Walk to the corner of Sixth Avenue and Eighth Street in Park Slope, and you’d find a newly-completed mural on the side of Park Slope United Methodist Church. Two large, outstretched hands reach out toward you over layer upon layer of locally-made Brooklyn paint. The mural is striking. But it is what you don’t see—the stories behind the mural’s creation—that make it so powerful for the people who put it together. Here are some of those stories.
Lourdes Zephier is a storyteller. She stands in front of the mural in a long blue dress, with her granddaughter’s backpack draped over her shoulder, and recalls the moment she first walked past the wall in early July. “I was on my way to MOMA with my son and two grandchildren.” They had decided to take the subway on Fourth Avenue and were headed in that direction when they passed Park Slope United Methodist and several people creating a mosaic tile on the side of the church.
A woman named Sarah Lilly greeted Zephier. Zephier asked her what the mural project was called, because she knows that “everything has a name.” Lilly told her it was called “Hand in Hand,” a name taken out of the first line of the church’s creed, which is posted on a sturdy plaque at the front of the building. In that moment, Zephier froze: “Could you wait just a minute?”
She called over to her granddaughter, Brooklyn, a quiet seven-year-old who had recently moved to Park Slope with her grandmother from a Native American reservation in South Dakota. Five years ago, Brooklyn nearly died in a horrific fire on the reservation. When Brooklyn joined her grandmother, Lilly could see that she had been badly burned; sixty-seven percent of Brooklyn’s body had been burned in the fire, and she was missing four fingers on her right hand.
Zephier looked down at her granddaughter’s hands and felt an instant connection to the project’s “Hand in Hand” theme. She had left the reservation and returned to Park Slope seeking a sense of home in the place where she spent her childhood, and that shares her granddaughter’s name. Perhaps, she thought, this was a sign that she was in the right place at the right time.
After that day in early July, Zephier threw herself into the project, working for up to eight hours a day in the brutal summer heat to help bring the mural to completion. The project was finished in early August. For Zephier, the effort was worth it. “It goes hand in hand, whenever you delve into something that you give your whole heart and soul to, what you get back is tenfold.” She said she wanted to give back to the community that she felt had welcomed her home.
Zephier has had no easy life. She said she came to Park Slope from Cuba as a political asylum refugee in 1966, at age six, then spent much of her childhood feeling like an outsider as a Cuban in a sea of Irish Catholics. She helped her parents sift through citizenship paperwork and learned English by watching black-and-white movies. Kids at school said hateful things, she says, but Zephier found solace in encyclopedias and dictionaries. Eventually, she joined the military and married a Native American man. “I had the strength to go to an Indian Reservation because I felt closer to Cuba in an Indian Reservation than I ever felt anywhere on this earth—their sense of family, how their cousins were their brothers and sisters. Little did I know I carried so much of Cuba in my heart.”
Zephier enjoyed teaching fifth graders at a school on the reservation, but over time, she says, she began to suffer. Despite the initial sense of community she found on the reservation, Zephier eventually felt surrounded by what she describes as a deep psychological, spiritual, and emotional poverty and was overcome by deep exhaustion. When the horrific fire nearly killed Brooklyn, she knew she needed to leave so that she and her granddaughter could seek a better life. “This is what we do in life— we have to evaluate and want a better tomorrow for our children and communities and the people we come across instead of sitting in a place of sorrow.” For Zephier, this mural project has been a solace, as well as a route to new and unexpected friendships.
Janice Brown is from Michigan, but her father was stationed at the Brooklyn Shipyard when he was in the Navy. “I say my DNA was here long before I was,” she jokes on a warm afternoon outside the church.
Two years ago, Brown moved back to Michigan from Park Slope to care for her parents. When her father died from dementia a year ago, Brown stayed to care for her mother. After a year of loss in her home state, she decided she needed to get out. Her mother’s grief was overwhelming and Brown needed to start earning money again, so she packed up her things, left her eight-year-old Doberman to keep her mother company, and set out for Park Slope. It was time for a new chapter. “I’ve been through a lot of stuff—bad relationships, a bad broker who took a lot of money,” she said. “But you have to let it all go. You have to let it all go or it will eat you up.”
Brown had been a member at Park Slope United Methodist Church for years and returned shortly after she moved back from Michigan in late June. That’s when she ran into Sarah Lilly, who invited her to join the community mural project. As a lifelong artist, Brown knew this project might help her feel like a part of the community again. “I have always done art and music. I can’t remember a time when I didn’t.” And so Brown joined the team—working every day in the summer heat, carefully layering paint on the wall that would become a centerpiece of her community life.
For her, the experience of working alongside the mural’s lead artist, Kathy Creutzberg, and with Zephier, was a transformative way to engage in community. She, too, discovered unlikely friendships in the process. “We met each other’s family members, we are family now. You’re getting back what you put out, and I believe that.”
Sarah Lilly is a teacher at City Polytechnic High School and a performance artist. She stands in front of the mural on a late summer afternoon, beaming. Behind her, layers of paint and words are intertwined with the hand imagery—it’s the culmination her years-long effort to create a community project that addresses racial justice and forges relationships in the process.
Lilly and her students at her former school, Erasmus High School, were deeply affected by the murder of two Brooklyn police officers, Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos, in 2014. Liu and Ramos were sitting in a car in Bedford-Stuyvesant when the gunman shot them in their heads and upper bodies, according to police. “Those cops that were shot, two Brooklyn police officers were gunned down, that was in our precinct of our school. We were being hit in so many ways.” Lilly has been to many funerals of her students’ family members. And one of her former students at a Middle School in East New York was the victim of a stabbing incident, which left her feeling helpess.
One day in the middle of winter 2015, Lilly was walking to a social action committee meeting at Park Slope United Methodist Church when she passed the wall’s old mural—a faded bunch of painted, cartoonish people, rainbows, and trees, and noticed the black paint that someone had splashed over messages of social justice. “Our stances against police brutality had been vandalized,” Lilly said. It was then that Lilly had the idea to create a new mural, one that shared a message of unity and inclusivity. But she didn’t want to do the project alone—more important than the final outcome was the process of building community through the mural’s creation.
Lilly’s vision was made possible when a $10,000 grant became available at the church for a project that involved art and the Sunday Dinner community, a weekly gathering of guests who come together for a free meal and companionship in the church basement. The man behind the money is Jim Gelfand, an artist and poet, who died in December 2014 from Parkinson’s Disease. Gelfand had lived on the margins for years—sometimes without a home, clothes, or meals—and found a community at Park Slope United Methodist, which celebrated his creative gifts alongside Sunday Dinner guests.
When Gelfand’s legacy estate fund became available spring of 2015, Lilly seized the opportunity to pitch her idea for a new community art mural to the church. The proposal was approved, and the process took off when New York-based artist Kathy Creutzburg was hired to spearhead the design.
As Sunday dinner guests began to contribute their ideas through a series of creative workshops, so too did kids at the daycare next to the church and others as well. There was an elderly man who stopped by almost every day to chat with the painters, and the sixteen-year-old intern who made the wall into a Pokémon Go site to attract more teens. As the connections grew, Creutzburg created a design that incorporated other’s ideas and drawings. Feedback and ideas began pouring in online once the project gained a proper social media following in early June.
If you find yourself walking down Eighth Street, you’ll see a pair of moccasins painted on the lower right-hand corner of the wall. Those were painted by Zephier. On the left-hand side, there’s a cloud above a rainbow, barely visible if you’re not looking for it. That was Brown’s touch. The two giant hands in the center—outstretched toward each other, are a combination of all skin colors. This is a reflection of Lilly’s desire to reflect a community devoted to racial justice. And while the wall carries different meanings for each person who helped to piece it together—it seems everyone can agree on one thing: Jim Gelfand would be proud to see the finished project.