Bombed-Out Jesus

Birmingham Public Library

A white shepherd watches over a black church across the street from the Civil Rights Institute in Birmingham, Alabama.  The poise of his eyes belies the archive of his life, death, and restoration.  This stained-glass image of Jesus, installed in a windowpane of the 16th Street Baptist Church, is a replica of the shepherd whose face shattered in the 1963 bombing that killed four little girls after Sunday school.

The church clock stopped at 10:22, the moment the bomb went off and blew a hole in Jesus’ head, three weeks after the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.  In the aftermath of the explosion, the stained-glass shepherd couldn’t watch over the pews where Birmingham youth had trained in the tactics of non-violent protest.  What would Jesus do about the hate crime that disfigured him and decimated God’s children?

The faceless Jesus couldn’t say a word, historians Ed Blum and Paul Harvey write in their new book The Color of Christ.  “But it had stories to tell.”  Blum and Harvey tell many of those stories, to piece together how Christ has figured in the long, sad story of race in America. The story of how a white Jesus was shepherding over a black church.  The story of what Jesus Christ’s shattered face meant to Americans, at the height of the civil-rights movement and after.  The story of how Jesus “would be remade—as he always seemed to be after attack.”

Not only was the white face of the shepherd Jesus replaced; Christ was remade in another window of the 16th-Street Baptist Church.  Jesus is a brown man hung on a cross—-hands free.  His arms are raised, as if they were the high the boughs of a tree, liberated from the instruments of torture that killed him.  “A stream of water from a fire hose makes the horizontal line of the cross, while bullet holes on the top beam symbolize gunfire against children in South Africa,” according to Blum.  Welsh artist John Petts made this image of Christ into a stained-glass mosaic known as the Wales Window, in response to the 1963 bombing.  The glass was shipped across the Atlantic, like the Africans who came to the U.S. as slaves.

Library of Congress

I saw a Wales Window type of Christ when I walked into All Saints Cathedral in Cairo, an Anglican church that serves African refugees.  Inside, I heard a Sudanese priest tell the story of the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt, in light of his people’s struggle for liberation.  I saw swirls of paint telling Bible stories around the sanctuary.  Over the altar, I saw a Jesus I’d never seen before: His arms stretched taut, from strong shoulders to huge hands, looming over everything.  This was not the little man-child with almond eyes I see in Orthodox icons while exploring my roots in Coptic Egypt.  This was not the dirty-blond thirtysomething with blue eyes beaming his resurrection light from highway signs I drive by when I’m home in Alabama.  Not the WASP Jesus you’re supposed to ask into your heart.  This was a new Christ victorious, eyes lined black, flat nose wide, an African God of power and might looking at me.

I look back, wondering about the story of that dark-eyed refugee Christ.  I realize I took the white Jesus of my hometown for granted until I really looked back at his blown-out face.  In a photo taken just after the 1963 bombing, Jesus stands in stained glass, poised to tend to his flock.  He’s a robed shepherd with a staff in his left hand, his feet stable on a pedestal.  It’s not until I look at the blank space where his face would be that I see how white he was. The glass that stood in for skin color became a gaping hole with jagged edges, as if a child had cut out Jesus’s face the instant those four girls died. A mangled memorial—to what?

The sun blares in, unmuted by the peach-colored stain of what was glass.  I can look right at that jagged hole of a head only because it’s part of an archived photograph. But I can only imagine hot-as-blazes daylight erupting into the church that mid-September morning in 1963. I can see, as if for the first time, how you can’t look at the sun head on.  What Southern writer James Agee calls “the cruel radiance of what is.”

Last summer, I stood in the almost-noon blare of sun on the steps of the 16th-Street Baptist Church with a Sudanese refugee named Victor, who’s been resettled to Birmingham.  When we were looking at the photos on the walls of the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, Victor recognized some of the troubles he’s seen: bus bombings, church bombings, dead children—all along the hard exodus of those who made it out of South Sudan.  He told me how they put a leaf in place of a grave marker for all the kids they couldn’t bury.

At the funeral of the four girls who died in the 1963 church bombing, Martin Luther King, Jr., preached that God can make good out of evil: “God is able to lift you from the fatigue of despair to the buoyancy of hope, and transform dark and desolate valleys into sunlit paths of inner peace.”

But the sunlit paths of King’s dreams are scattered with dead leaves.  And there’s no long walk home for the descendants of African slaves who were shipped across the Atlantic for their labor.  There’s no sunlit path back to Mexico or Guatemala, for all the farmers and construction workers who have left Alabama, for fear of immigration detention.  For Victor, there’s no gold-paved return to his homeland, where landmines have blown the roots of the trees out of the ground.

But the sunlit paths of King’s dreams are scattered with dead leaves.  And there’s no long walk home for the descendants of Africans who were shipped across the Atlantic as slaves.  There’s no sunlit path back to Mexico or Guatemala, for all the farmers and construction workers who’ve left Alabama, for fear of immigration detention.  There’s no gold-paved return for Victor, no safe way back to his home, where landmines have blown the roots of the trees out of the ground.

The blown-out face of Jesus is a trauma, filed in the Birmingham Public Library archives.  The Color of Christ reopens that shattered window to tell the stories of the Son of God and race in America.  I wish the 16th-Street Baptist Church hadn’t restored the shepherd Jesus.  I wish the stained glass were still broken, to show the cruel radiance of what is.


A version of this story first appeared in The Birmingham News.

Ashley Makar works with refugees in Connecticut. She does community outreach for IRIS--Integrated Refugee & Immigrant Services, in New Haven. She has an e-book of essays, You Were Strangers: Dispatches from Exile. Ashley has published essays in Tablet, The Birmingham News, The Struggle Continues (the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute weblog), Religion Dispatches, and The New Haven Register.