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Sermon on a Wall
New Mural Makes New Life United Methodist 'A Safe Place'
By Jennifer Hambrick
September 2010 Issue

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Photo © Larry Hamill

Rev. Jennifer Casto commissioned Duarte Brown to paint this mural for her church.
A Safe Place
shows New Life’s social outreach ministries in action.

For the Rev. Jennifer Casto, the mission of the Short North’s New Life United Methodist Church is pretty clear.

“Our mission is to love, welcome and serve all people in the name of Jesus Christ,” Casto said. “We try to create a safe place for anybody and everybody who comes.”

Casto, who has served as New Life’s pastor since 1995, says the church’s free breakfast, clothing and health ministries serve thousands each month who are living in poverty and dealing with the challenges of homelessness and addiction. Casto’s aim is to offer not just services, but refuge and community to those who enter New Life’s doors praying, or even just hoping, to get a glimpse of what the church’s name promises.

So when renovations left a bare white wall in the Fifth Avenue church’s dining room, where visitors – whom Casto calls neighbors – eat breakfast three mornings each week, Casto wanted something to brighten the place up. She found mural painter Duarte Brown through the Columbus’ Transit Arts program and appointed him to paint a mural reflecting New Life’s mission and spirit. The result: A Safe Place, a mural that shows New Life’s social outreach ministries in action.

The church will unveil A Safe Place September 21 at 5 p.m. Music and light refreshments will be served, and Brown and Casto will talk about the mural and New Life’s ministries. And if a picture really does paint a thousand words, Brown’s mural is an epic narrative of faith, community and redemption in our midst.

A Sermon on a Wall
At the center of A Safe Place, a set of open gates to the Heavenly Kingdom reveal a golden-hued orb. Beneath the gates, the multitudes, airbrushed in pale yellow and outlined in wispy gray, flock toward the light. In the mural’s lower left corner, Jesus hovers over a banquet. People gather around long tables covered with bread and fish. Above the banquet scene, one person helps another put on a coat as Jesus looks on. The Columbus skyline connects this scene to the mural’s upper right corner, where a physician cares for a patient under Christ’s watchful eye.

Casto says finding Brown to paint the mural was nothing short of a godsend.

“Duarte is a strong Christian who has a love and passion for similar ministries and the neighbors we serve, and it became obvious that God had brought us together for this project,” Casto said.

Brown, 52, says his first visit to New Life gave him more than insights into New Life’s mission. He grew up fatherless, moving from New Jersey to Columbus as a 13-year-old to live with his brother, then a student at the Columbus College of Art and Design. Because he didn’t have an earthly father, Brown says his first day at New Life – a Sunday on which Casto served communion – gave him a new perspective on his Heavenly Father, a perspective Brown says he aimed to communicate in A Safe Place.

“It’s very traumatic and emotional to call someone Father when you never had an earthly father,” Brown said. “And so when Jennifer (Casto) gave communion, she said, ‘Duarte, this is the body of Christ broken for you,’ and she looked me in the eye, it was just so emotional. So it was a very emotional commitment here from the very beginning, and it was a chance for me just to lay my gift before the Lord in the mural.”

And, like Casto, Brown believes a higher power commissioned him to paint New Life’s new mural.

“To be honest, every time I came here to paint, from the very first time, I felt like this position was literally an assignment from God,” Brown said. “I felt like I was doing a sermon on a wall.”

Take, Eat
On an early summer morning, Brown drives across town through the pre-dawn darkness to New Life United Methodist Church, his passengers, cans and tubes of paint, airbrushes and brushes with bristles. He unlocks the church and trundles, gear in tow, down to the basement dining room. He faces his mural-in-progress on the room’s western wall. But something stays his artist’s hand, calls for his attention.

Weeks later, after Brown has finished his mural’s foreground banquet scene, he tells me, “This isn’t the Last Supper. This is communion with the Lord.”

But back in the darkness of that summer morning, Brown finds bread and grape juice a few steps away, in the church’s kitchen. He opens his Bible to 1 Corinthians and, standing before the mural, reads out loud.

On the night of his arrest, Jesus Christ took bread; he broke it, and gave it to his disciples, and said, “Take, Eat. This is my body which is given for you.

Brown eats the bread.

After supper he took the cup of wine; he gave it to them and said, “This is my blood of the New Covenant, which is shed for you.

He sips the grape juice, then picks up his paintbrush and lets the spirit move.

Artist Duarte Brown and Rev. Casto feel blessed by the project and its outcome.
Photo © Larry Hamill

Brown says many of the figures in the banquet scene are likenesses of New Life’s neighbors, who come for breakfast Sunday and Tuesday mornings when the church’s breakfast ministry is in full swing. Brown himself appears at one of the mural’s banquet tables, as does Casto, who reads from a Bible she holds in her hands. The tables are piled with baskets of bread and platters of fish, inspired by the story of Jesus feeding the five thousand. Jesus himself looks on.

“We are able to share out of the bounty of God,” Casto said, “and no matter how many people are here and what kind of food we have, there always seems to be enough.”

The globe of golden yellow at the mural’s center spills out from inside Heaven’s gates and into New Life’s dining room, bathing in brilliant yellow the tops of the tables that fill the room.

“There are tables here at New Life, but it is truly the Lord’s Table, because the Lord is present among us and he is the one we represent when we welcome and care for and serve people,” Casto said.

Raymond Allen is one of the people New Life’s breakfast ministry has served since its beginnings in 1991. On a recent Tuesday morning, Allen leads me through the grid of yellow tables around which New Life’s neighbors await breakfast to the mural at the end of the dining room. He puts his arm around my shoulders and points to the painting’s left side, where figures cluster around the end of a table.

“That’s me over there,” Allen says, “in the yellow shirt.”

Allen hands me his business card and tells me he served as an Army nurse during the Vietnam War. “Raymond the Homeless Valet at your service,” the card reads, “Voted Best Homeless Valet in Columbus.” Allen, who has attended services at New Life for nearly two decades, was homeless when he started parking cars in 2008. One day he happened to park the car of a woman who worked for a property management company. She later helped him find the apartment where he has now lived for six months. When Allen isn’t parking cars in the Short North, he works as a part-time custodian. New Life’s breakfasts, he says, help him pay the bills each month.

Casto leads the crowd in the Lord’s Prayer, then invites the neighbors, yellow table by yellow table, to pick up trays of food at the serving window. A woman sits down at an upright piano and starts to play that old Billy Hill song “The Glory of Love,” the one that goes, “You’ve got to give a little, take a little, and let your poor heart break a little . . . ”

Deck Thyself with Gladness
In the upper-left corner of Brown’s mural are the sketchy outlines of a clothing rack. In front of the rack, a man helps a woman on with a coat. Both smile like they’ve known each other for years. The figure of Jesus smiles over them.

Recently at New Life, a young man in a tank top and basketball shorts approaches Casto in the hall outside the church’s Clothing Room. A tattoo on his arm reads “Melany” in flowery script.

“I need some shoes,” he says. Casto tells him to check the Clothing Room a little later, after volunteers have finished sorting some recently donated clothing. The young man nods his head and walks away.

Vickie Moseley, a congregant at Marble Cliff’s Trinity United Methodist Church, one of New Life’s many partner churches, has volunteered as New Life’s Clothing Room steward for seven years. She says she and other volunteers use a pretty simple calculus to determine which clothes earn a place on the Clothing Room’s racks of shirts, pants, skirts, and shorts, and which don’t make the cut.

“When we sort our clothes, we only put out (in the Clothing Room) things we would wear ourselves,” Moseley said.

Casto says New Life’s Clothing Room served an average of 300 people each month when she first came to the church in 1995. Today, she says, each month more than 2,400 people seek help from the Clothing Room, which is open three mornings each week. Casto says this increase is a mixed blessing.

“The good news is that we are here and we can fill that need,” Casto said. “The bad news is there are so many people who have that need in our community.”

From left to right: Vickie Moseley, Rev. Jennifer Casto, and volunteer Chris Prespare
in the Clothing Room at New Life Ministries.

But while Casto oversees this and every other ministry at New Life, it is Moseley who makes the clothing ministry tick. She supervises the ministry’s nearly 100 volunteers, manages the Clothing Room during its open hours and solicits donations from partner churches and other local agencies and businesses. Certain items are hotter commodities than others: there’s always a need for men’s clothing in general, and women’s and men’s plus-size clothes scarcely come through their doors, Moseley says.

“Women get rid of far more clothes than men do, and we probably serve four times as many men as women,” Moseley said.

Thus the need to track and limit the amount of clothing each neighbor can take from the Clothing Room each month: women can have six outfits, men can have two.

“If you’re going to care for 2,400 people every month, then everybody just has to take their fair share,” Casto said. “One of the values we have here is to take what you need and share what you have. So it’s not just that we want to make sure that people are taken care of, but we also want to model and learn how to live in community with each other and to be considerate of our neighbors and to realize that if I take six shirts, maybe that means five people will go without.”

But the racks upon racks of clothes that fill New Life’s Clothing Room suggest not scarcity but plenty.

“We also operate out of a theology of abundance,” Casto said. “God blesses us with an abundance, and we are to be responsible stewards of that and to share and distribute in a way that is fair, but also filled with grace.”

And grace, the bestowal of blessings for no apparent reason, is something Moseley says she sees all the time at New Life. On a recent Sunday morning, Moseley says, a homeless man plagued with foot problems came into the church on crutches. He told Moseley he needed larger – size 13 – shoes because the pair he had was hurting his injured foot. Moseley told the man the church had no shoes that size. A nearby Clothing Room volunteer heard the conversation.

“That man had on size 13 shoes,” Moseley said of the volunteer. “He took off his shoes and gave them to the man. And he (the volunteer) went home in his stocking feet.”

New Lives
For Moseley, who grew up in the church, going to church to worship is nothing new. But she says the spiritual insights she’s gained from working with New Life’s neighbors have changed her life.

“(I had) a lack of clear understanding of the brokenness in many people’s lives through homelessness and poverty,” Moseley said. “Serving and worshipping at New Life has invigorated my spirituality and helped me to be sensitive to the challenges faced everyday by those we serve and to recognize their need for affirmation, respect and a feeling of dignity.”

At one time, Doug Mays, now one of Moseley’s Clothing Room volunteer supervisors, sought refuge at New Life from the realities of his own life. Mays lost his job shortly after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

“I lost my apartment and everything I had, “Mays said, “and I met a little thing called crack cocaine.”

He took up residence in Goodale Park, living only for his next crack fix. One December Sunday two years ago, Mays woke up in the cold morning light and found a crack pipe – the pipe he had been smoking when he passed out – lying on his chest.

“I said, ‘that’s it. I’m going to the church, I’m going to do something,’” Mays said.

A homeless woman had told him he could get a meal, clean clothes and a place to sleep at New Life. So on that winter morning he went to the church, ate, got some clothes and, as Casto preached her sermon, lolled in and out of consciousness in the warmth of New Life’s sanctuary.

“I woke up a few times and all I could hear was Pastor Jennifer saying ‘never give up,’” Mays said.

Mays remembers that he got high later that day. But two days later he came back and asked Casto for a sleeping bag. She introduced him to Moseley.

“(Moseley) gave me a sleeping bag and a coat and a hat and gloves and made sure I was going to be warm,” Mays said. “And that’s when I decided I’d go back and try to do something for the church.”

Mays visited New Life two days a week to chat with Casto and Moseley and decided to kick his addiction. He has gotten treatment and found ways to attend meetings daily at New Life and other area churches and facilities. Today he is off the streets, has been working for a landscape design firm for two years and has been clean for 19 months.

Mays knows he’ll always be in recovery. He knows to take things one day at a time, as they say. He knows what it means to sink so deeply into despair that you lose yourself in oblivion. For a while, he liked the feel of that oblivion, but now he knows it almost killed him. And he says he also knows about God.

“I’m a believer now,” Mays said.

Casto says this kind of transformation takes place all the time at New Life: people are freed from addiction, homeless find homes and jobs to sustain them, the poor receive nourishing meals and clean clothing, and people see what helping others does for those who are helped and those who help.

“We see Jesus at work in the people’s lives that are transformed, and also just being the hands and feet of Christ and the way that we relate to each other,” Casto said, “that’s what makes us a safe place.”

And with the recent addition of New Life’s Health and Wellness Ministry, the church is extending its boundaries. The Fifth Avenue house that stands next to the church building and that once served as a parsonage and more recently as apartments, has been converted into a free health clinic, where neighbors can have their blood pressure and blood sugar levels checked and receive medications and medical advice. The clinic is appointed with a volunteer staff of medical professionals, three examination rooms and a waiting area decorated with a donated oriental rug.

And another decoration adorns the waiting room’s modest white walls: Brown’s full-color concept design for A Safe Place.

“It kind of extends over here, “Casto said. “I just couldn’t put it in a drawer.”

The church will unveil “A Safe Place” Tuesday, September 21, 2010 at 5 p.m. Music and light refreshments will be served, and Duarte Brown and Rev. Jennifer Casto will talk about the mural and New Life’s ministries. New Life United Methodist Church is located between High and Neil at 25 W. Fifth Ave. They can be reached at 614-294-0134 or

© 2010 Short North Gazette, Columbus, Ohio. All rights reserved.

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