Let Us Spray Graffiti Artist Saves Church from Closure

A church in the German village of Goldscheuer was threatened with closure as worshippers stayed away in droves. But then the parish priest met a graffiti artist, and the story of a divine rescue plan began to unfold.


By in Goldscheuer, Germany

Hans-Dieter Udri, 70, is a little shy as he goes up to the man standing in the middle of the church, who has his hands in his pockets, a black hat on his head and a gas mask covering his face.

"Are you Stefan Strumbel?" asks Udri. Then he begins to talk of the past, when he was still a child, when everyone went to mass on Sundays, young or old. He is a Christian, and, speaking in his Alemannic German dialect, he insists that he is a believer. His gaze wanders up to the church roof. He hardly ever goes to mass anymore.

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Photo Gallery: Spray Paint Savior
Udri is one of many Christians in the small town of Goldscheuer who had stayed away from the church for years. Yet he is also one of many who have regained their interest in their village church of late -- people who want to know just what Stumbel is up to here.

The cornerstone of the Mary, Help of Christians Church was laid 50 years ago. Udri was an altar boy when the church was dedicated. But it is remarkable that he can now enter the church this lunchtime at all. The door had been locked for years when there was no mass or other event taking place. But it is also remarkable because, in recent years, hardly anyone came even when the doors were open.

Of the approximately 2,200 inhabitants in Goldscheuer, 1,200 are Catholics. On recent Sundays, however, less than 3 percent of the faithful were turning up at mass. Attendance had fallen so low that the archdiocese in Freiburg considered closing the church.

Hundreds of Catholic churches will be threatened by a similar fate over the next few years in Germany as increasing numbers of worshippers stay away, and as the popularity of going to mass falls steadily, even amongst the faithful.

Barely Used

It was not looking good for the village church of Goldscheuer. It was dilapidated, its façade dreary. The interior walls were partially blackened by the heaters placed in front of them. What would be the point of investing in a building that was barely used anymore?

But now the mood is more about looking forward than backward. The church is not only still there, but it will soon be attracting people to come to Goldscheuer specifically to visit it. That says a lot about the place, and even more about the relationship of many Christians to the Church.

When Father Thomas Braunstein, 47, took over as parish priest in Goldscheuer, it was a time of trepidation for him. The archdiocese had tied the survival of the church to conditions: Donations were needed to finance part of the renovation.

It was a difficult time for people like Hannah Schäfer, 63, a member of the parish council for 30 years. Schäfer's mother had made the cover for the altar and the altar boys' vestments. "Our parents made great sacrifices," she says. "They also collected money so that the church could be built." For Schäfer and other parish councilors, it was not just a matter of maintaining a church -- it was also about saving what their parents had created.

They went door to door, meeting people like Hans-Dieter Udri, who despite their reservations could not imagine the village without a church. They met people who still hold the church dear.

An Anchor for the Community

Father Braunstein also went out collecting. He paid visits to businessmen, some of whom had left the church. He marveled at their willingness to give money. The church, it seemed, remained an anchor for the community -- except hardly anyone entered it any more.

In total, around €50,000 ($72,500) was collected, a huge sum for the village. But it was not enough -- the community needed to supply around a third of the total cost of €250,000. Despite that, the archdiocese gave the renovations the go-ahead in the summer of 2010.

Now, the chances are good that the missing €30,000 can be raised through attracting outside visitors who would put money into the coffers. That is because of one man: Stefan Strumbel. The 32-year-old artist lives in nearby Offenburg. He is often referred to as a street artist because he started out by spraying walls and trains. Today, in his studio, he paints women in traditional Black Forest dress with weapons in their arms; he sketches cuckoo clocks with hand grenades next to the clock face and paints them in bright colors. His central theme is the very German concept of Heimat, which loosely translates as "home" or "native region." He makes tradition provocative, and demands his audience confront their own idea of what their Heimat is and what it means.

For Strumbel, provocation does have its limits, however. Because he also works with religious symbols, he sought out contact with Father Braunstein. The priest gave him theological advice, for example about whether it was acceptable to put a skull at the top of a crucifix. No, said Braunstein, Jesus conquered death, the skull had to go under the cross. Today the priest calls the artist "a gift from God."

'The Church Had an Indescribable Aura'

In actual fact, it is as if fate -- or some greater power -- brought two sides together in Goldscheuer who complement each other like two pieces of a puzzle: On the one hand, Strumbel with his art that challenges the concept of home, on the other, the believers who didn't go to church, who are now passionate for a building that was once home.

When Strumbel visited the church for the first time, he was practically disgusted by its outward dreariness. "The church looked like a gym," he says. But when he went inside, he quickly changed his mind: "Even when the church was gutted, it had an indescribable aura."

Anyone hearing Strumbel say that might have reason to doubt him: It was a mundane building inside as well; only the light flowing through the big windows and their colorful motifs helped to give the space something of a spiritual feeling.

But what could be more attractive for an artist than to place his work in the symbol-laden context of a Catholic church? And what could be more tempting for a graffiti artist than the building's extensive walls?


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Washbush 06/10/2011
1. Please make regular updates to this story ...
This is such a fantastic story in so many respects, that it demands a regular follow up. I would like to see an up date once per week, showing the progress until the job is finished. Can you do that, please? John M
BTraven 06/14/2011
What a pity that evangelists are not allowed to have images in their churches. Perhaps, there will be a new Michelangelo among those who paint there.
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