Creativity and the Poor—Bob Fox’s Ministry, part 1

Bob Fox was a street priest whose parish was in the heart of Harlem.  As a young priest he had studied with Ivan Illich in Cuernavaca, Mexico, who totally changed his perspective on life and the priesthood. 

A program of Matthew and Robert Fox’s collaborative workshop. Matthew Fox legacy collection.

My first encounter with Bob occurred when we were both scheduled to speak on an ecumenical program in Portland Oregon. I spoke about our dignity, our creativity, compassion, and art as meditation. Then Bob stood up, all six-feet-two-inches of him, and his opening line was, “Hearing Matt Fox talk, I feel less lonely in the universe.” Then he began to cry. Until then, I had never seen a grown man cry before an audience of a thousand people.

He went on to say, “Matt has learned his spirituality—what did he call it? ‘creation spirituality’—his way. I have learned my spirituality on the streets of Harlem, but I will tell you this: we are talking about the same spirituality. All you can really do for the very poor is to awaken their creativity by whatever means possible so then they can liberate themselves. Matt does it his way. We do it by doing rubbings of manhole covers and other ways.”

“Dandelion” Photo by Martina, Pixabay

Bob launched a yearly event on the streets of Harlem known as “the thing in the spring.”  It was all about art.  They would block off the streets and invite many artists to come and set up booths—NOT to hawk their work but to oversee the community folks as they tried art.  They would hand out cameras to take pictures of cracks between the sidewalk and blow them up to be 4 feet by 4 feet and post them on the basement walls of the church.  “Look at the beauty we walk on every day on the sidewalks” he would say and a discussion would ensue. 

So too with taking rubbings of manhole covers which also went up on the church basement walls like the mandalas they were and became objects of meditation and inspired many discussions.  “See the date—1918–Did my grandfather lay that manhole cover?” was one such question.

“Manhole cover, Bureau of Sewers, Borough of Manhattan” Photographer Paul Sableman, Flickr

Attending the celebration of his twenty-fifth anniversary as a priest I found myself sitting in the front pew between two prostitutes during the mass, and I remember the party in the church basement with two vivid images: The first was the Hispanic police woman taking off her guns and joining the dance; and the second was my going to bed exhausted at 3 a.m, turning to look back at the group, and seeing Bob leading a Zorba the Greek dance.

Adapted from Matthew Fox, Confessions: The Making of a Post-Denominational Priest, pp.132f, 312.

Banner Image: “East 100th Street, Harlem, 1967” Photographer unknown. From HistoryPorn on

Queries for Contemplation

Have you ever considered doing rubbings of manhole covers?  Or blown up pictures of the cracks between the sidewalk?  What is the message you take in from these examples of art as meditation and the Via Creativa? 

Recommended Reading

Matthew Fox’s stirring autobiography, Confessions, reveals his personal, intellectual, and spiritual journey from altar boy, to Dominican priest, to his eventual break with the Vatican. Five new chapters in this revised and updated edition bring added perspective in light of the author’s continued journey, and his reflections on the current changes taking place in church, society and the environment.

Because creativity is the key to both our genius and beauty as a species but also to our capacity for evil, we need to teach creativity and to teach ways of steering this God-like power in directions that promote love of life (biophilia) and not love of death (necrophilia). Pushing well beyond the bounds of conventional Christian doctrine, Fox’s focus on creativity attempts nothing less than to shape a new ethic.

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