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Jesus in Dreadlocks

Jesus in Dreadlocks
By France Griggs Sloat

About three days a week, James Hasse, S.J., climbs the stairwell inside an old warehouse of peeling paint and greasy hallways and ambles to his studio. He undoes the padlock, lifts the garage-like door and enters a world of beauty. Scattered across the worn wooden floor and hung high on the dingy walls are dozens of paintings, some bold, some more subtle, all of liturgical themes.

The light from a single-paned window creeps in, softly stroking the shapes on the canvases and revealing an aspect that separates them from traditional liturgical art: All of the people are African American. There’s Jesus in deadlocks beckoning children. There’s a black Madonna and child. The men and women wear colorful robes associated with Holy Land cultures, and the faces inside them are black and brown and tan. Hasse, a 69-year-old Jesuit priest living in a low-income neighborhood of Cincinnati, is white. But he’s spent most of his adult life among some of the most destitute and disadvantaged people deep inside the black enclaves of Chicago, Detroit, St. Louis and Cincinnati. As he’s ministered to the African-American residents of the housing projects, offering healing and hope to the patchwork families surviving in the midst of drug-dealing and crime, he’s developed relationships with them, some of whom were parishioners at his churches. He saw God in each of them and sought out those who would pose for his canvases.

His knack for art was sparked at age 9 by a book he read about Dr. Livingston in Africa. He copied the drawings of tribal people and found out he was pretty good. “God is working subconsciously there saying these are attractive spiritual people,” he says. “I am so convinced the glory of God shines through every person, and seeing that is a great grace in my life, and that’s what I wanted to share. ”

His journey began when he left his pre-med studies for the priesthood, coming to Xavier to enter the Jesuit novitiate at Milford, Ohio. He went on to earn three master’s degrees—art, theology and anthropology. All along, he served at churches in various cities, concentrating on his African-American ministry. He began to paint the people when he was a student at Saint Louis University in the 1960s, putting them in Biblical poses such as the Pieta—Jesus in the arms of Mary after the crucifixion.

Sometimes he hears back from the people he taught. One woman called him recently about her art exhibit and thanked him for recognizing her talent and being a father for her. “It’s nice to hear from these people,” he says.

His paintings have shown around the country and been the featured art in the Josephite calendar for two years. The money he earns from sales helps pay rent at his Jesuit community. Using only acrylics, he reveals the spirituality he sees in his subjects, but he doesn’t hide their pain. One of his favorite themes is the sorrowful Madonna. In one version, the woman is holding her baby close to her chest, but her eyes are distant, worried.

“It’s something you can feel with these young mothers who love their children yet know what’s down the line for them,” he says. “Seventy-five percent of them will end up in jail.”

Hasse knows that’s heavy stuff, but he hopes he’s lifted the spirits of some of these people who’ve lived on the fringes, and helped them find their way. They’ve certainly helped him. “I do enjoy it,” he says. “It’s soul-satisfying.”

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