The Beatitudes (Artful Devotion)

Finished Haywood Street Fresco
Christopher Holt (American, 1977–), Haywood Street Beatitudes, 2018–19. Fresco, 9 1/2 × 27 ft. Haywood Street Congregation, Asheville, North Carolina. Photo: John Warner.

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

“Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.

“Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.

“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.

“Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.

“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.

“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

“Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”

—Matthew 5:3–11

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SONG: “Beatitudes” by Bernice Johnson Reagon | Performed by Sweet Honey in the Rock, live at Carnegie Hall, November 7, 1987

Bernice Johnson Reagon (born October 4, 1942) is a song leader, composer, scholar, and social activist who in the early 1960s was a founding member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee’s Freedom Singers in the Albany Movement in Georgia. In 1973 she founded the all-black female a cappella ensemble Sweet Honey in the Rock, based in Washington, DC. Reagon, along with other members of the SNCC Freedom Singers, realized the power of collective singing to unify the disparate groups who began to work together in the 1964 Freedom Summer protests in the South. ‘After a song,’ Reagon recalled, ‘the differences between us were not so great. Somehow, making a song required an expression of that which was common to us all. . . . This music was like an instrument, like holding a tool in your hand.’” [source]

Reagon was the creator and host of the Peabody Award–winning NPR series Wade in the Water: African American Sacred Music Traditions, which originally aired in 1994 in twenty-six parts. (All the episodes are freely accessible online!) Under Reagon’s guidance, the production team traveled all over the country to record baptismal and congregational services, concerts, and interviews with a range of performers, composers, and community members. A four-CD set was released as a companion to the series.

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The Haywood Street Beatitudes fresco was completed last year in the sanctuary of Haywood Street Congregation in Asheville, part of whose mission is “breaking down barriers that divide the ‘haves’ from the ‘have-nots’ and reminding each person of their worth, their goodness.” The principal artist is Christopher Holt, and he worked with a team of four others. To learn more about the fresco, visit the interactive website https://visit.haywoodstreetfresco.org/, which includes many photos and sketches that document the making process in detail, information about the people pictured and an interpretive guide, and comments from participants in the project. All the quotes and photos in this section I’ve sourced from there.

The Rev. Brian Combs, who is shown emerging from behind the stone wall on the right, founded Haywood Street Congregation in 2009 to be a place of welcome for those struggling with addiction and/or homelessness. “The most painful part of holding a cardboard sign at the intersection,” he says, “is not the humiliating public declaration of helplessness or having trash thrown at you, or watching the automatic doors lock down. By far, from what I’ve heard after a decade of listening, is the refusal of so many drivers, idling just feet away at the red light, to even make eye contact.”

Commissioning this fresco—a permanent medium in which paint joins with plaster, making the image inseparable from the church architecture—is one way in which Haywood Street is “affirming sacred worth, restoring human dignity, and sabotaging the shame of poverty.” Fresco painting reached its zenith in the Italian Renaissance, but “too often . . . religious art . . . was made over in the image of those in power who were paying for it. God was rendered European and male. Jesus was more prince than peasant. Salvation meant being upper class.” The Haywood Street Beatitudes contains a more racially and socioeconomically diverse set of individuals that is reflective of the makeup of the community. Its message is that “God continues to show up in everyday life among the unhoused and the housed, the poor and poor in spirit, the meek, the merciful, and the hungry.” 

The skyline, with its Appalachian Mountain vista, offers an idealized portrait of Asheville. Some historical buildings are visible in the background, such as the racially segregated Stephens-Lee High School (on the top of the hill), which opened in 1923 and became a center for culture and arts and a source of pride for the Black community; it closed in 1965 as part of the county school board’s integration plan, and in 1975 most of it was bulldozed.

Haywood Street is most known for its Downtown Welcome Table ministry: family-style meals are served—with cloth napkins and on china plates!—on Wednesdays and Sundays in the church’s dining room, where people from all backgrounds are encouraged to come and eat together and enjoy fellowship. (Due to COVID-19 restrictions, meals are currently served to-go.) “We are a ministry that acknowledges each of us has gifts and each of us has needs. While some come with hunger from the body, others come with a hunger in their souls.” The website goes on to explain that visitors can “expect roles to be reversed. If you are coming to give, you might be asked to receive, to simply sit and have lunch. . . . If you are coming to receive, you might be called upon to serve.”

Haywood Street fresco
Haywood Street fresco (detail)

“Table is the defining metaphor at Haywood Street,” signifying relationship and togetherness. In the fresco, community members prepare the table and hold it up, led by Miss Mary (center); “keep the house open and be generous with your life,” she says. Holding her hand is Dave, a US Air Force veteran who grew up in Alabama in a culture where he was told never to touch a Black person. At Haywood he has overcome the prejudice he was formerly steeped in.

Other pictured individuals include Edward, the church organist; Robert, a gardener who arranges flowers for the altar and dining room tables each week; Soleil, a little girl who loves coming to Haywood Street for the desserts and who is whispering into Robert’s ear; Wayne (bottom right), who initially came to Haywood Street through its Respite ministry, which provides a safe place for homeless adults to rest, recover, and be cared for following a hospital discharge; and so on.

Haywood Street fresco (detail)

All are underneath the blessing hands of God and the rainbow of God’s promise.

Flanking the scene are two sentinel figures, each holding a light so that those in the darkness can find their way. The one on the left is modeled after Charles, a community member who died of cancer in May 2019, a few months before the fresco was completed. He was foundational to the church, as he lived on the streets and vouched for Haywood Street to all his friends when it was just getting started. His dog, Emma, sits in front of him, next to an open pouch of his woodworking tools. The other light-bearer, on the right, is Jeanette, a single mom who “came for lunch” one day between job interviews “and found love.” She is a care minister at Haywood Street and is on the board of directors. The two hold the Communion elements: Charles, a wine flask, and Jeanette, a sheaf of wheat.

Shout-out to Alexandra Davison, director of Culture Care RDU and a docent at the North Carolina Museum of Art, whose blog post “Lent, COVID-19 & the Beatitudes on Haywood Street” introduced me to this fresco.

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I’ve addressed the Beatitudes in previous Artful Devotions, which feature

For more Beatitudes-related art, see the Visual Commentary on Scripture exhibition “Blessed,” curated by Rebekah Eklund, a professor of New Testament, theology, and ethics at Loyola University Maryland. I appreciate how she addresses descriptive versus prescriptive interpretations of the Beatitudes. She examines (1) an illumination from a French medieval moral treatise that shows seven women in a “virtue garden,” each representing a different beatitude; (2) an Ethiopian-inspired canvas painting by contemporary American artist Laura James, which places the Beatitudes in the context of chattel slavery; and (3) the central panel of the Ghent Altarpiece [previously], where seven groups of saints gather round a bleeding Lamb.

Blessed (VCS exhibition)

“All three artworks place a Christ-figure in the centre: the tallest tree in the middle of the garden tended by prayer, an African Jesus with open arms delivering the Sermon on the Mount, or the slaughtered Lamb standing triumphantly on the altar of his sacrifice and surrounded by angels. This centrality suggests Christ’s role not only as the speaker of the Beatitudes but also as their embodiment and fulfilment.”


This post belongs to the weekly series Artful Devotion. If you can’t view the music player in your email or RSS reader, try opening the post in your browser.

To view all the Revised Common Lectionary scripture readings for All Saints’ Day, cycle A, click here.

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