'Tree of Life' mosaic takes root at California church

'Tree of Life' mosaic takes root at California church

From broken jewelry, keys, and coffee cups, congregants create eight-foot, collaborative artwork.
Donald E. Skinner


The Unitarian Universalist Church of Berkeley, in Kensington, Calif., is celebrating three anniversaries this year—120 years since its founding, 50 years in its building, and 50 years since the consolidation of Unitarianism and Universalism.

It was while thinking about how to mark these anniversaries that the Tree of Life was born. The idea came at a ministers’ retreat last winter, when a speaker referred to Unitarian Universalists as “mosaic makers.”

That was all that the Rev. Barbara Hamilton-Holway, UUCB co-minister, needed to form the germ of an idea.

“Just hearing that phrase made me think that it . . . would be quite cool to create a mosaic,” she said. “Especially when there is so much in the world and in people’s lives that is fragmented and broken.”

UUCB friends and members were invited to bring to church on a Sunday in June small bits of anything and everything they had that was broken—pottery, glass, jewelry—plus other small items representing parts of their lives past and present—a key, a watch face, a dog tag.

These items were deposited in bins on a “common table” that Sunday. “In inviting people to bring items, it was saying ‘You can come here with the many pieces of your life and yearnings and longing for healing,’” said Hamilton-Holway.

Then came three workshops in which members gathered under the supervision of local mosaic artist Kim Larson to each make a leaf for the tree-to-be. Dipping into the tubs that held the pieces, members created bright leaves about five by eight inches in size. “There was a certain joy in people seeing others choose to pick up and use their pieces,” said Hamilton-Holway.

The project inspired five or six sermons. And nonstop metaphors—mending and healing out of brokenness and beauty, how each person holds pieces of the truth, and how glue and grout create community.

The process also included an opportunity for members to briefly describe their offerings: “shards from my morning coffee cup,” “one of a pair of earrings from my mother,” “a little deer our daughter thought she couldn’t live without, now broken and forgotten, but she lives on happily in Mexico,” “a stone from my friend Blake’s memorial service,” “the key to my dream apartment (which I lost when my roommate moved).”

Some sentiments were intensely personal, and others whimsical. “If I could, I would offer myself because I feel broken.” “This unglazed handle is from Ephesus [in Turkey] and probably came from the water jug St. Paul used to quench his thirst after he preached to the Ephesians.”

With 227 leaves to work with, Larson created a tree about eight feet high and ten to twelve feet wide on an outdoor wall facing a green space and San Francisco Bay, between the sanctuary building and the religious education building. There are bits of broken mirrors in the tree and people passing by can see their reflections. “We keep seeing new things,” said Hamilton-Holway. “It changes throughout the day.”

She and her husband, the Rev. Bill Hamilton-Holway, co-minister of the church, contributed shards of pottery their children had made long ago, seashells, and a square pin made to mark the consolidation in 1961.

The tree was completed in time for the anniversary service Sept. 30, at which the Rev. Peter Morales, president of the Unitarian Universalist Association, delivered the sermon. The tree was dedicated the following Sunday. After each service, the adults and children came out of the church singing “Come and Go with Me to that Land”.

Among the words spoken for the dedication by Barbara Hamilton-Holway were these: “This mosaic Tree of Life celebrates our congregation's deep roots, sturdy trunk, spreading branches, and new growth. May this be a living tree. May all who behold it know they belong. All are a part of the tree of life. May this tree remind us of the power, passion, and promise of our congregation and our Unitarian Universalist movement. We dedicate this tree and bless this congregation as a place of spiritual growth, love, and service.”

Kay Fairwell, a congregation member, donated a broken pot, an earring and other bits of jewelry, and a seashell. “It was just a heartwarming experience to see children next to adults in their 80s and 90s, heads down, Elmer’s glue and bits of brokenness in hand, creating unique leaves of beauty.” Fairwell wrote words for a hymn for the anniversary, using text from the anniversary theme “Looking Back, Looking Forward,” and from the congregation’s mission statement and its history.

Anne Greenwood, a former director of religious education for the congregation, added, “I always love it when children and adults are doing things together. And now that it’s done, I love watching people go up to it and find the leaves that they made.” Her contribution was a cracked crockpot lid and pieces of a flowerpot.

Said Larson, “Each person in the congregation brought their energy, enthusiasm, and openness to this project. They trusted the process. And they trusted me. I am honored to have been the artist chosen to create this Tree of Life mosaic mural. Out of their broken shards has come a work of deep meaning, beauty, and joy."

On her blog, Larson described the process. She wrote, “Each person would hold people's ‘broken pieces’ in their hands and create a whole new work of art with them – symbolizing the healing we can offer each other.”

Barbara Hamilton-Holway said she realized during the process “that creativity and the arts were taking us where words could not. There was a lot of joy and fun in the creating. Each leaf is unique, but when you step back all these pieces do come together and make a whole. It feels like part of our good news.”

The congregation put a slideshow of the mosaic process on its website.

Related Resources