Riverside Methodist Church in Occoquan had a black Jesus. Pastor Harley Camden noticed it the first time he walked into the small sanctuary and looked up at the stained-glass window at the front of the church.
At first, he thought that the glass was simply dirty, but as he moved closer he realized Jesus was designed to look more like a Palestinian Jew than an English Methodist. That’s probably historically accurate, he thought, and politically correct. But then he looked closer and saw the date on the lower right corner of the window—1885.
The dark-skinned Jesus had been installed in an era when most stained-glass images of him were decidedly Northern European white. This Jesus had a determined look as he calmed the waters of the Sea of Galilee. Harley quickly realized why. Riverside Methodist had been founded by a pastor named Bailey, a former slave, and for over a century it had been an African-American congregation called Emanuel Baptist Church.
Entering another world
Harley visited the church on his first trip to Occoquan, a small town perched on the southern shore of the Occoquan River. Driving south from Sterling, he took Route 123 through southern Fairfax County and passed the old Lorton prison, now repurposed as an arts center called the Workhouse. The bishop said she wasn’t sending me to prison, he mused as he drove past, but look—there it is.
A steep hill, heavily forested on both sides, dropped from the arts center to the Occoquan River. Harley was surprised by the simple beauty of the concrete bridge sweeping across the water into Prince William County, presenting drivers with a panoramic view of the Town of Occoquan to the west. He slowed his car as he approached the southern end of the bridge, and then turned on Commerce Street. Welcome to Historic Occoquan, Founded 1734.
Having just left the suburban sprawl of twenty-first-century Sterling, Harley felt like he was entering another world. Creeping west along Commerce Street, he saw Auntie’s Pie Shop and Riverside Methodist Church across the street. He turned on Washington Street and eased his car into the parking lot of the church. Looking around, he saw the river, bridge, townhouses, and several blocks of shops and restaurants. He could explore the entire town by foot in less than an hour. The bishop had told him that Occoquan was an Indian word meaning “at the end of the water.” More like “at the end of my career,” he thought.
Finding strength to live with dignity
The church was renamed Riverside Methodist Church in the late 1990s when the congregation of Emanuel Baptist had moved to a larger and more modern structure in Woodbridge. Harley put a key in the front door of the church and was immediately assaulted by a wave of warm, musty air. He walked through the small narthex and turned on the lights in the sanctuary.
Rows of oak pews stood on either side of a center aisle covered with worn red carpet. The front of the church had a pulpit on the left and a lectern on the right, with a Communion table in the center, under the stained glass of the black Jesus. Harley walked down the aisle, trying to imagine himself leading worship in these dank quarters after years of presiding over services in a sleek modern building in Sterling. He spent a few minutes studying the stained-glass window, which the bishop had told him about, focusing on the stained-glass image of Jesus and the frightened disciples around him.
Running his fingers along the backs of the wooden pews, he imagined that the space had been the site of countless milestones over the course of a century and a quarter—dedications, baptisms, weddings, funerals. Anguished prayers had been said here, rousing sermons had been preached, lives had been changed. Generations of African Americans, in particular, had looked up at the Jesus in the stained glass and found strength to live with faith and dignity in a segregated society. A trickle of tenderness began to flow into the dry canyon that was Harley’s heart. And yet, he didn’t want to get sentimental. What had sentimentality ever done for him?
Read chapters 1 and 2 of City of Peace along with Revelation 1:15: “his feet were like burnished bronze, refined as in a furnace, and his voice was like the sound of many waters.” This is the only biblical verse that makes reference to the skin color of Jesus.
“We should have Black Jesus in white churches,” writes James Martin, S.J., “as a reminder of who Jesus was, and is, today. Because Jesus is best found in people that are outside your comfort zone.”
- Although Jesus is depicted in many pieces of art as a white man, scholars believe that Jesus looked like any other Jewish Galilean of the first century: A man with short, curly hair and darker skin and darker eyes. What difference, if any, does the skin color of Jesus make to you?
- What comfort would a black Jesus offer to African American Christians or to other people of color ? What comfort or challenge does such a depiction offer you?
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