The United Presbyterian Church of Binghamton has gotten a bit of attention in the conservative religious media recently for hosting the “Sviatovid” exhibit during Binghamton’s LUMA Festival, September 6–7. It is not clear whether any of our online critics actually attended the 12-minute “Sviatovid” exhibit, but if they stepped foot in the church, from any direction, they had access to accurate information about who the congregation is and what our relationship is to the Binghamton community.
I am not sure why our critics are concerning themselves with the demographics of our congregation, but it is true that our congregation has been through a period of extraordinary loss since it was established in 2011. I came as the pastor in 2013, and officiated at 42 funerals in my first two years in Binghamton. This year has been almost as hard, with 14 deaths in 12 months. UPC does not emphasize “membership”, since many of those that we welcome have been wounded by churches where they were members, but in recent years about half of the worshiping congregation each week is under the age of 40, and includes seekers and learners, people from three different African countries, musicians and artists and teachers. With so much loss, it is hard to grow numerically, but we are growing daily in our understanding of the gospel of Christ and what it means to bring God’s love to those who have experienced only judgment and shame.
The Westminster Catechism (both the “Larger” and “Shorter”), which is one of the confessions of historic Presbyterianism, says in its first few lines that the chief purpose of humanity is to glorify God and enjoy God forever. In other places it spells out, among other things, that either everything is sacred (by God’s grace), or nothing is sacred (apart from the love of God). Our communion table which so concerns some of our critics, when it is not actively being used for the celebration of the sacrament, is just a table—apart from God’s grace, an ordinary table like any other. Human creations become idols when we put them in the place of God, imputing to them a holiness that belongs to God alone.
So our critics can take their choice: If Sviatovid is apart from the grace of God, then it is purely secular, and there is no special significance to its appearing on the stage at the front of the room in which the congregation worships (and not, as it happens, in the spot where the communion table can be found during worship). Or if Sviatovid is sacred, it is sacred through the grace of God, and the contemplation of this work of beauty is not idolatry, but a gift from God.
Bart Kresa, the artist who created Sviatovid, is Polish, and the inspiration for the sculpture was a statuette and a myth found in the region of his family home. According to Mr. Kresa, “Vid” means “to see” or “seeing”; “Sviat” means “world” or “cosmos”. So the story that Mr. Kresa developed and projected was about a heroic journey, in which the being with eyes on all sides saw everything, and in seeing, both transformed what he saw and was transformed by it. There may or may not be a relationship between this story and that of the Baltic war god that our critics have associated with this art exhibit—Mr. Kresa referenced the scholarship that links the two, but noted (accurately) that in the absence of contemporary source material, the relationship cannot be definitively established.
Mr. Kresa and most of his team have had little or no contact with Christianity, and none at all with Presbyterian theology and teaching. So when he wrote the description of the exhibit which referred to Sviatovid “materializing on the altar” of our church, he didn’t know that Presbyterians do not have an altar, since we believe that Christ’s sacrifice was “once, for all.” During the course of the setup and exhibit time, the pastors and community members had many opportunities to bear witness to our faith in Christ. Who’s to say that we did not plant seeds that, by God’s grace, will flower into faith?
Finally—The congregation at Binghamton United is actively involved in “doing justice, loving mercy, and walking humbly with God” (Micah 6:8). Our doors open in all directions to provide meals to hungry people, allow people who left school early a chance to finish their education, offer school age childcare for working families, give comfort and advocacy to people affected by the opioid crisis, host urban farming and the sharing of its produce, make help available for displaced and disadvantaged workers, enable new starts for people coming out of jail, and even offer comfortable chairs and a hot cup of coffee to anyone who comes through our doors.
Anyone with eyes to see, let them see.
Kimberly P. Chastain, pastor
The United Presbyterian Church of Binghamton