possibilities. As a result, God has moved from the outside in. “The people that already want to do [creative ministry] are coming to us,” Rev. Jaymes celebrated. “And all we need to say is, ‘o.k.’ and ‘here are the guidelines.’”
Ben Volta, one of the original local artists welcomed to reside at Olivet-Covenant in 2004, commented on the gracious partnership, “[The church has] given us so much it feels like [we] have the confidence and freedom to give to others… That process of the church giving- that is unbelievable.”
One of the ways artists like Ben Volta have been able “to give to others” has been through collaboration with the Philadelphia Mural Arts Program and the associated Restorative Justice Guild, which journeys alongside formerly incarcerated artists. With the full support of Rev. Jaymes and the Olivet-Covenant congregation, Volta was empowered to extend his own invitation to these artists as they form a transformative and redemptive community on the second floor of Olivet-Covenant. Volta said, “It’s very much like coming together as a church and then reaching out…Coming together, we grow; we share stories; we share our lives through the process of the work; the process of getting better and focusing on that goal and creating something and doing something. [The art] is not just for us; it’s really to share.”
Jesse Krimes, one of the guild artists who moved from participant to instructor, added as he applied a coat of paint to one of several mural sections, “Most of the people that are coming through the program are not going to become professional artists. But that’s not the main objective. The main objective is to provide a safe, communal space and give people employment and really connect them to a community of positive peers that otherwise you wouldn’t have access to.”
As this community of artists at Olivet-Covenant engages in the dynamic process of creating and sharing together, lives have been transformed. Volta highlighted, “It’s amazing to see them grow and develop and see the conversation change.”
Olivet-Covenant Presbyterian Church continues to contemplate what is ahead, assured by their pastor that God is very much alive in the here and now. “We’re in the redemption business,” Rev. Jaymes highlighted. “That’s the most powerful thing. We’re not just hosting some people so they can make art and sell it. We’re giving them a fresh chance at a new life or at least being part of it. … We have taught them what Christian generosity looks like, the love that is part of the bond of a relationship when a person is a Christian.” The artists have returned the favor and taught Olivet-Covenant much the same.
A self-proclaimed organizer of ecumenical ministry opportunities, Rev. Jaymes’ pastoral leadership has continually encouraged the Olivet-Covenant church to host ministries ranging from young-adult congregations to theatrical productions on Dietrich Bonhoeffer. However, the partnership with local artists is what most reflects the congregational commitment to innovation through intentional hospitality. They have demonstrated with love and grace the prophetic possibilities that can emerge when even the smallest among us trust the Spirit to piece together something bigger and brighter than anything we previously imagined.
We give thanks for the faithful fragrance of Olivet-Covenant Presbyterian Church and the colorful network of artists who have repurposed the upper rooms. May all of our churches continue to be open to the redemptive possibilities that God may not only emerge from within, but also birth from our neighbors beyond.