Wednesday, April 29, 2015

A Portrait of Religion in East Harlem

 Psalm 121, King James Version
1 I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help.
2 My help cometh from the LORD which made heaven and earth.
3 He will not suffer thy foot to be moved: he that keepeth thee will not slumber.
4 Behold, he that keepeth Israel shall neither slumber nor sleep.
5 The LORD is thy keeper: the LORD is thy shade upon thy right hand.
6 The sun shall not smite thee by day, nor the moon by night.
7 Thr LORD shall preserve thee from all evil: he shall preserve thy soul.
8 The LORD shall preserve thy going out and thy coming in from this time forth, and even for evermore.

On 100th street, barely east of Lexington, rests this beautiful mural painted to honor a man's life. Carefully written next to Tony Lopez's portrait are the words "Psalms 121." This psalm gives insight into the particular type of religious experience members of the deceased's community experiences. According to late Nineteenth-Century American philosopher William James, religion means "the feelings, acts, and experiences of individual men in their solitude, so far as they apprehend themselves to stand in relation to whatever they may consider the divine" (James 31). So where do the people who contributed to the mural stand in relation to the divine? 

One of the most interesting connections I see between this mural and James's definition of religion is how Tony Lopez is immortalized as a man in solitude. He is painted by himself, his only companions well-wishes from those he was close to in life. This depiction of Lopez does not look at his viewers head on, instead looking past us, "unto the hills" where he will find help (Psalms 121:1). 

The psalm suggests that peace is not to be found on Earth but instead is to be found in the afterlife, through God. The religion of Lopez's loved ones is a hopeful one, in which the divine is close and willing to help His people through any hardships they might encounter. In relation to Lopez, God is a kind of wonderful benefactor, as any help the deceased might receive would "come from the LORD" (Psalms 121:2). His "experience in solitude" is one eternally filled with reverence to a God that has promised to be kind.

This mural connects Psalm 121 in a fascinating way. Right after seeing this mural, I went around to the businesses surrounding 100th and Lexington to see if anybody could provide some insights on the painting. Unfortunately, I was not able to find a single person who knew more about the mural than "it was painted by a guy who was next to an old lady." I was unsatisfied with not knowing more, so I moved my search to the Web. I found an image of this mural on Flickr that was taken in 2011. The portrait has been around for several years but has not weathered much. The portrait's great condition is reminiscent of line 6 in Psalm 121 which states "the sun shall not smite thee by day, nor the moon by night." It is as if God has protected Lopez's image from the detrimental effects of daily wear and tear. The God of Lopez's community lives closely with His people.

It is not only Tony Lopez who resides in the hearts of his loved ones, but also their God who, for each individual in their solitude, shall "preserve [them] from all evil" (Psalms 121:7).

Works Cited
James, William. The Varieties of Religous Experience. Middlesex: Penguin, 1987. Print

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