"It is only a few times that anyone has the chance or the will to search the innermost bravery of another human face." Christopher Morley
Last winter, portrait artist Andrea K. Schneider was on a mission. A special mentorship, awarded by the Portrait Society of America, brought her to Michigan where she sought out Christian Iraqi refugees who escaped religious persecution by fleeing to the United States.
The results of her experience are currently on display in the Delbarton Fine Arts Center (thank you to DAC volunteers Anne Fraenkel-Tonet P'19, on right, and Linda Snow Adami P'17,'19, left, for assisting with the exhibit installation).
This is a quiet exhibit, no splashy canvases or large iconic images. Instead, Schneider's exhibit features subdued pastel portraits of people whose lives forever changed due to the inability of their fellow citizens to allow them to worship their God in peace. While Schneider focused on Christian refugees, she uses these haunting images as symbols of a global blight. According to a recent news report, more than 60 percent of the world's population of 7.5 billion people resides in countries that routinely deny residents the right to religious freedom. Of that number, an estimated 505 million Christians face persecution for following their faith.
How can one person change the dynamic? A good place to start is by putting a face on it, and Schneider's carefully rendered portraits do just that. In one, she pictures a young girl torn from her family at age three, and found wandering an Iraqi street three years later. Miraculously, she and her birth mother were reunited.
Schneider says, "My aim is to bring greater awareness to the plight of Christians in the Middle East, namely people from the countries of the first Christian origins, whose lives and 5,000 year cultural and religious heritage have been under siege."
Coincidentally, this week a faith-based organization Churchinneed.org is sponsoring a special campaign, Courage in Red, of symbolic gestures demonstrating solidarity. Parish churches and institutions are illuminated in red, symbolizing the blood of martyrdom that is sometimes the tragic byproduct of religious persecution. Learn more here.
One portrait in the exhibit has a bright red Arabic letter painted on the front, a symbol scrawled on Christian homes and businesses in Iraq warning others to stay away. This attempt to isolate families from society is a chilling reminder of the yellow Star of David used by Nazis to isolate and persecute Jewish families during World War II.
Has the world really learned so little since then?
Schneider says, "When I did the pictures of the children I could only think of their innocence and wonder about a childhood of fear and uncertainty. I wondered what visual experiences might be imbedded in their minds. I was grateful they were safe but sad they had to lose their faith heritage and life in their ancient homeland. When I did the pictures of the adults I wondered much the same but also after so many years in their land, their sadness of seeing it destroyed and the "erasing" of their civilization. I saw their culture as beautiful and very distinct, they were very capable people and I felt sad they now had to assimilate into a much different place."
We encourage everyone to take a few moments in the FAC to pause, look at the faces, and read the brief text about each person who Schneider encountered in the American heartland. Each face and story is a poignant reminder that, when it comes to religious tolerance, we still have a long way to go. Every example of persecution is the story not of a country, a political cause, or a war, but of a person and a family.
Born and raised in St Louis and now a Mendham resident, Andrea Schneider graduated with a Fine Arts degree from Maryville College of the Sacred Heart. Her professional career included graphic design and production. In 2014, she concluded a twelve-year career as an elementary school art teacher, and she has instructed children and adults at area art associations and in private lessons.
We commend Schneider for capturing these compelling stories in her portraits, and for sharing them with the Delbarton community.
(Update: the Delbarton 'Portraits of Faith' exhibit currently is featured in this article online at Aleteia.org)