[Episcopal News Service] Standing at 12 feet tall, a globe-trotting puppet symbolizing human rights will knock on the front doors of a historic Episcopal church in New Orleans, Louisiana, on Oct. 15.
Toward the end of the Sunday morning worship service, parishioners of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in New Orleans’ historically Black neighborhood, Tremé, will greet Little Amal, who represents a 10-year-old Syrian refugee girl, as a symbolic gesture of “welcoming the stranger.”
“The message is about bringing awareness to refugees through this refugee child, but it’s also a celebration of immigration and a chance to welcome people of all different backgrounds,” said Courtney Bryan, a New Orleans native and life-long St. Luke’s parishioner. “[St. Luke’s] has been a hub for cross-cultural community … and I like that even though Little Amal’s a make-believe human, there’s the idea that you symbolically get to greet this refugee child as an organization.”
Designed and built by the South Africa-based Handspring Puppet Company, Little Amal is the face of a performance art project, known as The Walk, which celebrates cultural diversity. Operated by three to four puppeteers at a time, she’s been “walking” across the world since 2021 to bring awareness to the millions of displaced children fleeing violence, persecution and war. As an emblem of Syrian refugee children, specifically, Little Amal also serves a reminder that the civil war in Syria, which started in 2011, is ongoing and is one of the deadliest modern-day conflicts. Amal means “hope” in Arabic.
As of June, children make up nearly 40% of the 108.4 million people worldwide who are forcibly displaced, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
A historically Black church in a historically Black neighborhood, in recent years St. Luke’s has also become a church home for Caribbean, Central American and West African immigrants. Given the diversity of her home parish’s community, welcoming Little Amal, Bryan, who is the daughter of Jamaican immigrants, said “is really perfect for St. Luke’s Episcopal Church.”
“Many different kinds of partners choose to walk with Amal to share her story, and we are open to collaborating with any group, artist or organization that supports her message of good will, unity and hope,” said David Lan, co-founder and co-producer of the Little Amal project, in a statement to Episcopal News Service.
So far, Little Amal has trekked more than 6,000 miles across 15 countries and has been greeted by celebrities, political figures and church leaders, including Pope Francis in Vatican City. She will have visited 40 towns and cities by the time she concludes her “walk across America” tour in November.
“Little Amal’s walks really fit the charism of the church, and of course we want to walk with and for refugees,” said the Rev. Jane-Allison Wiggin, rector of St. Luke’s, to ENS. “What this has come together to be is a public liturgy of sorts. We’re sharing food and sharing sanctuary and refuge not just in St. Luke’s, but we want to say for the larger Episcopal Church.”
St. Luke’s choir will sing a welcome song to Little Amal, and a drum circle will perform. Coincidentally, her visit will occur the same day as the church’s annual international food festival, which celebrates the feast day of St. Luke, Oct. 18. During her visit, parishioners will symbolically offer Little Amal food that will be served at the festival later in the day.
Little Amal’s visit to St. Luke’s will conclude with a public walk to nearby St. Anna’s Episcopal Church.
Bryan, who is a composer and a music composition professor at the Newcomb Department of Music at Tulane University, told ENS that, as a fellow artist, she’s particularly fond of art “where art and politics or religion can come together” because “you can understand something on a more heart-based level.”
“I think art has its own power; art doesn’t create policy or change laws, but art can really affect the imagination or can really bring your heart into art into something that otherwise people might ignore,” she said. “That’s why I love being a part of the Little Amal project.”
-Shireen Korkzan is a reporter and assistant editor for Episcopal News Service. She can be reached at email@example.com.