Being Beautiful: On the outside looking in

The church was as majestic as I expected with massive, exquisite windows through which generations have looked in and looked out. Often in life, we are truly on the outside looking in, and that was my first experience with First Congregational Church of Memphis. Then I went inside.

The church is one of many old sacred spaces in the heart of the city. I was invited there to see the exhibit of a new friend, John Noltner, an author and photographer from Minnesota who is traveling the world telling stories. He uses the lens of his camera to capture the compelling narratives of others and follows up with their words to round out the stories. The name of the exhibit is “A Peace of My Mind: American Stories,” and as I move physically through the poetic journey inside the sanctuary of that holy place, emotions take over.

“I hear you. And I see you. Those are powerful statements, and they are the goals of the series, to acknowledge the presence, the worth, and the value of each person, to see the humanity that is all around us and to celebrate what is beautiful in each of us,” according to the artist and documentarian responsible for this project.

The face of an African-American child oppressed by poverty stares back at me, eyes hopeful for a better tomorrow. I round the corner to see photos and read stories of Holocaust survivors, war heroes, cancer fighters, all who have gone to battle in one form or another and overcome. My eyes tear up at the image of a mother who recants picking up the pieces of her life after bombs whirled through her village. Everywhere I turn, there are more faces bravely making public their very personal stories, and I imagine walking a day in their shoes.

Suddenly I am frozen in a powerful moment, standing still in real time, feeling so many of the same emotions of the father who forgave his child's murderer and the elderly woman who finally realizes she did not need to find her voice, but simply to use the one with which she was born. In that moment I come to understand that I am on the outside looking in.

Memphis Theological Seminary, a trailblazer in issues of social justice from its earliest days, sponsored John’s visit. According to Dr. Keith Gaskin, the Seminary’s Vice President for Advancement, “John’s important work reminded me at a time when I needed it that there truly is more that unites us than divides us, and that I need to help him get the message of his peacemakers in front of as many people as possible.”

Toward that end, here is John’s website where you can explore his work and find out how to bring it to your community: The exhibit challenged me to go deeper inside myself to ask questions about social change, faith, and peace, important questions we all need to explore personally and as a society.

Take a look. It will give you a new lens into our collective soul.

Contact David at [email protected].