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Church-sponsored photography exhibit shows value through God’s eyes

Photos submitted to Through Our Eyes, like this one of a woman at her food truck, have become a popular way of connecting Christ Church with those in Charlestown. Photo courtesy of JD Mangrum

CHARLESTOWN, Mass. (BP) – The neighborhoods around Boston have an eclectic mix that simultaneously express unity as well as differences. They show the former in their love for the Sox, Celtics, Bruins and Pats. The latter has more to do with where they’re from, who they are and where they would like to go.

And each year, Christ Church hands out 100 disposable cameras in an effort to catch it all.

JD and Natalie Mangrum spent their first year in Charlestown – the oldest neighborhood not only in Boston, but in the United States – becoming part of the community. 

Serving at Charles River Church in Boston’s Roslindale neighborhood, the couple immersed themselves in Boston life. Locals, they saw, value things like patience, kindness and loyalty. Trust must be earned. They learned names at the grocery store and park.

The process brought results.

Six months in, they had made contact with about 1,000 people. Natalie was asked to lead the parent council at their sons’ elementary school. JD coached Little League and was invited to join the neighborhood council.

They eventually established Christ Church in Charlestown. After bouncing around to different meeting spots, the congregation was gifted the building of First Church in Charlestown in March 2022.

The location gave Christ Church a prominent location in the community as the only Protestant church in the immediate area. It also instantly connected them to the town’s history. The Battle of Bunker Hill monument is a five-minute walk from the church’s front doors. First Church, founded in 1632 and which joined the Baptist Churches of New England in 2017, counts John Harvard (yes, that Harvard) as one of its former pastors.

Christ Church’s steps to grow its congregation include participation in Through Our Eyes, a photography outreach/exhibit.

Through Our Eyes originated at Church at the Mill, a Southern Baptist congregation in Moore, S.C. Mangrum reached out to Jason Williamson, Church at the Mill’s missions pastor, for more information on doing something similar at Christ Church.

“They had done this in several cities in the Carolinas to address homelessness,” said Mangrum, who envisioned the project helping in a different way.

Williamstown consists of approximately 19,000 people across one square mile. There are a lot of cultural differences represented, but three groups emerge.

Townies are fourth-generation Irish Roman Catholic. “Toonies” are those who have moved in and generally don’t make an effort to become part of the area. The third group is those who live in income-adjusted housing.

Native Bostonians are fiercely proud of that heritage, with Townies a term specific to those in Charlestown.

“We’re living in the midst of each other, but there is a gap between those three,” Mangrum said. “Our heart as a church is to bring the community together around the Gospel and do events and church services where all three groups are welcome and can be served.”

Through Our Eyes, which is expanding to the United Kingdom and Africa, promotes dignity, he added. The assignment is a simple one – take photos of others in your neighborhood.

The result is an image of a person, not a label.

“Where you live in this one square mile brings a different experience of Charlestown than others,” he said. “We wanted to do something that would help people understand life in this community from a perspective that wasn’t their own.”

Through Our Eyes takes place in the fall, with Christ Church participating since 2019. Typically, half of the cameras are returned and bring about 1,000 photos to sift through. All are displayed as 4X6s in an exhibit, with the top 25 blown up and presented on canvas. Inappropriate ones are screened out.

Favorites include a woman who runs a deli at one of the income-adjusted housing complexes. Another is a little girl sketching with sidewalk chalk during the pandemic.

Support for the effort comes from inside and outside the church.

“We have some really good friends who aren’t interested in church, but they see the value this project brings to the community and they’ve become big advocates,” Mangrum said.

A native of Macon, Ga., Mangrum first visited the area on a church youth group trip to Boston’s South Shore when the 14-year-old helped with backyard Bible clubs.

“New England got in my blood,” he said. “God just gave me a love for this place.”

That love eventually led him back. Mangrum isn’t a Toonie, as his personal investment in the area testifies. He’s more like a Townie who got there late.

Now, he wants others to see – whether inwardly or through a photo – the intrinsic value everyone shares.

“Our strategy is to love Christ, love the church and love Charlestown,” said Mangrum. “This is a key part of how we do that.”

Additional reporting by Dan Nicholas.