Photo: The Sanctuaries website https://www.thesanctuaries.org/

A few weeks back, I had the honor of chatting with Rev. Erik W. Martínez Resly, one of the co-directors of The Sanctuaries. The Sanctuaries is a beautiful community of artists in Washington DC and I was grateful to learn more about the project from Erik.

Erik grew up in a religiously and ethnically diverse community in Germany and experienced first hand how powerful and healing a trusted community can be. In high school he got diagnosed with late-stage cancer and while the doctors helped to heal his body, he said that “it was my chosen community and my family that healed my spirit”. His life journey lead him to work with spiritual communities and he became ordained as a minister. After graduating from Divinity school, he ended up moving to Washington DC and found the city to be incredibly diverse yet surprisingly segregated.

So together with 15 fellow artists he started The Sanctuaries, a community that would be not just another meet up or happy hour, but an “intentionally sacred community for artists to support each other in serving the social good”. By now, the Sanctuaries consists of about 150 artists at the inner circle of the community, and with many more contributing to projects and showing up to events. The Sanctuaries exists to “build trust across lines of social division, invest in each other’s personal growth, and collaborate on projects that advance social change”. In order to create a sense of intimacy and trust within the larger group of 150 people, they have created “art teams”, smaller sub-groups that come together around a specific practice of art or activism. The group uses art to engage with a variety of social justice issues in DC and beyond through campaigns, performances, events and workshops, and they also train artists for social change.

Screenshot from The Sanctuaries website https://www.thesanctuaries.org/

I was struck by how truly intentional and thoughtful the community is designed and nurtured, and here are some highlights from our conversation:

The crucial and learned role of co-creation

Erik stressed the importance of collaboration and co-creation in the group. And he felt that it was both the most significant, but also most challenging aspect of the community. It is challenging, because in today’s world most people are so used to showing up with a mindset of consumption, a mindset that people have to actively “unlearn”. This shows up in a an assumption that “the leaders will do it for me”. In Erik’s words, in a co-created community “you can’t just show up and consume. Instead we want you to remember that you are invited to help create the world you want to live in, help form it, help shape it. Your voice matters. Your vision becomes our collective vision”. The first time people show up to an event, they might expect artists to perform art for them, but they soon realize that they are invited to co-create the art and be a full part of it.

The importance of art to deepen conversations and bridge differences

We talked a bit about what The Sanctuaries “secret sauce” is, and what I kept hearing was how art, and specifically the shared process of art making, is a beautiful way of bringing people together for deeper conversations and connections. The quality of interactions and “the quality of spirit” is different at The Sanctuaries than in other settings. People show up with intention and attention. The process of creating something together requires the group to face difficult questions, and it is in that process that the group grows, both individually and collectively.

The other part I heard in our conversation was how The Sanctuaries values and welcomes people from all different kinds of faiths, spiritual backgrounds, and philosophies. And art making can provide a safe and rich space for such a wide variety of beliefs to come together and challenge themselves and each other in a compassionate and enriching way. In Erik’s words, “art making is a form of sacred expression and sacred learning, since it draws from the deepest parts of who we are as human beings”.

Photo via The Sanctuaries website https://www.thesanctuaries.org/

The internal and external purpose of the group

The Sanctuaries started with a clear internal purpose, that is still at the core of the group: for artists to create a safe and intimate space to meet each other, support each other, heal each other. But over time, The Sanctuaries members felt called to go beyond the boundaries of their group. In Erik’s words: “artists are visionaries for society” and “the purpose of this community has become to activate folks to go beyond the immediate community to be midwives of a more beautiful and just world”. Erik felt that this is a natural transition that has been reflected in many religious traditions: moving away from the me / individual / ego focus to the we / god / service focus. Erik: “there is nothing new about this, people have always sought to connect with a higher calling and deeper purpose in order to fully realize themselves”.

The artists at The Sanctuaries go out and support social change projects through their arts (a list of beautiful examples here). For example, one of their members, a visual artist who does large scale paintings, connected with a local grassroots social justice campaign that has been organizing in a local neighborhood for many years. Together they created a mural in the community that tells and reclaims the area’s history (while outside forces are trying to disappear this history in order to neutralize the impact of gentrification). The artists at The Sanctuaries support each other to navigate the intricacies of these projects and face questions such as: how do we work with a community, rather than working for it?

Staying open to constant change

Erik told me how they are trying not to get too attached to specific forms and ways of being as a community. In his words: “Everything in our community is both purposeful and adaptive. We’re in constant flux, because the world we live in is in constant flux, especially in Washington, DC”. So they nurture the concept of “radical responsiveness”, encouraging artists to constantly stay open to experimentation. It’s an ongoing process of birthing and death, creating and letting go, celebrating and mourning. So many communities struggle with that. Once they find a good modus operandi, they try to hold on to that one way of doing, even when the signs arise that it is no longer as needed or as effective as it once was. The willingness to change really has to be part of a culture, otherwise communities perpetuate their model over their mission.

How to support them

As a purpose driven community and non-profit, financial resources are tight and limit how many artists The Sanctuaries can welcome and how many projects they can support. So they are grateful for financial support and donations which can be made here.

Thank you Erik for a wonderful conversation, your thoughtful edits to this post and the amazing work you do!