Few people outside Northwest Community Church family know about the work of art inside. ¶ The Sermon on the Wall, an elaborate mural of Jesus' life story, stands almost three stories high and stretches 70 feet around the sanctuary. ¶ Such a massive and detailed painting might be expected in a centuries-old Roman Catholic cathedral — but maybe not a small church in suburban Hillsborough.
Scenes from Jesus' life, starting with his birth and ending with his return, as outlined in the Book of Revelation, are colorfully rendered. Trumpeting angels, smiling cherubs and other surprises hiding in the details round out the mural.
For years, it has been a well-kept secret, mainly because the church members behind the painting have shied away from attention.
But now church leaders say that, like the story of the baby Jesus, the mural was meant to be shared with the world.
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The Sermon on the Wall started with Carol Mecum, 61, who says God gave her the vision to paint it eight years ago.
The longtime member of Northwest Community is a muralist by trade. At the time, she had already painted one of the nursery rooms, but the sanctuary's walls remained a stark white.
"I had a dream one night that we needed to fix it up and it just came to me to paint the church," Mecum said.
When she approached Pastor Scott Collins, he okayed the project immediately. "I didn't even know what it would entail," he said. "I didn't know art. I was just thinking anything is better than a plain white wall."
For the next four years, Mecum, her twin sister, Caren Clisset, and Mecum's daughter, Bambi Park, worked on the mural over late nights and long weekends.
Each of them worked by day for the family-owned mural painting business Art Inherited, decorating walls and ceilings of homes in the Tampa Bay area and beyond.
But the church mural wasn't a job. They donated all the materials and didn't collect a dime in payment. This time, clients weren't telling the women what should be done. They had to come up with their own ideas about depicting familiar Bible stories.
They debated whether the angels should be identical, eventually deciding to give them distinctive features so that people who saw the mural could see themselves reflected in the painting. When it came time to create the Samaritan woman Jesus met at the well, they agonized over what the expression on her face should be. Grateful, they decided.
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The muralists have never taken a fine arts class. They say they inherited their talent from Billie Jean Stevens, mother to Mecum, Clisset and nine others. That is why they named the business Art Inherited when they launched it in 1990.
Stevens would always say their gift comes from above, Clisset said. "It's what's Godlike in all of us, the ability to create," Clisset said.
In recent years, the sisters have consolidated the business and slowed their pace. Park stepped away to become a stay-at-home mom; Clisset and Mecum are now the only master painters on staff. They spend no more than four days a week at work, dedicating long weekends to time with children and grandchildren.
Their sister D.J. Stevens does all the front-end work. She meets with clients, sketches designs and makes sure the twins have the necessary materials when they arrive at a job.
The process for creating The Sermon on the Wall was much more informal, Mecum said. Though there were some basic sketches early on, everything on the wall was painted freehand.
On Dec. 15, 2007, the church held an unveiling. The 26- by 70-foot mural on the back wall was a huge hit, but the attention overwhelmed Mecum. She told people their praise was misdirected.
"It's God, not me," she said. "He gets the glory. He's the one who painted it. He just used my hands as his tools."
Since then the mural has mainly served as a backdrop during church services. Occasionally, Collins moves his pulpit to the opposite end of the sanctuary and turns the seats around, so the congregation actually faces the mural. Each panel depicting a Bible story becomes a separate sermon: Jesus' temptation, the Last Supper, his crucifixion and ascension.
For the first time since the mural's unveiling, the church plans to open its doors specifically to share The Sermon on the Wall with the public. But members have vowed to make it an annual event. The mural is too beautiful and too awe-inspiring, they say, to allow it to remain a secret.
Tia Mitchell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3405.