Imagine people of different colors and backgrounds attending a protest in support of religious freedom, many of them holding up signs to express their views. An African American man is raising his fist high in the air – with hope. A couple, two moms, have brought their baby with them. Their smiles convey that this is exactly where they want their family to be at this moment. A Muslim woman in a headscarf is there, too. She looks concerned but calm and resolute.
I’m describing Americans United’s first-ever dedicated mural, which now lights up our windowless conference room. You don’t really need to imagine it – the mural is pictured here!
The 27-year-old artist, the talented Rachel Beck, discovered Americans United when her father, a generous AU donor, strongly encouraged her to attend a reception he was hosting for us at his house. Rachel confessed that she was somewhat surprised by how viscerally she connected to church-state separation. When she thought about it that night, she realized its connection to reproductive freedom and many other issues she cares about.
One of Rachel’s paintings was hanging on the wall of her parents’ home that evening. Rachel describes her art, which often portrays women and women’s bodies somewhat abstractly, as “body positive.” I was blown away by the painting’s beauty and power, and I asked Rachel which of her paintings she might recommend for the walls of Americans United. In response, she volunteered to come to D.C. from San Francisco and donate her time and talent to painting a mural on our office walls. How could I refuse?
Rachel flew to Washington last month and locked herself in our conference room for a full week of painting, with few breaks. This was Rachel’s first mural, so it was fun hearing her reflect on her learnings – like how hard it is to paint the shoes in a mural since they are so close to the floor.
Fortunately, Rachel brought her gifted producer Lizi with her, who captured the creation of the mural in creative pictures and videos for Rachel’s social media accounts and also helped keep Rachel sane during a week of intense, hard work in a room with no natural light.
“When we first were pitching concepts of the mural, the first thing that came to mind was the image of protesting, because I feel like if there’s anything you all do, it’s fight.” This is what Rachel told our staff when she spoke about her mural at our weekly Tuesday morning staff meeting. She added, “I wanted something that encompasses individuality and unity at the same time. The abstraction of the people in the background is sort of like a coming together and then highlighting the different types of people who might be part of this larger group, which is American United.“
Rachel and Lizi stayed with me for the week, which was a pleasure. One night when we all worked late and commuted home together, I couldn’t resist but show our Uber driver a picture of the mural. I loved her reaction so much, I wrote it down: “That represents everybody. Families, singles, different cultures. Just everybody.” The mural had successfully conveyed what Rachel intended.
The driver’s comment, in combination with Rachel’s own words about her mural, also got me thinking. The mural depicts something essential about AU that I have not spent adequate time articulating myself: our simultaneous celebration and enabling of individuality and unity. We protect the separation of religion and government because it allows each of us to express ourselves freely as individuals without fear of persecution or lesser treatment and because it unifies us across these differences.
Rachel’s mural could not be a more perfect depiction of the power and beauty of Americans United. Please share in our appreciation for Rachel by following her on social media @messybeck.
Rachel K. Laser is president and CEO of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.