I’ve been thinking about names since the death of George Floyd. His name, and the names of other victims of violence such as Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Philando Castile, and Breonna Taylor. #SayTheirNames is a movement encouraging people and publications to focus on the humanity of black Americans being injured or killed in encounters with police or targeted with violence because of the color of their skin.
I have the privilege of working with a program called The Jeremiah Project. The Jeremiah Project is an after school and summer ceramic arts program for middle school students in under-served communities. We operate out of the second story of the First Congregational Church of Winter Park, Florida. Seventeen years ago when we launched our project, we hoped art could serve as a bridge crossing the economic and racial divide of Park Avenue to the west side of Winter Park. We don’t preach our theology to the students we serve, choosing instead to live our theology of empathy, compassion, and social justice. The program name was inspired by a verse from the Old Testament book of Jeremiah…
I went down to the potter’s house and there he was working at his wheel….The vessel he was making was spoiled in the potter’s hand and he reworked it into another vessel that seemed good to him…then the Lord said, “just like the clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in my hand.”
“Just like the clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in my hand”. That line has served as such a wonderful metaphor for our program. Clay comes from the ground and grounds those who touch it; clay requires centering on the potter’s wheel before it can be shaped; clay is forgiving, it can be remolded if we make a mistake; shaping a vessel is similar to the power we have to shape our own lives; opening the clay, a step in the process of clay creation is similar to opening ourselves to our own infinite possibilities. These are the messages we hope, ever so subtly to convey. It’s amazing how a ball of clay and a spinning wheel ground and center even the most anxious of pupils. And hearing bits and pieces of the lives of the children we serve makes us realize these kids have a lot to be anxious about.
Tyliah, Abigaelle, Anthony, Brianna, Jackson, Ayana, Jerome, are just a few of the names of the students we have served. It seems like a tiny thing but a staff mandate has always been to learn and call these students by their names. We consider this to be a small gesture of respect and acknowledgement for the bravery they have demonstrated even by showing up at our studio to learn something new and different. Our brave students are willing to take creative risks, often outside their comfort zone. Shy smiles and ear-to-ear grins offer evidence of newfound self-esteem and pride of accomplishment as kids behold their sculptures or cereal bowls fresh from the kiln.
The Jeremiah Project is fortunate to partner with the Central Florida Boys & Girls Clubs. Tasha Robinson Banks, the director of the Levy-Hughes branch in downtown Orlando honored our program by saying:
“What I love about the Jeremiah Project is the connection the staff have with our kids. Some of our kids face challenges. The only way they have been able to express themselves is through art. I love that each kid is inspired to be an individual. When you come to the Jeremiah Project you expect art but what you get in compassion.”
Austin Long, director of the East Altamonte Springs branch said:
“I witnessed first hand how the Jeremiah Project eliminates the perception of barriers that stop many talented urban youth from realizing their full potential as productive, well rounded, successful, caring citizens.”
And Marquette Carmichael, programming director at the downtown Orlando Club shared this:
“I can’t begin to explain how wonderful this program is and how it has changed the lives of many of our children. These kids would not have these opportunities otherwise.”
Teaching pottery techniques has never been the ultimate goal of The Jeremiah Project and we are humbled and honored our partners recognize that fact. I confess to feeling a sense of dread whenever I read the names of victims of violence in my community, fearing I might recognize one of those precious names. Lately, I’ve replaced that fear with the hope I might recognize the name or face of one or more of those young men and women marching on the front line for peace and justice.