The guest preacher for the morning, a black man, and I were sitting on the chancel bench preparing for worship. In front of us the Rainbow choir was rehearsing their morning anthem, “There is a Wideness in God’s Mercy.” Our guest seemed distracted. Suddenly, he let out a relieved-sounding chuckle. “Oh, it’s wideness. For a minute there I thought the choir was singing, “there is a whiteness in God’s mercy.” “Thanks a lot,” I said in response. “I will never hear that song the same again.” We both chuckled some more. Then we were quiet as we waited for worship to begin. And that’s when I saw him in a new light. By him, I mean Jesus. And by Jesus, I mean the representation of Jesus encased in stained glass at the back of the Rainbow Mennonite Church sanctuary.
As worship continued that morning, the choir began to sing again. “There’s a wideness in God’s mercy like the wideness of the sea. There’s a kindness in God’s justice, which is more than liberty…But we make God’s love too narrow by false limits of our own…”
And as they sang I kept looking up at this representation of Jesus who shares the same skin-tones as me.
Something shifted in me that day. It’s not that either the hymn or the stained glass window have been completely ruined. (It’s not like I’m going to tear this hymn out of the new hymnal or throw white Jesus out the window!) If anything, both of these worship symbols motivate me, a white woman, to widen my seeing and hearing. This includes understanding my whiteness and the ways my path is made wide(r) by that very fact.
In many ways this Stained theology project is an effort to widen my seeing. And thanks to funding provided by the Louisville Institute, I have had the good fortune of visiting over 50 sanctuaries (and counting!) across the country. I’ve asked church leaders from different denominational backgrounds and races to reflect on the questions listed below.
- How do I/we participate in assigning a color to the sacred? How have I/we given whiteness a holy face in subtle and not-so-subtle ways?
- What racial assumptions about Jesus are embedded in the art and music around us or in our individual psyches?
- Am I/are we aware of the racial lens through which we experience or interpret what we see and hear?
- And are we able to see the ways racial hierarchies are sometimes created and enforced through art, specifically art that, more times than not throughout history, assigns holiness to the color white? To put it more bluntly, shouldn’t it deeply trouble all of us—how the White American Christ has become a cultural icon of white power and supremacy?
Below I will start including videos from the various churches I have visited. I begin with my first visit to Mother Emanuel AME in Charleston, SC.