Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Wales Window for Alabama

In 1963 the Ku Klux Klan dynamited the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. Four young girls attending Sunday school were killed and 23 others injured. The church, reduced to a smouldering wreck, had been targeted because of its links with the black civil rights movement. Such luminaries as Martin Luther King had regularly spoken there.

In Llansteffan, Wales, artist John Petts was listening to the radio when news of the atrocity came through. Appalled by the events in Alabama he wanted to do something to help. As an artist he knew that light is composed of all colours and saw the symbolic significance of this. He would create a new stained glass window for the church.

Prompted by his wife Kusha he contacted the Western Mail newspaper suggesting a campaign to raise money for the project. The paper enthusiastically took up his idea and it was agreed individual donations should not exceed the amount of 2 shillings and sixpence. This would enable all strata of society to contribute.

Money began flooding in from every corner of Wales, from churches and chapels but mostly from schoolchildren. Within days the required target of £500 was reached and by the end of the month the fund closed having raised £900.

Petts flew to Bimingham to consult with church architects and to take measurements for what would become known as The Wales Window for Alabama. He then returned to Llansteffan where he began working on the design. His first effort proved to be a false start - he felt it to be too passive and beatific. His next attempt though was more satisfactory.

Petts' black crucified Christ (see b/w detail) is a powerful image that conveys both suffering and protest. Dramatically spreadeagled, Christ appears as though he has been hit by police water cannon and thus the artist captured perfectly the zeitgeist of the American South at that time. Beneath the image are the defiant words YOU DO IT TO ME the theme of the lesson being taught when the explosion occurred.

When the church reopened in 1965 The Wales Window for Alabama became one of its main focal points. The impressive artwork remains there to this day, bathing the congregation in a serene light which has first passed through the body of a negro Christ.

At the dedication service pastor John Cross said of the window: "it might serve as a constant reminder that there are persons in the world whose hearts are filled with love and brotherly kindness."

Amen to that.