A Walking Maze In The City

A new walking maze for Houston: Freedmen's Town Labyrinth brings magic to a demolished church site

A new maze for Houston: Extensive labyrinth brings magic to Fouth Ward

6 Freedmen's Town Labyrinth January 2015
The Freedmen's Town Labyrinth. Photo by Alex Barber
5 Freedmen's Town Labyrinth January 2015
Sacred Sites Quest students walk the Freedmen's Town Labyrinth they created last spring. (File photo) Photo by Shazma Matin
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An aerial view showing its location in the Fourth Ward and close proximity to downtown. Photo by Alex Barber
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Labyrinth pilgrims, from left, Michael Pardee, Gertha Willis, Shazma Matin, Jay Stailey, Reginald Adams, Lue Williams, Sam Turner and Kionna Willis. Photo by Barbara Kuntz
labyrinth January 2015
The stone marking the center of the labyrinth. Photo by Barbara Kuntz
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Historical marker with tribute to Mt. Carmel Missionary Baptist Church Photo by Barbara Kuntz
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One of the many plantings at the site, with this flower bed designating the entrance to the labyrinth. Photo by Barbara Kuntz
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Scripture and prayers are found throughout the gardens as placed by Lue Williams. Photo by Barbara Kuntz
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Another look at the labyrinth today. Photo by Shazma Matin
Freedmen's Town Labyrinth January 2015 first step in March 2014 This morning laid down 10% of cardboard needed to smother weeds and grass in preparation for our first work day on April 19. Mark it on your calendar!
A look at its beginnings, when students began laying down pieces of cardboard to smother weeds and grass in preparation for their first work day last year. (File photo) Photo by Shazma Matin
6 Freedmen's Town Labyrinth January 2015
5 Freedmen's Town Labyrinth January 2015
2 Freedmen's Town Labyrinth January 2015
5 labyrinth January 2015
labyrinth January 2015
1 labyrinth January 2015
3 labyrinth January 2015
4 labyrinth January 2015
1 Freedmen's Town Labyrinth January 2015
Freedmen's Town Labyrinth January 2015 first step in March 2014 This morning laid down 10% of cardboard needed to smother weeds and grass in preparation for our first work day on April 19. Mark it on your calendar!

Crossing paths in a labyrinth isn't an objective in the meditative experience of walking these historically based creations, but that's just how one such "maze" came to being in Houston's Fourth Ward.

Welcome, and welcome all, to the Freedmen's Town Labyrinth.

That invitation is whole heartedly extended by the diverse group of dedicated high school students, Rice University's Boniuk Institute for the Study and Advancement of Religious Tolerance, a noted Houston artist, a certified labyrinth walker from University of Houston-Downtown, parents, master gardeners, community residents and more volunteers who came together from different walks of lives with a united and focused goal to create the Freedmen's Town Labyrinth.

 "This is my church. It's my only church. I'm a lifelong member." 

Even a deacon at Mt. Carmel Missionary Baptist Church, where the labyrinth now sits in the congregation's former prayer garden at 1407 Valentine St. watched over by the towering downtown skyline, continues to devote her heart and soul to these hallowed grounds and her beloved community.

The church was demolished in 2008 due to structural insecurities in that location in the Fourth Ward, a historic residential neighborhood founded and built by previously enslaved families and their descendants immediately after emancipation in 1865. A Texas Historical Commission marker now stands noting the church's spiritual and cultural significance in Freedmen's Town.

"This is my church. It's my only church. I'm a lifelong member," says Lue Williams, deacon, as she tends to the flowers and numerous other plantings donated to beautify the labyrinth site.

The beginning of a circle
The months-long adventure began last spring when 20-plus students from across the city were recruited into the Boniuk Institute's Sacred Sites Quest (SSQ) for a school year of touring sacred spaces and places of worship around the city including churches, cathedrals, synagogues, temples, prayer gardens and labyrinths. The interfaith course, now in its fifth year, culminates with a Capstone Art & Service Project.

"The goals of the the Capstone Art & Service Project are to enable the students who SSQ'd together to leave a tangible legacy somewhere in Houston by beautifying some part of the city in some way via their final art and service project," explains Michael Pardee, program manager and community liaison to the Boniuk Institute. "The Capstone Art & Service projects for our first three SSQs essentially entailed painted murals, the most massive of which we installed on the walls of the Bread of Life ministry associated with St. John's Methodist Church downtown.

 "For the Q4 Lab, in particular, we wanted to CREATE a Sacred Site of our own."

Enter more pilgrims
Reginald Adams, Houston public artist and community developer, had joined the Boniuk Institute board of directors about five years ago, about the same time Pardee came on board as executive director. Adams serves as the artistic and creative director for the SSQ, and opens his studio and gallery space to the students throughout the course.

"At the culmination of each SSQ tour the students come into my studio space for a series of workshops," Adams says. "Collectively the students synthesize their observations, learnings and reflections into a design/build for a site specific public art Capstone Project. It was within my art studio and gallery space that students experimented with building temporary labyrinth patterns, learned sacred geometry and produced the glass and ceramic tile mosaic benches that are nestled within each bastion or corner of the HFTL."

 "The labyrinth has actually changed my daughter's world and how she sees art, community and spirituality combined." 

The students chose to replicate a medieval labyrinth found on the floor of Chartres Cathedral in France and used remaining bricks from the original Mt. Carmel Missionary Baptist Church to create the maze. The benches, which the young pilgrims have consecrated as “Heart of Serenity” seats, provide strategic places for walkers to sit, reflect and/or meditate.

Shazma Matin, a mother of one of the St. John's students participating in SSQ4, remembers those steps — and the very beginning design phases.

"They used Post-It notes, sticking them on the floor, to first determine how they wanted the labyrinth to look," Matin says. "And this was all done on weekends. These students became so dedicated to this project. It was amazing to see the effort this very diverse group of young people put forth."

Another parent, Lori Farris, shares the same sentiment.

"The labyrinth has actually changed my daughter's world and how she sees art, community and spirituality combined," Farris says. "This is a wonderful story about lives intertwining and how magical things can happen if people learn to work together. Saving something is so powerful."

Jay Stailey, instructor at UH-D, as well as labyrinth coach and walk facilitator, offered his expertise along the way and continues to host solstice and full-moon walks at Freedmen's Town Labyrinth, the next scheduled for Feb. 3. More than 200 people have participated in or either joined as audience members as walkers slowly round the 11-circuit labyrinth, the number of times the path goes around the circle, with glowing lanterns placed about to light the path.

Welcome walkers
Houston is home to about two dozen labyrinths scattered from St. Thomas University to Spotts Park in the Heights area to Swiney Park in the Fifth Ward. Stailey offers suggestions why a labyrinth walk just might be calling for you.

"Labyrinths can serve a variety of purposes and walkers approach them with different reasons," Stailey says. "Some walk for clarity or reflection or to de-stress. Used as a walking meditation, it is also used as a place of prayer. I have often approached the labyrinth with a problem and walked away with the intent of clearing my head and leaving room for a solution to appear. Sometimes it works."

Stailey says for beginners, as well as the community of labyrinth walkers, being acquainted the three "Rs" is a good starting point.

  • Release stress as you walk the path from the entrance to the center.
  • Receive the wisdom of the labyrinth as you take time in the center to reflect, contemplate, pray, etc.
  • Return to the world on the same path taking what you learned on the walk.

He adds, "When multiple people walk the labyrinth at the same time, often people 'run into each other' and they often 'rub elbows' with each other, but they do not literally cross paths with each other. Though metaphorically, it happens every time we walk, because strangers from different backgrounds and cultures come together on the path."