We Are Dust: Writing A Song for Justice

This August I was asked to bring an arts experience to Justice Camp, a Canada-wide social justice conference from the Anglican Church. I was honoured, but before this was over there would be other feelings, too.

I wound up a little embarrassed. Originally, I had agreed to lead an ‘immersion experience’. This meant spending three full days with up to 15 participants exploring the relationship between art, justice and land. I did my research. I invited guests to share with the group. We were going to visit nature and listen to poetry. We were going to step inside artist studios and Skype with an installation artist from the States. We were going to take pinhole photographs of the river valley and read a play about working in the oil sands. It was going to be glorious. I was going to be joined by a fantastic local poet, Stephen Berg. But it never happened. 

As the registration deadline approached, with only 1 or 2 names on my list, we decided to cancel the immersion. 

Truth is, I felt a relief. I was busy–about to head to Santa Fe for the Glen Workshop (were, ironically, my own track had been cancelled the year before). But I was also sad. I believe the arts have a lot to say about justice. I wanted to meet some artists from across Canada. I’d put in a lot of thought and planning. 

But I wasn’t licked yet.

Perhaps, I suggested, we could integrate the arts into the whole Camp, rather than a more intense experience for a small segment? The leadership was more than pleased. They had intended to approach me with a similar arrangement. So it was settled. 

In the end, everyone at the camp experienced the arts on some level. I decided to do a small teaching on art and justice, then, sticking with the interactive theme of the conference, give the participants something to do. Rather than talk about the arts, we would engage the camp’s themes of justice and land through the arts.

I was introduced through my own art – music. I played and sang for a worship service the first Saturday afternoon. Later that night, after sharing dinner with the group, I spoke for a half hour about art’s power to help us pay close attention. These participants were about to experience a lot at this Justice Camp - perhaps too much to take in over three days. Some were visiting the oil sands. Others were visiting the homeless of the inner city. Some would visit aboriginal leaders and construct a tipi through rich ceremony. How could they be sure to process this well. The arts, I say, are a great tool for processing.

Art helps us press pause and pull a moment apart into strands of memory. Art takes the ephemeral and pins it down for all to see, again and again. Or to hear. 

I encouraged all participants to do one or all of three actions during the Camp. Draw a picture. Take a photo. Write two lines of text. Then email that content to me. 

I promised to take the content and create an original piece of art. I would return Wednesday evening, after the separate immersion experiences, and present what I was able to produce.

I think I seemed confident I could deliver something of value. I was not. 

I’d never done this before, and I have had mixed results with communal creativity. But this should work, I reasoned, because I had made no promises to included everything sent to me, and no commitments to what form this project would take.

I intended to create a multimedia piece, perhaps a video, but in the end pulled back to simplify the work into a song with some spoken word pieces. 

The song did emerge through multimedia. I received images from the conference and two images were set one after another in the order. Each shows hands holding earth, or digging earth. Sand falling through fingers. 

Words came. ‘We are dust, and to dust we shall return’. A melody was hot on their heels.

I began to write the song, We Are Dust–to fold the words sent to me into some sort of narrative and rhyme. A lot of the words worked. Some didn’t. Some of the language was excellent and vivid. These were better lyrics than I would usually write myself. The voice of collective wisdom singing. 

This project finished not as a burden, but a blessing. It was a blessing to read the words and see the drawings and photos sent in. It was a blessing to witness those who’d been touched by a vision justice, and now would return home to touch others. It was icing on the cake to walk away with a new song. To play that song back to those who’d help create it was to partake in creativity rich with community and context. I am grateful to Travis, Barb, Rick and many more for those riches.

This past August, I learned a bit about justice, land, art and the way the three can sound when set to music.

They can sound a little bit like this. 

Dave Von Bieker

Dave Von Bieker, 11243 85 St NW, Edmonton, AB, T5B 3C6, Canada

Dave Von Bieker lives at the intersection of art, faith, hope and love. He has 2 great kids, a fantastic wife, and a mostly good dog. He plays red guitars and drives red cars.