Fourth Sunday After Epiphany

Family Crowds Around Open Oven for Warmth and The Only Picture Hanging in the Fontenelle Home by Gordon Parks — black and white photographs, Harlem, New York, 1967. Photos found in the Photography Archive at

Fourth Sunday After Epiphany — January 29, 2022 Lectionary Texts — Year A
Micah 6:1-8 • Psalm 15 • 1 Corinthians 1:18-31 • Matthew 5:1-12

View Lectionary

Image description: A pair of black and white photographs from a photos series shot for the Life Magazine March 8, 1968 issue feature on the Fontenelle family of Harlem – a black immigrant family of 10 struggling to survive the winter. At left, Bessie Fontenelle sits in a kitchen in front of an open stove being used for heat. She appears lost in thought. Her son sits on the floor in front of her resting his head on her knee. On the right, a dime store purchased Sallman-esque portrait of Jesus mounted on a paper doily in a decorative metal frame hangs above a hole in the plaster and lath apartment wall.

Look carefully at your call, brothers and sisters. By human standards, not many of you are deemed to be wise. Not many are considered powerful. Not many of you come from royalty, right? But celebrate this: God selected the world’s foolish to bring shame upon those who think they are wise; likewise, He selected the world’s weak to bring disgrace upon those who think they are strong. God selected the common and the castoff, whatever lacks status, so He could invalidate the claims of those who think those things are significant. — 1 Corinthians 1:26-28

Jesus: Blessed are the spiritually poor—the kingdom of heaven is theirs.
Blessed are those who mourn—they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek and gentle—they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness—they will be filled.
— Matthew 5:3-6

African American photographer Gordon Parks was said to use his camera like a weapon. So disturbing and upsetting were his images at times to those who held idyllic perceptions of America. But for many, such as the immigrant family Parks photographed for Life magazine in 1968, living destitute in Harlem with less than ideal employment opportunities was a horrific reality. Norman Fontenelle, Sr. had brought his family to America from the British West Indies. His wife Bessie is quoted in the article talking of the lure of large factories requiring huge numbers of laborers. What the family experienced instead was inconsistent temporary work opportunities for Norman and horrible housing options.

Screenshot from photo archive featuring the Fontenelle Family images as published in the March 8, 1968 issue of LIFE Magazine.

“I didn’t know it would be like this,” says Norman’s wife Bessie as she talks with the poverty board director, Bob Haggins. “You have to keep the faith,” replies Bob who goes on to explain how he will try to find Norman some job training.

The portrait of Jesus Bessie has hung in their apartment is similar to depictions of Jesus by Warner Sallman — a dreamy blue-eyed, pale-skinned Jesus — a depiction that became widely popular in America. Versions of this Jesus can still be found in thrift stores across the country. What is the connection or disconnection of this image to the situation of the Fontenelle family? to the family’s hopes to find a good life in America? to the Jesus who preaches on the Mount?

Photography is an art form focused on capturing and framing what is seen in order to communicate something more, something beyond the moment and beyond the image. Photographs can become powerful metaphors. I encourage you to explore the full documentation of Park’s work with the Fontenelle family as you explore the connections between the images and the Scripture texts presented this week.

Practicing Visio Divina:

  1. View the artwork
    What do you see?

    Note shapes – color – style – movement
    What stands out for you?
    What are you curious about?
    What questions do you have?
    Hold back any feelings – judgments – opinions
  2. Read the accompanying scripture and look over the artwork again
    What connections do you make?

    Between the image and text?
    What is coming to mind from your own experience?
    What feelings are rising in you?
    Are you uncomfortable with something?
    There are no right or wrong answers
  3. Read the scripture again and explore the artwork a third time
    What do you hear?

    What is God saying to you?
    What do you wish to speak to God?
    What blessing or prayer is rising in you?

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s