Reach For Beauty

Reach For Beauty

Micah 6:6-8 Matthew 5: 13a-16

Alan Claassen                 November 9, 2014

          I met Lily Yeh while I was a student at the University of Creation Spirituality, which was founded by Matthew Fox, author of many books including, Original Blessing.

          Matthew Fox was also famous for having a year of silence imposed upon him by the Catholic Church. I was fortunate to be at this first lecture when the year of silence was completed. His first words were, “As I was saying…”

          Lily Yeh was invited to teach at the University of Creation Spirituality because of her work combining art and social change.

          In 1986, Lily Yeh was asked by the dancer and educator Arthur Hall to create a park in an abandoned lot next to his building in North Philadelphia. With a small grant, a few shovels, and little else, Lily invited children and adults in this impoverished inner city neighborhood to join her in clearing the rubble-filled lot. They then transformed the lot into an art park with brilliant mosaics and sculpted trees, creating an oasis of safety and peace.

          Lily’s vision has rippled out far beyond North Philadelphia’s borders.

          She inspires and collaborates with prison inmates to create beauty and art, and does the same with thousands of adults and children who live in some of the world’s most broken communities.

          She has collaborated with residents of the Korogocho slum near Nairobi to transform a barren churchyard with murals and sculptures and traveled to Ghana, Ecuador, The Ivory Coast and the Republic of Georgia to work on similar projects. 

          A recent endeavor is the Rwanda Healing Project, in which she worked with hundreds of children and families to transform their bleak village into a place of beauty and joy. The work is based in a village of survivors of the horrendous Rwandan genocide of 1994.

          Born in China, Lily immigrated to the United States in the early 1960s to attend the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Fine Arts. A successful painter and professor at Philadelphia’s University of the Arts, Lily traveled to Beijing in 1989 to show her work at the Central Institute of Fine Art. While there, she witnessed the tragic events of Tiananmen Square.

          Through the 1980s, Lily gradually realized that being an artist “is not just about making art, t is about delivering the vision one is given and about doing the right thing without sparing oneself.”

          She continues pursuing her vision through her new organization, Barefoot Artists, Inc., which teaches residents and artists how to replicate the Village model in devastated communities around the world.

          In an issue of Yes! magazine, where she is one of 15 persons honored by that magazine for their transformative work, Lily says, “I have found that the broken spaces are my living canvas. In our brokenness, our hearts reach for beauty.” She sees her work as “igniting the light of creativity that rests in all people.” She says, “My message is that your light is as bright as mine. It’s sunlight. There’s no difference. You just need to have it lit.”

          Here is my story of how Lily Yeh lit this little light of mine.

          I found three themes in the tools that Lily gave me for the journey of walking on the path; self-care, beauty, and good will.


          I want to share one time in class in which she exemplified self-care in her actions.

One day she came into class late and flustered. She had been dealing with traffic problems.

Before she began the formal part of the class she asked us to help get her focused and present. She asked us to form a circle around her and sing a note.

          After we had done this for a few moments she then thanked us. So we were then invested in her health and well-being. She brought her vulnerability and willingness-to-be amazed to class and we were, in effect, responsible for our own well being because we had helped put our teacher back together again. Since we had brought her to health we were naturally invested in her success that day as a teacher and our success as teachers.

          Thisstory exemplified for me how Lily comes into a community with self-care,

expressed in her relationships with others. Caring for one’s self includes the humility that asks others for help.

          In the act of self-care that names ones limits and needs, a community is formed.

          Lily shared with us that in the early years of her work in Philadelphia she was ready to back out but a small voice said, “that if you back away from this you will never amount to anything.” Courage is required in completing this work.

          To help one deal with the difficulties is also important to protect oneself. Lily shared that she was protected both by angels and by people. One of the first art projects on the abandoned, inner city, Philadelphia block was the  “Wall of Angels,” that was there to protect the children.

          Lily took hundreds of pieces of broken glass and the people of the neighborhood made a mural with three angels that hovered over and protected that city block.

          Lily’s first tool was self-care.

Beauty is her second tool.

          One would expect an artist to talk about beauty.

           “You must clean the park to play in the park.” The question is how can we make this park, body, church, school, world beautiful.

          First we clean out that which is ugly that we can remove. Then the park, or city-block, needs a center and a boundary. After cleaning the park of debris Lily brought color to the center. That color might be as simple as large circles of red and blue on concrete. Color brings energy. Color instantly transforms even the most mundane of things.

          After color the place needs dirt, then water. It is almost as if the creative process is an re-enactment of the first creative project, Creation itself. First the vision, then order from chaos, then light, then dirt. What comes next? The things that are attracted to form, color, dirt, butterflies and children.

          And it is good.

          As Lily involves people in the vision she engages them in their stories, which means engaging them in their darkness as well as in their dreams. All the while she holds onto her vision and her high sense of quality. This is a place where Lily’s deep gladness meets the deep hunger of the inner city of Philadelphia.

          Besides for the self-protection and beauty, Lily Yeh also gives the tool of a good will.

          To go into a community with good will means many things.

          It means to enter with an open mind, curious, turning to wonder not judgment.

Gentleness, beauty and kindness are other elements of good will. Impatience and manipulation come from a bad will.

          Good will is to come into a community without an attitude of problem solving, but instead to look for ways for the community’s dream to be awakened,  beauty to be uncovered, pain to be expressed and healed.

          Lily saw that her task was to cultivate and inspire people with the “magnificent and magnetic principles.” Lily directs people’s energies towards a common goal. She enters a community and asks for their dreams. Then she sets up a project based upon achievable dreams.      

          Following this process of creative good will increases the chances that the dream will be maintained once it is completed. Without ownership by the community that is a result of good will, the dream is not likely to be maintained.

          The tools that Lily Yeh gave to me on my Vision Quest are self-protection, beauty, and good will.  If I have this three qualities I will not be afraid to go walk the path I am meant to walk. If you have these qualities you need not be afraid to pursue the dreams you have within you as a congregation.

          Lily Yeh, reaching for beauty, provides us with a practice to follow, like the method a potter might use to transform clay into a pot, or the Holy Spirit might use to form a community.

          Each of has been given a gift that brings us joy and serves the community at the same time. This is our authentic self. This is the way of service. This is walking on the path God wants us walk on.

          In this season of thankful hearts and shared gifts you are given an opportunity to gather around this congregation with your pledges of time, talent, and treasure just as Lily Yeh asked her students to gather around her.

          May you reach for kindness, justice, humility. May you reach for beauty.

          May you be a light on Cornwall Avenue in the heart of Bellingham.


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