God Is in the Details

A former bill collector helps churches paint a brighter picture.

In the New Testament, Saul of Tarsus journeyed to Damascus to persecute Christians. On his way, he was blinded by the image of a risen Christ and underwent a dramatic conversion, becoming the Apostle Paul.

What happened to local artist Lawrence Childress on the road to tiny Mt. Carmel Baptist Church, just west of City Park, wasn't quite as dramatic. But Childress has a vision of his own.

Two summers ago, Childress was working as a bill collector for a financial-services company called USA Capital. One of his assignments was to collect a large, outstanding debt from the church. He didn't relish the job. He'd grown up around churches and figured that the Almighty wouldn't take kindly to him repossessing a church's sound system. "I felt awkward coming to a church," he says. "I wanted to help them get through."

Art from the heart: Lawrence Childress helps raise money for churches with his artwork.
Art from the heart: Lawrence Childress helps raise money for churches with his artwork.

The road to salvation wouldn't be easy. Mt. Carmel had been delinquent on its bill for nearly two years. Since the sound system cost more than $18,000 and the church's USA Capital loan carried a staggering 25 percent yearly interest rate, Mt. Carmel owed nearly $30,000. Childress called the church and left messages, all the while holding the bean counters at USA Capital at bay. But it wasn't until another company representative went out to the church to survey the equipment that Childress finally got a call back from Mt. Carmel administrator Linda Brame.

"I told him if members don't tithe, the church has no money," Brame says. And not enough people had been tithing -- donating 10 percent of their income -- to cover costs. Childress told his manager he felt uncomfortable repossessing church belongings, and his manager allowed him to draw up a contract giving the church a year to pay back its debt. Brame and Childress spoke on the phone about ways to raise money. Childress told her he'd been drawing since the age of five and always believed his art would one day serve God. Maybe this was that day.

Brame told him the church was putting on a fundraiser called Taste of Africa, a combination dinner and fashion show, and that artwork was needed for it. So Childress created ingenious cutouts that were painted and shaped like elephants, giraffes and zebras at play in the savannas of Africa.

Although the event didn't raise much money, Childress's artwork went over well, and the church asked him to paint a mural behind its baptismal pool. And as he set about sketching the mural, which is called Matthew 18:5 and depicts children of different ethnic backgrounds huddling around a black Jesus, he came up with a way that churches and other nonprofit organizations could use his art to raise money.

The plan calls for a group to commission a work by an area artist. The work will be reproduced as posters or lithographs, the reproductions sold, and the profits split: 50 percent would go to the church or nonprofit, 20 percent to the artist, 10 percent to an organization Childress set up called Have a Heart Through the Arts, and the rest to whomever sells the work -- which could be the church or nonprofit. If the church winds up with extra money, Childress would like to see the funds go toward creating scholarships, starting ministries and addressing community needs.

"It's not about money," he says. "It's ministry. But you can't focus on the ministry if you're worried about the money."

Few churches and nonprofits in northeast Denver would argue with that. According to Ken Scarborough, a mentor with the nonprofit Save Our Youth, people generally don't give as much when they're feeling prosperous. The current economic slowdown may actually help charities, he suggests: "People who've had a lot, when their downturn comes and it stays down, they have a tendency to give more regularly. The poor still give the greatest to nonprofit organizations."

But spreading the gospel about Childress's program is proving to be tough work. Although he had 2,500 copies of Matthew 18:5 made, only thirty have been sold -- at a cost of $210 each, which adds up to $6,300. But since making the prints cost $2,900, the church has only collected $1,700. To spur sales, Childress plans to lower the price to $135. Even then, however, the church would have to sell at least 440 prints to pay off USA Capital.

"The lithographs are not selling like we thought they would," says Brame. The church hopes newspaper ads and a primer course in tithing for its congregation -- along with lots of prayer -- can help stop the bleeding and raise the necessary cash; without the sound system, the church may have to close its doors.

Elsewhere in northeast Denver, interest in Have a Heart Through the Arts has been mixed. Although everyone agrees the idea is a good one, Save Our Youth, for instance, already has its hands full with fundraisers. This spring, Childress did a painting for the New Hope Baptist Church that's drawn rave reviews. "He's an artist who can see other people's visions," says friend Malissa Murdock. But New Hope has a policy that forbids the church to sell things.

Epworth United Methodist Church plans to get involved next month. "It's a very valuable program," says its minister, the Reverend Hugh Harris.

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