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Trinity Lutheran commissions original artwork to celebrate 75th anniversary and support ‘mission and ministry’

By Pastor Devlyn Brooks

PELICAN RAPIDS -- Those entering Trinity Lutheran Church’s gathering area -- from any direction -- now will encounter a stunning new piece of art commissioned to celebrate the church’s 75th anniversary this fall.

The mixed media wall hanging portrays Christ hanging on the cross, an image with which many faithful are familiar. But what might catch a discerning eye is that the three points at the top of the cross end in arrows directed outward from where Jesus hangs in crucifixion.

Designed by professional designer and illustrator Paul Johnson, who has attended Trinity his entire life, the artwork symbolizes Jesus’ love for everyone, inside the church and out, a nod to Trinity Lutheran’s mission statement.

“The piece is about sharing the love of Jesus by meeting people where they are,” said Trinity’s Lead Pastor, Eric Schwirian, “and that is outside the church.”

Hence the multiple crosses arrows directed outward the piece depicts, as well as, a halo of additional arrows surrounding the cross, all also pointed outward.

At 3 feet by 5 feet, the piece weighs about 15 pounds, making it easy to hang on the wall and also allows for the piece to be mobile. However, akin to a magician who doesn’t want to divulge how a trick is performed, Johnson would rather not share the process used to create the piece of art, saying it’s out of respect to the high school art teacher who inspired him to utilize such a multimedia form.

Johnson will, however, share that items such as cardboard, barb wire, aluminum tape and nails were used in its creation.

“This piece is an excellent example of stunning, yet affordable, church artwork,” Pastor Schwirian said. “It enhances Trinity's gathering space and regularly reminds us about our congregation's mission to share the love of Jesus.”

While the artwork helped to create a celebratory mood at the church’s 75th-anniversary celebration held on Sunday, Sept. 24, Pastor Schwirian said the church’s evangelism board intended it to have a greater purpose than just to look beautiful. And that intention, says the pastor, is about “mission and ministry.”

So, in addition to commissioning the piece itself, in advance of the 75th-anniversary celebration, the church had 3-inch-by-5-inch prints of the piece made for everyone in attendance that day. And the suggestion to the worshipers was to make a free-will donation in appreciation of the gift.

Ultimately, all of the proceeds from sales of prints will go toward mission, Pastor Schwirian says, supporting Trinity's giving to missionaries in the field, the Ugandan church Watoto, Luther Crest Bible Camp, Ottertail Rural Conference, and the Northwestern Minnesota Synod.

Those interested in supporting Trinity’s mission work may order their own print of Johnson’s work by mailing a check to Trinity Lutheran Church at P.O. Box 341, Pelican Rapids, MN 56572. The print is available on a free-will donation basis and comes in three sizes: Small (8 inches by 10 inches), medium (8.5 inches by 14 inches) or large (16 inches by 20 inches).

Please include a note with your order containing your full name, telephone number, the size you are ordering, and the mailing address of where to send the print. For questions, call the church office at 218.863.2424.

Pastor Schwirian said all who were involved with the process are more than pleased with the outcome, adding that when the work was unveiled during the 75th-anniversary service, there was an audible gasp from the crowd.

Johnson, the artist, said he thinks the audience’s intense reaction was in response to the immense texture and three-dimensional nature of the piece.

“People want to touch it. Texture is an element of art, but we’ve lost it in today’s world, though,” he said. “We stare at flat screens all day long. But we’re human beings, and we love touch.”

“I’m going to look at it every Sunday for new insight, new inspiration,” Pastor Schwirian said.

Liturgical artist

Johnson, who describes himself as a “liturgical artist,” said he is honored to have been commissioned to create Trinity’s 75th anniversary artwork.

Yes, having attended the church his entire life, Johnson said he loves the church. But for him, creating this piece was even more personal than that; it was about his identity.

“I always wanted to be a liturgical artist,” Johnson said. “Since when I was a kid when my parents handed me a bulletin and a pencil to draw on it in church.”

So, just what exactly is a liturgical artist?

An artist who expresses through their God-given creativity an understanding of the world, Johnson said.

“We’re creative because God is the Great Creator. You create because He created us. It’s very mystical, very spiritual. To me, that’s just God,” Johnson said. “Everybody has their gift, and if you’re an artist, you just want to get it out.”

A professional designer and illustrator by vocation, Johnson has a long history in producing all kinds of art throughout northwestern Minnesota and beyond.

Johnson received his education from Minnesota State University Moorhead and was previously employed for 13 years as a corporate artist in Fargo, N.D., but more recently was an instructor at Alexandria Technical & Community College in Alexandria, Minn., for 21 years.

Deep down, though, he always knew that when he retired -- which he recently did -- he wanted to commit the rest of his life to producing liturgical works of art, work that was divinely inspired.

“This is what I want to do with my time I have left,” he said. 

There is an undeniable connection between church and art, says Johnson, who also has designed the vaunted Concordia College Christmas Concert murals for the past 13 years. “My career has continually touched the Spirit,” he said. “If you don’t have Christ in your life, it’s a dark world. I want to make a difference with my art.”

A merger

Trinity’s diamond anniversary was about much more than just a milestone in longevity, said Pastor Schwirian, looking back on the long planning process and the large effort poured into the celebration.

While celebrating the moment was important, he said church leaders wanted to pay homage to their ancestral visionaries who created the path to such a long and vibrant future.

And those visionaries included the leaders of two Lutheran churches -- Ringsaker Norwegian Evangelical Lutheran Church and Pelican Valley Lutheran, which were literally situated across the street from each other -- who, rather than compete, decided on Aug. 18, 1948, to merge.

The leaders of both of those churches left their current buildings, and the new jointly formed congregation moved into the local high school from 1950-54 while together they built the church that stands today.

On June 6, 1954, the new Trinity Lutheran Church held its first worship service, which was followed by a dedication celebration on Sept. 26 of the same year.

“The 75th anniversary celebration was to acknowledge the past and where it all came from,” Pastor Schwirian said, “but also to celebrate the future too.”

As such, the church invited back former pastors and leaders from the church’s history for the 75th anniversary celebration, but also current church leaders, including Northwestern Minnesota Bishop Bill Tesch.

The list included the Rev. Gerry Rafftery, the Rev. Tom Olson, the Rev. Glen Stadler, Synod Authorized Minister Al Grothe, and the Rev. Scott Block.

“It was sure a treat to have these pastors back,” said Johnson, the artist who has spent his entire life at Trinity. “I knew them all.”