By Ashley M. Casey
Instead of the usual processional out into the lobby for coffee, members of the flock of Faith United Church in Oswego filed into the children’s Sunday school wing to celebrate eight murals painted by a churchgoer.
The Rev. Roger Martin led a prayer to bless the rich paintings that depicted various scenes in the life of Jesus.
“We ask your blessing, O Lord, on these images of stories we have known for years and yet now perceive in new ways,” the congregation read. “May they stir our minds, both young and old, to see your Words in a new light.”
Barb Sheldon of Oswego, who has taught art at Mexico High School for 28 years, painted the murals over a period of about eight years. Students in Faith United’s Sunday school assisted in painting the doors and lettering the titles and Bible verses. Her husband, Craig, worked on the borders of the murals.
“One Sunday, people were talking about gifts they could give to the church,” Sheldon recalled of the project’s origins. She said that the original concept was to guide Sunday school students in creating the murals so they could better understand Bible stories, but it evolved into something more for her.
Sheldon said that she and her husband, Craig, adopted two daughters from China: Hannah, now 14, and Libby, now 10. After the passing of her own parents, Sheldon reflected on the legacy she wanted to leave her own daughters.
“I just thought about (my mother) and what she’d taught me. Even though she wasn’t around, she was there,” Sheldon said. “I wanted to leave it to Hannah and Libby.”
The other children of the congregation were on Sheldon’s mind too. Ever the perfectionist, she had to set aside her ideas about continually tweaking the murals.
“When I look at these walls, I see it’s for the kids. I see things I want to change, but I let it go,” she said. “It is for God and it’s not about me.”
Sheldon sought the advice of pastor Martin and other church members on which verses to depict.
“The first one she did was the manger scene, which is traditional,” Martin said. He said his favorite was “Stilling the Storm,” the smallest of the murals.
“It’s on its own little side of the door by itself. It’s a wonderful place to get kids to focus in on,” he said.
Martin called the process of watching Sheldon’s work interesting.
“Oftentimes, Barb will be in worship and all of a sudden she’ll just sneak out (to paint),” he said. “It’s wonderful to behold.”
Both Martin and Sheldon recounted the story that Pat Sivers, a petite churchgoer, requested the story of Jesus visiting Zaccheus, a similarly diminutive person. Sheldon included a small goldfinch in her painting to represent Sivers.
Sheldon said her favorite mural is the one that depicts Jesus’ baptism.
“It’s all from here,” she said, tapping her head. She said the other murals were inspired in part by depictions from other artists. “I didn’t take bits from things I’d seen. I like how he’s reflected in the water.”
She included a basket of fish and a basket of bread in this painting as an allusion to Jesus’ other stories. “I put those things there so they could share with the kids and teach them how Jesus provides,” she said.
As for future murals, Sheldon is taking a break. She and the children are currently working on a depiction of Noah’s ark for one of the classrooms, but she has slowed work on that because she wanted to take a different direction with it.
“At this point, she really needs to have an opportunity to stop for a bit, take a step back and have a look-see,” Martin said. He expressed a desire for more murals in the future, however. “Our Sunday school is beginning to grow. I’m hoping that someone will say, ‘Barb, we need a picture of this to reinforce this idea.’”
As for Sheldon, she said she is grateful that her faith has helped her throughout the hardships in her life. She hopes her paintings inspires the same in those who see them.
“They’re not the Sistine Chapel, but hopefully somebody can learn from them.”
Faith United Church is affiliated with the Presbyterian Church of the United States of America and the United Church of Christ. It is located at 12 Mark Fitzgibbons Drive in Oswego. For more information, visit faithunitedoswego.com.
List of murals:
Manger – Matthew 8:23-27
Jesus in the Temple – Luke 2:41-50
Baptism – Luke 3:21-22
Stilling the Storm – Matthew 8:23-27
Good Shepherd – Luke 15:3-7
We Are Blessed, a silhouette of Jesus
Zaccheus and Jesus – Luke 19:1-10
The Names of God