During our recent civil rights pilgrimage through the South, along with 26 other members of Downey Ave Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), Susan and I toured the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, AL. This was the site of the horrific bombing by white racists resulting in the tragic deaths of four young Black girls. We were graciously received by members of the church and given an insightful tour of the church along with both an account of that horrible day in 1963 and the congregation’s commitment to continue justice-oriented and compassionate ministries relevant in their current situation. Several times church members reminded us that though they are inspired by the witness and past history of their remarkable church, they are focused on the challenges and opportunities of the present moment in which they are called to be faithful.
Perhaps the most striking feature of their beautiful sanctuary is the stained glass window which stands at the front of the rebuilt 16th Street Baptist Church. The history behind this work of art is so moving. John Petts, a gifted Welsh artist renowned for his talent in creating works of stained glass, read about the tragedy which occurred on September 15, 1963. He immediately volunteered his services to create a replacement window for the church. Petts wanted this window to be a gift from the Welsh people. He and David Cole, editor of The Western Mail, rejected funding from wealthy individuals who could have easily paid for the window. Instead, they capped donations to a maximum of half a crown (about 15 cents in today’s currency) so that as many people as possible from Wales could be a part of this gesture of solidarity. Thousands of Welsh citizens offered their donations, many of them school children sharing their allowances. Very quickly, the money was raised and the Wales Window was installed and dedicated in 1965.
The window depicts a Black Christ whose right hand pushes away hatred and injustice while the left hand offers forgiveness. The rainbow arching over the head of Christ represents the diversity of the human race and the makeup of God’s intended Beloved Community. At the bottom of the window, John Petts inscribed just five words: “YOU DO IT TO ME.” These words come from Matthew 25 which contains the parable of “The Last Judgment.” In that parable, Jesus says that what we do to others we do to Him. Christ’s solidarity with each member of the human race is so deep that he experiences and embraces the suffering of “the least of these” on this earth. On that tragic day in 1963, God Herself felt the pain and murder of those four Black girls. And God felt the determination and courage of those members of this remarkable church as they literally “picked up the pieces” of that tragedy and began the path of healing and forgiveness. This beautiful work of art represents not only the astounding faith and witness of 16th St Baptist; it also represents the essence of the Christian faith and the depths of what it means to be a follower of Jesus.