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"What Can We Do about This?"
How a Welsh artist and community lovingly responded to the congregation of 16th Street Baptist Church after the bombing
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It tends to be true that the most heinous acts of human cruelty evoke the most compassionate human responses.
This was certainly the case in the aftermath of the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing, a racial terrorist attack in Birmingham, Alabama that left four Black girls—Carole Robertson, Cynthia Wesley, Denise McNair, and Addie Mae Collins—dead.
The shockwave from the exploded bundle of dynamite shattered most of the church’s stained glass windows. One window remained substantially intact. It depicted Jesus leading a group of children. The face of Jesus—a white face—had been blown out.
The catastrophic act of cruelty elicited outrage and grief not only in Birmingham or the nation, but around the world.
Across the Atlantic Ocean in the small country of Wales, a stained glass artist named John Petts heard of the tragedy. Of course, he was repulsed at the murder of these children. The act also stirred his artistic and altruistic instincts.
"As a craftsman in a meticulous craft, I was horrified by the smashing of all those [stained-glass] windows. And I thought to myself, my word, what can we do about this?"
Petts contacted a local newspaper editor and asked him to put an appeal in the newspaper to raise funds to pay for a new stained glass window.
Petts insisted that no single individual could contribute more than half a crown (mere pennies). This stipulation ensured that the money came from a multitude of grassroots Welsh folks—including children eager to help—and not from a single wealthy donor.
For inspiration, Petts drew on Jesus’ words in Matthew 25:40, “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me."
He wanted to show that acts of racial terrorism did not just brutalize Black people, they wounded the heart of Jesus as well.
The design Petts came up with was filled with faith and symbolism.
It showed a black figure, his chest thrust out and arms outstretched as though on a crucifix, the right one pushing away hatred and injustice, the left offering forgiveness. A rainbow, representing racial diversity, arcs over the head. Christ. As a black man. In the South. In the 60s.
The window still adorns the sanctuary of the 16th Street Baptist Church today. It is forever a reminder of human kindness in the face of racist rage.
Through it, heavenly light is refracted into an array of rich colors that dazzle the eye with their diversity. Much like Christ, the window represents God’s love for a harassed and oppressed people.
Gazing on the stained-glass gift born of grief is a reminder that neither the gates of hell, nor the blast from a bomb, will prevail against God’s church.
What feelings, thoughts, or memories does this stained glass window bring to mind for you? Comment below.
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