January 30, 2014
by Josina Cooper Guess
Six years ago, our church in Philadelphia planned a block party as a way of connecting to children and families in the neighborhood. The big attraction was the Moon Bounce, which was scheduled to arrive at 10:00 a.m. I had offered to do face painting, and so I started setting up at 11:15. But the closer it got to noon, the official start time, the more anxious the organizers became, because the Moon Bounce hadn’t arrived yet. Would the children still have fun?
The three kids who lived next door to my family paid no heed to official start times. They were on our doorstep at 8:30. Their mom left at 3 a.m. to go to her $8 an hour job at Wendy’s; the kids were left home alone, or sometimes with her boyfriend there. I had told them about the block party earlier in the week. They remembered and rang the bell, wanting to play at our place before the ten-block walk from our house to the church.
The neighbor kids were uncharacteristically disheveled. I offered to re-twist the oldest girl’s hair, which was held together with a regular rubber band. As I gently restored order to her hair, she told me about her week. Mom and boyfriend got into a fight. He had a knife. Mom took too many pills and had to go to the hospital. The four year-old little sister saw it all.
She told me these facts to explain why they would be moving at the end of the month. It was only 9 a.m. and my heart was in my stomach. These children who had woven themselves into our lives for the past few months weren’t going to be our next-door neighbors anymore, and I couldn’t just twist us together like strands of hair. To keep from crying I kept moving. I got myself and my own two kids ready, and we all walked together, our lives still intertwined for the day.
I was an art major who never intended to be a professional artist. My days often revolve around the inglorious tasks of homemaking, the daily creation and re-creation of order. I wasn’t an experienced face painter, but I had always wanted to paint faces at an event. While I helped a few dozen kids imagine themselves as new characters, they would allow me to play the role of a practicing public artist. My inexperience showed when I was setting up my supplies; I realized I had forgotten a mirror. The children would just have to have faith.
The first face I painted was my neighbor’s, the eight-year-old who’d been left in charge of her two younger siblings. She became a clown. Her seven-year-old brother was transformed into Spiderman. Their four-year old sister needed only a few brush strokes of whiskers and a nose to become a kitty-cat. My four-year-old son became another Spiderman, his two-year-old sister a clown.
The children kept coming. They saw in each other’s faces reflections of what they wanted to become. But each face that presented itself to me was a work of art in itself—from brown to tan to pink and white. They took on new and unnatural colors for the day. Some faces were as flat and white as canvas. Others were so brown that blue and red barely showed up, so I had to use strong lines of white for contrast.
They closed their eyes as I anointed them. I prayed silently that, in that moment of contact, the kids would feel themselves beloved. They opened their eyes with delight and emitted self-satisfied smiles as they felt themselves changed into princesses, leopards, zebras, and pumpkins. Without a mirror, the children trusted that when they rose from the chair they were transformed beings.
A few were skeptical, though. A hesitant butterfly muttered, “It feels like you made a drip on my cheek.“
“No,” I told her, “that’s just the tip of the butterfly’s wing.”
Her furrowed brow loosened.
Others asked, “Why are you doing those colors there?” and “Did you do the fangs with blood dripping down?”
“Yes,” I assured them. “Trust me, I heard your request.”
By 3:30, the flow of children was down to a trickle, and it was time to clean up. The Moon Bounce never arrived, but the kids had fun.
I looked over at my neighbor as we began our walk home. She had played hard for those hours. She looked more like a soldier than a clown, her face camouflaged with blue, green yellow, and red. Face paint and days like this don’t last, we knew. When their mom picked them up from our house later that evening, I worried the girl would be punished for the smear of paint on her white shirt.
In the months that followed, I tried to keep in touch with my young neighbors, but the distance of a few blocks proved to be a chasm. One time, they stopped by to visit and the youngest had a significant wound on her face. A reckless driver had jumped the curb and struck her while she played, then sped away from the mess of sidewalk and blood. The canvas of her young face was raw and marred, but her mom said the girl was blessed: a few feet closer to the road she would have died.
Now, years later and living far from the city, I still wonder about the day I painted my neighbors’ faces. They were so hopeful. They were so trusting and sweet in a world that wanted them to soldier up. So eager to play in a world of hit-and-runs, dead-end jobs, and abusive boyfriends. Did my silent prayers and blessings last? Did the anointing of face paint guard them from the demons of destruction? My heart still aches when I look at their faces through the dim mirror of memory. On that sunny afternoon, we saw one another face-to-face, and we saw the face of God.
Josina Cooper Guess lives in Comer, Georgia with her husband and four children at Jubilee Partners, a Christian service community that offers hospitality to newly arrived refugees. Before moving down south, she lived for 11 years in the Kingsessing neighborhood of Philadelphia.