Through an ongoing art exhibit, a Duke Divinity School group seeks to show that members of the LGBTQ community have always been an important part of the church.
Sacred Worth, a student group that strives to create a safe environment for LGBTQ students in the church, has put together an exhibit at the Divinity School student lounge to inform the Duke community about the LGBTQ saints—a broad term they use to describe LGBTQ Christians who embody faithfulness. The exhibit—named “Cloud of Witnesses: Remembering the LGBTQ Saints”—is co-sponsored by Sacred Worth and New Creation Arts, a student organization aiming to foster creative, theological and liturgical engagement with the arts at Duke Divinity and beyond.
“We hope to present 'sacred memory,' the idea that we can remember people’s stories sacredly, some of the stories that were forgotten. We want to see the opening up of these sacred memories,” said Lynda Berg, a co-leader of Sacred Worth and third-year student at the Divinity School.
The exhibit also seeks to challenge Divinity School students in terms of their perception and understanding of the LGBTQ community.
“It can be really easy to go to our classes and churches without thinking about the struggles the LGBTQ community went through,” said Sarah Wilcox, the student coordinator of New Creation Arts and a third-year graduate student at the Divinity School.
The exhibit was structured to imitate communion liturgy, a form of public worship. The sections correspond to different parts of the service, such as the call to service, confession and repentance, great thanksgiving and benediction, Berg said.
The confession and repentance section includes depictions of David Kato, a Ugandan gay rights activist who was bludgeoned to death because of his sexuality.
“In space like that we hope to draw people into a state of lament and confession,” said Maryanne Henderson, a member of Sacred Worth and graduate student at the Divinity School.
The exhibit also features a book of prayers and confessions, which allows people to list members of the LGBTQ community they know or to write down prayers for themselves and for the church. Names in the book—often those of LGBTQ people who have been murdered or committed suicide because of their sexual orientation—go back as far as 1870, said Justin Davis, a co-leader of Sacred Worth and first-year graduate student.
“The book is a way of honoring these names and recognizing that for every name in there, there are many names we don’t know," Davis said. "We hope to reflect upon that and expect change.”
The opening day reception held Tuesday featured Rev. Katie Ricks of the Church of Reconciliation in Chapel Hill, the first lesbian woman to be ordained as a Presbyterian minister after a change of bylaws in 2012.
“In the church, there are so many different fractions," Ricks said in an interview. "But the language of the liturgy is common language to everybody. We can’t really come together around the issue of LGBT community, but we can come together around worship and faith.”
More people attended this reception than any other New Creation Arts event, Wilcox said. The audience of the exhibit mainly consisted of Divinity School students and faculty.
“People were passing through and really taking the time to spend with each image," Wilcox said.
The exhibit will last till the end of the semester, held at a prominent spot in the Divinity School.
“Students are gonna have to pass by the exhibit, so it continues to call to them and they have to engage it, even though it makes them uncomfortable somewhat,” Berg said. “Maybe just thinking about ‘why am I uncomfortable with it,’ ‘what is it that these saints represent’ and ‘how are they a part of my own tradition that I haven’t thought about?’”
Davis added that it is encouraging for students to have a space that articulates issues and history that are not often discussed.
“A lot of these figures aren’t particularly famous in Christian history or even in modern history," he said. "It’s just a great way to show people that LGBTQ people have always been a part of the church."