Stained Glass Sunlight

11 Aug

Stained glass lining sides of Covenant Presbyterian sanctuary.
(Photo by Michelle Lepianka Carter, The Tuscaloosa News.)

Back in June of 2011, on my first Sunday in Tuscaloosa after the tornado, I went to church with Mom. She normally would have stopped by Krispy Kreme to pick up donuts for fellowship hour – but there was no Krispy Kreme. The building was gone, along with so many other stores and homes in what locals had taken to calling Ground Zero – the intersection of 15th and McFarland, which the EF4 tornado with winds of up to 190 miles per hour had churned through six week earlier. The death toll from the April 27 storm would eventually settle at 54 in Tuscaloosa – more than 200 in the state of Alabama – but on this Sunday in June, we’ve yet to reach that total. We drove through the decimated zone, then past an oddly pristine shopping mall that might’ve been anywhere, then, eventually, to Covenant Presbyterian.

While the Central Church of Christ two blocks down had been decimated, the church I’d grown up in had taken more of a glancing blow: We lost our dominant front and back stained glass windows, as well as part of the roof. Instead, the new sanctuary was the old one, the space I grew up thinking of as the fellowship hall. We sat in folding chairs on what was once a basketball court, the pulpit a portable lectern, the altar a utility table, the backdrop vacuum-matted pictures of the old stained glass window and the free-standing white steeple (which actually survived).

The preacher, Rick Olson, connected the church’s existential predicament around the prescribed lectionary theme for the seventh Sunday after Easter – also known as Ascension Sunday, when Jesus, already crucified and risen, appeared to his grieving followers. Rev. Olson focused on how the disciples, faced with this miracle, could only think to ask when the past kingdom of Israel would be restored. “They’re still on that restoring the glories of Israel kick, that re-establishing of the Davidic Kingdom thing. … Here he replies – one imagines with a sigh – that it’s not for them to know the times or periods that God has set – these things are God’s to set, you know, God is in charge – but that they’ll receive the power of the Holy Spirit – the Holy Ghost power – not too long from now …”

The connection was so obvious, he almost didn’t have to make it – folks already knew better than to expect the old kingdom, Tuscaloosa as it existed before 4:43 p.m. on April 27th, to be restored. This is a town which “will take all kinds of time to heal, and which will never be the way we remember it.”

But the part that would stick with me most was what Rev. Olson said next. He compared the spiritual high of the Pentecost to the spiritual transcendence of the early weeks of selfless volunteerism, the ways in which people came together in the wake of the storm … and the long hard slog that is faith after the ecstasy. “And so here we are, brothers and sisters, we are witnesses, martyrs, and the euphoria’s quickly draining, and the short-term workers are going home … and soon, it will seem as if Christ is no longer here as well.”

Whether you consider yourself a Christian or a Buddhist or a Muslim, or simply an atheist with a social conscience, my guess is that you can see in this sermon both the joys and challenges of serving of others. I certainly have seen both the highs and the lows in my few all-too-short visits to my hometown this past year.

Last year on that first post-storm visit, the vast wasteland stretching across my hometown was shocking and humbling, suggesting no human effort could be enough to bring the city back. But then again, I reminded myself at the time, isn’t that true of any social problem, even those not as dramatically visible as a disaster area? And against the dramatic backdrop of vast empty space, the heroism and generosity of volunteers – coming from all over the country – was dramatized as well. The heat of August in Worcester seems like a spring morning compared to a summer in Tuscaloosa – and along with everything else, the tornado also robbed folks of their shade.

Yet the workers came. Came even from Worcester, from Assumption College, where I teach. Last January I watched our students work hard to help finish a house sponsored, as it turned out, by my father’s church. As chronicled in earlier pieces on this blog, our New England students wrapped themselves in my Alabama culture, and felt the joy of connection and wholeness as they gathered around a table in my mother’s kitchens, celebrating a great week with Dewayne Searcy, the Habitat for Humanity foreman with whom we worked, and Paul Belsito, who coordinated community and government relations coordinator in our college president’s office.

Rick South and Tony Casas, of Berg Studios, install stain glass window panes.
(Photo by Michelle Lepianka Carter, The Tuscaloosa News.)

I thought about the highs of that time last month, on a Monday morning when I was again hanging in my mother’s kitchen. And I thought of the changes since, the time the pastor warned us about, the time when the consistency of commitment and faith and perseverance have to drive us forward. I had just learned Dewayne Searcy was no longer with Habitat for Humanity. A few weeks earlier, Paul Belsito had left Assumption for his next opportunity. Even the pastor had moved on, to a church up north. Most of the students had graduated – it would, of course, be disconcerting if they hadn’t. People come together in times of crisis, but then they part ways, moving to the the longer rhythms of their individual and communal lives.

But in the year since I heard that sermon, Habitat for Humanity Tuscaloosa had finished 13 houses in the 14 months since the tornado, with six others close to completion. Meanwhile, Dewayne was working toward starting a tornado safe room business, while back in Massachusetts, Paul was doing for Hanover Insurance Group  the kind of community relations work that he did so well at Assumption. As for the college, it was sending another student group to Tuscaloosa in 2013 – who knows what new connections will be made with the second wave of  students. Judging by the first crew, something special is bound to emerge from the visitors to come.

The church? Well, later that July Monday, I shook off the transience blues long enough to drive Mom and my sister Nancy through the damage zone – now much clearer of debris, with new houses popping up in every direction – to the church.  The secretary let us into the old sanctuary, which had not been used in the 14 months since the storm.

The last time I had seen the sanctuary, back in January, construction was a long way from finished. The windows were boarded up; the space was bereft of pews, pulpit, and altar. In their place, two workers were hollering at each other about some construction issue; metal scaffolding had risen up to the choir loft, and spare lumber was spread across the floor where pews were. Now the pews and carpet were back, the plywood for the most part removed – and, miracle of miracles, the stained glass was back.

What I had loved about our stained glass was that it resisted the temptation to tell a literal story – there are no images of Jesus or Mary, no triptychs of Biblical scenes, no imposing of a particular narrative on the spiritual experience. Instead, our stained glass consisted of roughly fist-sized pieces of widely varying colors and shapes, some more jagged, some more round. Any one piece defied easy definition, but, like all those disparate volunteers, somehow they came together as a whole, lining the left and right walls of the otherwise dark sanctuary, funneling our vision toward the dominant window up front.

That window had more yellows than I had remembered – and the old pieces, which Mom and other volunteers had helped pack and store last summer, had been stripped of more than 40 years of residue. Cleaner and brighter, this time around they chose not to sink each tile an inch deep into the molding; instead, each piece was embedded level with the surrounding surface, making the reds, blues, yellows and purples pop out all the more. The church might feel as if it’s journeyed through the valley of the shadow on occasion, but the sanctuary, at least, would be brighter than ever. And that mattered, somehow.

I watched as my sister lingered on the altar where she’d said her wedding vows. She stared quietly upward at the window, with its metal cross backed by a diverse interplay of color. Some old pieces were gone, but new pieces had taken their place. Then my sister and I joined our mother. We walked quietly and back down the aisle, the sunlight from all those oddly shaped pieces of glass lighting our path.

My sister on the altar beneath the new window.

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