LUND, SWEDEN — I first met Sharon Fiely about 4:30 in the morning at the Columbus, Ohio airport in 2007. I was lugging my normal burden of camera gear, made all the heavier since I was making a film. I mention this because the first thing I noticed about Sharon was her extra luggage – a large, flat crate that, she explained to various flight personnel, contained a painting which must arrive undamaged at a Salvadoran church. I understood transporting things that must arrive undamaged and over the next hours came to admire her singularity of purpose in shepherding that package.
We were all there to catch the 6 a.m. flight to San Salvador on a delegation from SARA (Sharing America’s Resources Abroad) an ecumenical, humanitarian relief organization I had worked with the year before and was now engaged to make a film for.
While on the plane, Sharon and I began to get to know one another and she gave me a card bearing a reproduction of the painting in the crate. The image, of a glowing cross and dove over a tropical coast was titled, “God’s Love Shines.” The coast it depicted was also our familiar destination, El Espino, El Salvador, the location much of my film was to be centered around.
Over the next week I would speak at length with Sharon about her art and her motivations for coming to an area of the world I had spent much of the past years of my life. Though at times our perspectives on the world differed, I confess that I needed some of her enthusiasm. This was my seventh trip to Central America, time that would total nearly two years, most of it spent working with medical relief projects. This was Sharon’s second trip and I could see in her much of the enthusiasm and energy that had kept me coming back. I remembered how my own first trip had altered the course of my life, how after it all I could think about was Honduras and how I could get back there and explain it to others
Throughout the coming days we spoke while traveling around El Salvador. The conversations often continued late into the night, sitting in the shaded courtyard of Hotel Villa Real. There, Sharon and the other delegation members and I would try to make sense of the world, of what we could do to improve it and of our own motivations for being there. It was in those moments that I got some sense of who Sharon was and where she had come from.
“My first trip in June 2006 turned out to be one of the most inspiring times of my life,” she said, “I think of it every day, about the people I made bonds with, about a country recovering from civil war and locked into some of he worst poverty in the world. One of the places we visited on that first trip was a Lutheran church in a very poor community. All it had on its walls was a paper cross, a wooden cross and a picture of Jesus. After the services Bishop Gomez and his wife ran a soup kitchen to make sure the people had something to eat that day. One thing the Bishop said changed my life. He told me they were there to, ‘Build bridges not walls.’”
I remember Sharon telling me these things there in the hotel courtyard, about her and her friend Kim Hemmelgarn deciding that I was their new younger brother, to be taken under-wing, and feeling my own inevitable, accumulated cynicism dissipate under those wind-blown palm shadows.
Sharon went on to talk about some of her own life, saying, “I studied art back in High School and during my senior year received a gold medal and the chance to go to art school. I now realize I was a fool to turn it down but I continued teaching myself, buying books on different techniques, eventually discovering I was unhappy with the way acrylics blended and dried. I wasn’t getting the results I wanted so decided to teach myself oils with the help of books and a few Saturday classes,
“And so I painted in oils until 1991 when I was hit by a fork-lift which left me almost unable to walk for nearly a year. I found myself giving up on my faith and on the talent God had blessed me with. I quit painting altogether about 1995 due to the pain when I stood and reached towards the canvas. I also developed carpal tunnel syndrome and it became so frustrating, dropping the brushes, that I just quit.
“But then, in 2005, my husband and I were talking about the talent I had been blessed with. About that same time we began attending church again and they asked for volunteers to paint murals on the walls. Shortly after, the minister asked for volunteers for a trip to El Salvador and when I returned all I could think about were the bare walls of that church in San Salvador that gave so much and I painted “God Love Shines.”
The painting made it safely to the San Salvadoran church and hangs even now on its wall. A similar original hangs in Sharon’s home church in Ohio. “…it was about time I figured out what path He intended me to take my art,” she said, “I have now asked others to ask themselves what talent, skill or resource they have to help others in need and then to take action.”