God with us

It was my first time to see the original “Hapag ng Pag-asa” displayed in an exhibit at the Arts Center in SM-Cebu. Joey Velasco, the artist behind this now famous painting, allowed it to be brought here along with several of his other obras for public viewing. Since he created it in 2005, Joey has drawn national attention with this art work depicting Jesus breaking bread with impoverished street children in a makeshift table in place of his apostles. The concept itself is unique. He says he did it for his children to remind them to count their blessings. Noticing that his children were wasting food and they were choosy in their meals, he wanted to give them a visual reminder that other children have little or nothing to eat at all. Such a visual imagery in a 48×96-inch oil in canvas has become a real masterpiece in religious art. What started at a personal project has now received national acclaim and more.

Listening to some of his conferences, he shared that he has not received formal art schooling but has picked up his craft from many mentors as well as observing great painters like Amorsolo, Rembrandt or Juan Luna. It all started when he was stricken with a kidney ailment that led him to experience depression and darkness. He even prayed that God would throw him a rope; instead the Lord reached out through a paintbrush. Painting brought about his catharsis leading him back to himself to see the light. Now he claims to have found new life and with it a new mission of putting his faith in canvas. He doesn’t call himself an artist but a “heartist” — an artist with a heart for the poor. In fact, he considers himself just a paintbrush being used by the Divine Artist to share in the power to create and bring about changes in society for the better. Many more painting came thereafter even a book to explain the children of the “Hapag” entitled “They have Jesus.”

There are two things I learned from Joey’s paintings. First, I realize each person can make a difference. Every man or woman has the capacity to affect change whether one is a priest, a lay man, a sister, a housewife, an artist or an artisan. What is important is that one has the heart to do it. I watched with deep admiration in television the burial of former president Corazon C. Aquino last week. It was a historical funeral that merits the record as one of the longest and most attended in recent memory. Many compared it with that of her husband Ninoy but with a poignant difference. While Ninoy’s internment was characterized by rage; Cory’s was an expression of love and gratitude. Listening to the praises and accolades heaped on her by those who knew her in life, I could only sigh and say that indeed honors simply fade away. Only the good that one did in one’s lifetime will ever remain. People stood under the rain to bid goodbye to Cory for making a difference in their lives.

In his own way, Joey’s painting have touched people’s lives. He makes use of the gift that God has given him to depict a haunting reality happening in our society. He is like a prophet conscienticizing us to become a Jesus for others. One of his recent paintings I saw is a Jesus seated on a bench while a poor boy washes his feet. And as one looks at the boy closer, his other leg is missing. The point is clear: even those who have less can serve and make a difference. Those who open themselves to help others always end up getting more than what they shared. They serve Jesus.

The second lesson I learned is to have hope always. The reason for this hope is because God is with us. In almost all of Joey’s painting Jesus is always present. He is with street children, with farmers, with old men or with those afflicted with down syndrome. Joey finds God in ordinary life experiences and sees God in people. These become for him a sacred encounter with the divine which he captures in his palette. One touching story he narrated was about a 2nd year college student who said she was an atheist. She was visiting his exhibit at the UST Fine Art Department and pointing to the “Hapag” she revealed “if that is what God is all about, then it has awakened a part of me.” Several months later, Joey got a note from her disclosing that she has already been baptized.

I am inspired by Joey’s art which he uses as a medium to teach and to challenge. As it teaches me to look at my life from the point of view of the Divine Artist to appreciate all the bright colors of my life, it also challenges me not to despair of my shadows. Everyone can find God in the most unexpected places in their lives and find hope. We know we are never truly alone. God is with us.