Imagine getting together for an evening with friends, some familiar and some new, to enjoy a gourmet meal cooked by an experienced chef. This is followed by a creative, hands-on art experience led by a gifted artist in the community. The evening ends with a lively discussion facilitated by a very engaging local clergyman, delving into a section of Scripture and exploring connections between art and spirituality. And…wait for it… it doesn’t cost a cent (though free will offerings are happily accepted). Sound amazing? That’s because it is.
And here’s the kicker – the experienced chef, the gifted artist and the engaging clergyman? They are all one and the same person, and his name is Rev. Danah Cox.
I recently had the great pleasure to participate in one of these evenings, called “Palates”. On the night I attended, my tablemates and I (all strangers to me, but who felt like firm friends by the end of the evening) enjoyed a delightfully tangy dish called Chicken Piccata, accompanied by spinach tortellini and some quite fabulous Ciabatta bread with balsamic vinegar. This was topped off with a rich slice of Black Forest cake.
Our artistic task for the evening? After a reminder of the familiar words and themes of Psalm 23 (“The Lord is my Shepherd…”), we were let loose on a wide-ranging collection of beautiful photographs from around the world. Danah chose Psalm 23 because of its over-familiarity, as he wanted to help us see why it’s “not just for funerals.” And he chose the artistic genre of photography, because he has found it can be a good, safe “doorway” into seeing new insights and unleashing creativity.
Our challenge was to find three photographs out of the collection that somehow spoke to us about the themes or images from those famous words in Psalm 23. Then, while we ate, the photos we chose were uploaded onto a laptop computer.
It was great fun to see all our “picks” up on the screen after supper, and we then took turns sharing the reasons for our choices, some with obvious connections to Psalm 23, and some much deeper. Danah, with his artist’s eye, was able to draw our attention to elements of the photographs that many of us missed, such as lighting, composition, colour balance, centre of interest, and background details. Then, with his guidance and knowledge of Scripture, we unpacked the Psalm itself, line by line, surprising ourselves with the personal insights we were able to draw out.
As we were leaving, I asked a few other participants if I could record their “take-aways” from the evening. Here are a few:
“There is so much in photographs and artwork that I’m afraid I usually don’t even notice. It was a great exercise tonight in building simple awareness – to take the time to really look and think about the details.”
“I memorized the 23rd Psalm a long time ago when I was a kid, but after tonight, whenever I read it or hear it, it won’t be the same. I love all the things we discovered about it together, through our discussion tonight.”
“The Bible was taught to me in a very black-and-white way. But tonight it really opened up for me – layer upon layer upon layer.”
One participant, Dr. Rod Sykes, is a retired United Church minister. He is happily becoming a regular at these events.
“Danah is a remarkable chap – a terrific chef, and a talented artist,” says Dr. Sykes. “I think this program is so interesting, the way it engages the arts while looking at a theme in Scripture. And the food is always wonderful. The whole evening is really well integrated, thanks to Danah. I enjoy it very much. It allows me to feel more expansive rather than narrowing down – it’s like a broadening out.”
After each “Palates” evening, Danah takes all the reflections and insights expressed, and incorporates them into a piece of artwork, such as a painting or a collage. As well, the evening’s theme and the participants’ “a-ha!” moments will inform his next Sunday sermon at Campbell-Stone United Church in Calgary, Alberta (a dual denominational church of Disciples of Christ and United Church of Canada), where he serves as a minister.
Rev. Danah’s own story is a fascinating one. He grew up in New Orleans, but his understanding of Christianity didn’t come from his childhood. His father was an anthropologist and his mother a mathematician, both very science-minded. Danah himself graduated with a Bachelor of Fine Arts from the John Herron School of Art & Design at Indiana University in Indianapolis. By his late thirties he was married to a curator of fine art in New Orleans, and they had a child. He lost interest in making art (“It all seemed so empty. What was the point?” he says), and instead began working in a number of high-end restaurants in New Orleans, including Brennan’s, Arnaud’s, Louis XVI, Begue’s, L’Escale and Antoine’s. He enjoyed the creativity that is part of the Creole cooking style – using the freshest ingredients at hand, and making sure nothing goes to waste. Danah and his wife were very connected to the world of art and culture, with a nice house overlooking the river.
As Rev. Danah describes it, “I started looking for something more in life – something spiritual, which I was at a loss to even describe. And that started to cause friction in my marriage.”
The couple eventually divorced, and Danah decided that he needed to re-connect with his art. He began to visit elder care facilities, to paint the faces of the people who lived there. He discovered that the seniors loved his paintings of them, but that many of them also really wanted to talk. One of the staff members suggested he take a pastoral care course.
The course started on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, the infamous day of the New York terrorist attacks. As he drove to the course, he heard on the radio about what was happening at the Twin Towers of the World Trade Centre. When he arrived at the course, it was filled with deacons and pastors, mostly African Americans. The instructor, a rather well-known clergyman in the area, started handing out the syllabus.
“About ten minutes into this, I literally took the syllabus and threw it on the table,” recalls Danah. “I asked them, “What are we doing? You’re trying to teach me about pastoral care? You all know what’s going on right now. We can’t just go on as if nothing is happening.” Later, many of the deacons and ministers in the course told me that I took a big leap doing that. They asked me if I knew who the instructor was, which I didn’t. A number of them said, “You should be a minister. You are a prophet, a truth-teller. You’re not afraid to speak out.” And you know what – that really struck me. I couldn’t stop thinking about that.”
He made friends with a number of the deacons and minsters in the course, and they steered him in a helpful direction in his spiritual search.
Fast forward a year later, when he heard about a new seminary program for the United Church of Christ. It was a pilot project from Atlanta, to be held at Dillard University in New Orleans, a private, historically black liberal arts college. Danah signed up. His first course was all about preaching, and as he puts it, “I was the only white guy there. At first they mistook me for the caterer. And I was like a baby in the faith compared to everyone else there.”
A famous, scholarly professor named Dr. Lomax from Atlanta was teaching, and he gave a very nuanced and challenging talk about Mary and how she might not have been well-received by some members of her community after she became pregnant with Jesus. Danah was fascinated by what he was learning, but then he noticed that the class discussion was becoming quite heated. Finally, the professor was confronted by some angry students in the room, who held up their Bibles and asked him, “Professor Lomax, is this the Word of God or not?”
The professor held up his own Bible and said, “If you allow the Bible to take you someplace that gives you a greater understanding of why God is good, then yes, it is His Word. But if you use the Bible out of your brokenness to further your own philosophy, then it’s nothing but a book.” And he dropped the Bible on the floor. A number of the students immediately walked out.
“I just sat there and stared,” says Danah. “But I also had the feeling that I was in the right place.”
Weeks later, when Dr. Lomax noticed that Danah was struggling with some Scriptural concepts in the class, he counseled him to try painting. Dr. Lomax told him to ask himself, “How can I present Biblical metaphors through art?”
“That suggestion really impacted me,” says Danah. “All of a sudden, the Bible was alive to me. I could suddenly see and understand things. In the process of creating artwork, I found my strongest voice and felt the Holy Spirit flowing through me most fully. And that’s why I created these programs, like “Palates”. I want others to find their voice. I want others to experience the flow of the Spirit. I also realized that, just like in the story of the disciples on the road to Emmaus, it is in community that we start to understand Scripture. As the disciples walked and discussed things with Jesus, they started to really get what He was saying. And it was when they were having dinner that they had their epiphany, and realized that Jesus was right there with them. That really is what’s behind “Palates”. Seekers from all backgrounds are welcome here.”
After his experience at Dillard, Danah went on get his Masters of Divinity at Andover Newton Theological School. He married again, and his wife is also ordained as a minister in the United Church of Christ. They moved to Canada and now have two children.
“Palates” is one of three programs (under the umbrella of Brush with the Spirit) that Rev. Danah runs out of St. Andrew’s Centre in Calgary. His “Pause and Effect” group is for anyone looking for practical ways to unlock creative blocks, and hoping to gain concrete improvements in his or her artistic abilities. “Community Studio” is for artists seeking practical advice on an art project – any art project – from a practicing artist.
Rev. Danah’s hope is that through these programs, a community will be built that will unleash creativity and spiritual insights to others, in members’ own circles and in their larger efforts together. His passion is to help awaken people’s spirituality. As he puts it, “Freeing the spiritual self frees the whole self.”
Rev. Danah Cox is a man who isn’t afraid of taking risks, and whose big heart, big dreams and welcoming spirit is infectious. Hanging around with him is pretty much guaranteed to be fun…and delicious.
Rev. Danah’s recipe for Beef Reduction with Pomegranate
VIDEO: Rev. Danah on HOPE: Reflections on a Palates Evening and Isaiah 2: 1-5
For more information, visit Brush with the Spirit.