The Art of Advocacy: Powerful Portraits

I once attended an art exhibit displaying several portraits of Holocaust victims during WWII. They had been photographed during their release from the concentration camps. As I stood paralyzed by the overwhelmingly pressing weight of trauma worn on each of the victims’ faces, a thought occurred to me. I wasn’t just staring at the photos, the photos were staring at me. With all that going on, I also thought of the thousands of stories I had heard connected to the Holocaust. As this flood of emotion crashed through me, the eyes of each victim starred through me to the point of penetrating my very soul.

A few weeks ago I began reflecting on how art, story, and advocacy are connected. It started after I had the privilege of attending the Oregon Center for Christian Value’s (OCCV) conference, entitled Vote Out Poverty Advocacy Training. The event, in association with Sojourners, was hosted by Mosiac Church here in Portland. Aaron Graham, the keynote speaker from Sojourners, began the session with a talk entitled “The Power of Stories”. It went something like this.

The LORD says in Exodus 3:7, “I have indeed seen the misery of my people in Egypt. I have heard them crying out because of their slave drivers, and I am concerned about their suffering.” God’s concerned love initiates His movement down to rescue these oppressed people. He does this through calling Moses to be an advocate for justice.

So, what is justice? In the recently release anti-slavery movie, “Call + Response”, I remember Dr. Cornel West saying that justice is what love looks like in public. Aaron Graham spoke of justice as an act of worship. These concepts spun around in my head over and over again that day. In what ways do we, as proclaimers of God’s kingdom, communicate in word and deed, this deep longing to engage the people of injustices to the world around us?

So, what does communication look like that breaks down the callousness of people’s hearts, penetrating their very souls? Can we see it in a photograph or painting? Does it embrace us in a song? I believe that artistic expression has a way of penetrating one’s soul, without one’s soul giving it permission. Art is never absent from the lives of oppressed people. Aaron went on that day to teach of the importance of the art of story. Throughout scripture we are gripped by God’s character being revealed through the narrative story. God is first introduced in Genesis 1 as the Creator, the artist who’s writing His story. We receive the invitation to participate and write our own story with Him, united in Him in community.

Aaron Graham has experienced a severe disconnect between Church priorities and what he reads in scripture concerning how much God cares for the poor and marginalized. This is why he is passionate about advocacy training for the Christian community. In Matthew 9:37-38 Jesus says, “The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field.” This rhythmic drum beat for justice is the call. Our activity is the response. As we have been created in the image of the Creator Artist God, how are we bearing the imaginative response to his love for us and those suffering at the hands of the oppressors? If you really love people, you don’t want to see them abused. How are we practicing the Art of Advocacy for Jesus? What stories are we telling? What portraits are we painting?


  1. Kelsi Johns

    I love that we have a universal longing for story. This is how God chooses to communicate with and through us, and why we respond–because we are attracted to and moved by the timeless, universal power of story. I also love that we are created to do the same: create and tell stories. Not just through words, but through paint, pencil, keys, strings, percussion, voice, feet, rhythm, silence, noise and smell. I believe the reason why you were moved so deeply from those Holocaust victim portraits is because God used that vessel (a photographer, a portrait) to communicate with you his heart, his cry for the oppressed. God uses the stories we tell and re-tell to inspire his beloved world to, as you said, respond to the rhythmic drum beat. I believe it is his way of reaching us, touching us, and compelling us to respond. He is calling, I pray we respond.

  2. BettyLu Anderson

    As a poet-at-heart,often fervent in desire to write to clarify a problem or a difficult situation, I’m going to try mixing words which advocate justice for the sick and poor, the desperate among us. I have been inspired by The Art of Advocacy article by Benjamin Hanson. I’ll be thinking about God our great artistic Creator, who used words to create everything in the world, including food & mankind, and then told us humans to oversee care of the natural world & to practice watchcare over each other. I’ll be searching for stories from today’s news, from Hebrew Scripture, and from Jesus to use in my weave of words of advocacy. Advocacy for action nurtured in “love, joy, peace,patience, kindness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self=control.” (Gal.5:22-23) It will take some time so you all will see some of these poem-stories later. Thanks Benjamin & OCCV.