A rt & Soul
Beauty Out of Tragedy Looking back at photos of the Southeast Asian bar where she ministered for 10 years, Robin Haines Merrill marvels at the story of Angie.* When the two women first met, Angie was a single mom who sold herself out of a bar that Merrill describes as a “hell hole.” An urban missionary, Merrill hung out at the bar to demonstrate love in action. It wasn’t easy. Angie would turn her back on Merrill, but often came close enough to overhear the conversations she was having with other bar staff and customers. Angie eventually gave her life to Christ and chose to leave the bar to minister to the poor living in the city dumps. There she met a seminary student who married her and adopted her two children, and now Angie has traded her old life to become an American pastor’s wife. “It’s amazing what God has done,” Merrill says. Now based in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., where she runs the Upper Room Art Gallery and Mission Gifts and where she works as an artist and businesswoman, Merrill continues to see God bring beauty out of tragedy. The Upper Room Art Gallery is a nonprofit composed of six artists concerned with global poverty, fair trade, and environmental issues, whose work uses organic, recycled, and fairly traded materials. The sales of the artwork through the Mission Gifts store coupled with donations from individuals, businesses, and churches help pay street children, formerly prostituted persons, and AIDS victims for their work on the art products sold. In spite of the donors’, artists’, and workers’ diverse cultures and religious identities, Merrill says, “There’s one thing we can all agree on—that people should not be treated like trash.” Merrill and the other artists are working to restore dignity to the people they employ, so that these people’s sense of dignity and purpose can come from working with their hands rather than having their bodies exploited as a commodity.
Unlike most fair trade retailers who do economic development in village communities, Merrill works primarily with people transitioning out of prostitution. She says it has been challenging to work with a population that is subject to so much transience, but beautiful things have come out of her persistence. One
Robin Haines Merrill on a chair by Ann Wizer, made from non-biodegradable plastic packaging. The lamps, by Wendy Fernando-Regalado of the Philippines, are of organic paper made by Village Handcrafters, a ministry project among the extreme poor. (Photo by Jason Leidy)
product Mission Gifts sells is a set of cards made from handcrafted paper with images from the artists’ work. Street children are paid to gather old newspapers, mash them into a pulp, and press them into textured paper. Merrill employs a group of formerly prostituted women to assemble the cards. With a little more working capital, Merrill hopes to expand her work to include some other US populations as well, such as people who live with mental illness. These people are prime targets for sex crimes, Merrill says, but they’re less likely to become victims if gainfully employed.
Merrill draws inspiration from the Quaker saying “Hands to work, hearts to God.” “Making a craft can be turned into an act of devotion,” she says. She hopes to help the people she works with do something that has both integrity and meaning, something that will ultimately bring honor to God. Merrill strives to treat people well, even in her display of their handiwork at the art gallery and at Mission Gifts. “We’re in a super high-end location that is beautiful, and that’s what the poor deserve and what these issues deserve,” she says. Although the location may seem odd to some, since the gallery and store are in a district filled with fancy tourist shops, Merrill sees this as an opportunity to offer consumers an alternative. “As one person put it, we’re feeding people nutrients as opposed to junk food in terms of what we’re selling,” she says. “We’re bringing forth high-quality products that just happen to be made by the poor.” Once they’re inside, Merrill gently introduces her customers to the people behind the artwork. “What customers are getting is inspiration in the midst of desperate issues. We’re not hitting them over the head with, ‘Buy this, this is an awful situation,’ but they’re leaving awed and inspired,” she remarks. “And they can go and do likewise. It doesn’t have to be deep and depressing, but I think you can mix beauty and tragedy to help change things.” *Name has been changed.
Learn more about the Upper Room Art Gallery and Mission Gifts at UpperRoomArtGallery.com. Allison Duncan is a freelance writer and a communications specialist at Immaculata University in Malvern, Pa. She enjoys supporting fair trade initiatives and engaging in the arts of calligraphy and painting.