Betty Ann lived across the alley from us when I was a kid. I always thought she was cool and a little eccentric being older than my parents yet driving a Mustang. (Of course any car-buff kid would think adults driving that car would be inherently cool!) She was thin, average height, and had short dark hair. She chewed nicotine gum like her life depended on it – I suppose it did given the alternative. Her daughter lived around the corner and down the block a bit so Betty Ann often walked by our house and stopped to chat. Sometimes I don’t think she ever made it to her destination. In the fall she would make candied apples for the neighborhood kids. In my mind’s eye I can still see the bright red color and taste the hard, cinnamon candy coating. They were beautiful and luscious.
My parents were a bit “renaissance” with my brother and me. We played sports – as typical boys – but also had to participate in the arts. (Please don’t ask about the tap show I was in…the only boy…dressed up as a black and white dog.) Betty Ann was a bit of a painter. I don’t know how it came to pass, but one summer my brother and I spent one evening each week painting with Betty Ann. She taught us how to mix colors, draw, conceptualize a scene, and express it through the end of a brush. I don’t even know what all we painted except for the pheasant on glass – done in reverse so the image appeared behind the glass and not on top of it. That was difficult!! Those pheasants on glass rested on a shelf in my grandparent’s house for years.
Who knows if my brother and I actually enjoyed that time with each other and with Betty Ann. My memory of it is that I did and, to some extent, those skills stuck with me for a long time. While a student at Eden Theological Seminary, I took a course on educating for spiritual formation. The course required that we adopt a spiritual discipline to keep throughout the semester, then write about it. I decided to get back into painting. I painted, and painted, and painted that semester. Turning out one not-so-great piece of art after another. I didn’t matter though. I recalled fondly those summer evenings spent with my brother and Betty Ann painting in her back yard. I used the time for introspection and connecting with the Divine. Painting became a mode of self-expression and a visual representation of my own spiritual struggles and triumphs. It was much more than slapping paint on a canvas – it was a vehicle for telling my own story.
I love the arts. I have coaxed my partner into some of the world’s best art museums, through amazing centuries-old churches, into parks and public spaces to see the rare and unusual pieces of art. We rummage through antique stores and estate sales in search of art that speaks to us. We have attended concerts of all kinds in the US and abroad. As I write this I am about to head out to perform with a community concert band. I took my mother to see my favorite works of art in Paris. Art is good for us on many levels and we too often underfund it or outright ignore it.
I also care deeply about people and have great concern about the lasting effects of poverty on children. Poverty and inequality correlate strongly with negative educational outcomes. A substantial achievement gap exists between poor students and economically advantaged students, particularly those who experience persistent poverty. Child poverty has been associated with low academic achievement, poor health outcomes, delinquency, difficulty with emotional regulation, and high rates of unemployment as adults. Experiencing poverty in the early developmental years increases the likelihood of school drop-out later in life which is attributed to cumulative physical and psychosocial risk factors and socioeconomic disadvantages. High levels of poverty-related stress negatively impacts brain development, resulting in a weak foundation for future educational achievement, economic productivity, and overall health. Early adolescents are most significantly impacted by family socioeconomic status and neighborhood factors, and an increased risk of not only low educational attainment, but also behavioral issues.
This doesn’t have to be the sentence for children living in poverty. Arts-based interventions using performing arts, visual arts, and music have been shown to lessen the lasting effects of poverty on children. Neurological growth, particularly important for adolescents, can be stimulated through enrichment activities such as those found in arts exposure. Art therapy has been shown to shape brain topography and improve outcomes among trauma survivors and art exposure can improve self-efficacy in youth. Music interventions have promoted healing in neurologic conditions and developmental disorders. Simply stated – arts in the broadest sense stimulate the brain and shape neurological development of adolescents in important ways. It is not just putting paint on canvas, playing notes, or dancing across a stage; it is about crafting a future for vulnerable children.
School is almost out for elementary and secondary children across the U.S. If your congregation is wondering what to do for children in your community, consider engaging them in the arts. It can be very simple and utilize artists in the community and congregation. They can sing, dance, write, tell stories, paint, make paper. But most of all they can dream and use their minds in creative ways that go beyond keeping them occupied for a week or two. Research shows such arts engagement has lasting effects. It doesn’t have to cost a lot or be complicated to be effective. Doing so promotes neurological growth and creates stories youth might tell for a lifetime. No one ever imagined that nearly 40 years later I would still think about being in Betty Ann’s backyard painting pheasants on glass with my brother. Who knows what stories the children you reach will tell in 40 years about the gift you gave to them. We do know, however, they will be all the better because of your efforts.