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Maafa Remembrance

CHICAGO, Feb. 8 — A slave ship rises in the east, a testament frozen in time and sun-washed stained glass.

At the New Mount Pilgrim Missionary Baptist Church on Chicago's West Side, the ship is personified in the Christlike figure of an African man. His muscular, chain-draped arms are outstretched. His body, from his torso to his calves, is the pit of a ship, drifting across the Atlantic Ocean with a cargo of men and women, sardine-packed and bound for slavery.

The window is a symbol of the middle passage, the route through which millions of Africans traveled, many of them dying, on their way to slavery in America.

On Sunday mornings, when the Rev. Marshall Hatch stands to preach in the pulpit in this building, formerly a Catholic church; when members of his congregation lift their eyes and voices; when the spirit is high and the cadence ripe, their new stained-glass window stands as a reminder of how far they have come as a people.

As the service begins, the deacons bellow a cappella the Baptist call to prayer, "I love the Lord, he heard my cry." The congregation responds in Southern-bred harmony, "I, I, I love the Lord." The light shines through the mural.

Leaders at this church are embracing their past and intending to teach their children about the black presence in the Bible, while trying to become part of a continuing national dialogue on reparations for African- Americans. So they installed the stained glass, from an illustration by Tom Feelings for his picture book on the middle passage.

The project, which cost $30,000, is called "Maafa Remembrance." Maafa, a Swahili word pronounced may-AH-fah, means unspeakable horror and is used to refer to the horrors of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, just as Holocaust is used to refer to the deaths of millions of Jews at the hands of the Nazis.

Last Friday, the National Reparations Convention opened in Chicago. Organized by a Chicago alderman, Dorothy J. Tillman, the convention, held over the weekend, was a gathering of black political and civil rights leaders, local and national, who drafted a proposal for officials in Washington on ways to compensate African-Americans for the enslavement of their ancestors.

Mr. Hatch's stained-glass window is part of a wave of projects in the last 10 years at black churches across the country to replace white figures with African figures in biblical art and stained glass. The effort has been spurred in part by Afrocentrism and a growing body of literature about blacks in the Bible.

In adding black art and icons, in some cases a black Jesus, to their churches, black religious leaders seek to make Christianity relevant to their congregations, who seek hope but sometimes find little solace in the idea of worshiping a white Jesus, given the history of slavery and racism in this country. Mr. Hatch and other black preachers hope that depictions of their slave past can help connect worshipers to God.

"I was there at some point," Mr. Hatch, 42, said recently, standing in the church's sanctuary, staring at the slaves depicted in the stained- glass window. "I was in somebody else, but I was present. That's my theology. It makes me whole to remember that this is what I've come through to get where I am. Then this passes down to our children.

"If we don't do this going into a new millennium, the memory of these people can be easily forgotten. So we take their memory into the new millennium, and we also become a part of the contemporary discourse on how to repair African people, the reparations movement."

The effects of placing African art and stained glass in black churches run deep, said the Rev. Gregory Thomas, 53, an adjunct faculty member at Harvard Divinity School.

"It's very important for people of color, but also others, to see that there are other icons and that they see themselves within those images," Mr. Thomas said. "These are just pictures, but they have powerful meanings about God preserving. That's why the middle passage picture is so important, and we need to tell our children what this means."

"There are many people who say, ĀWell, you have to get over that and move on,' " he said. "That's a mistake for us as a people and for our country to deny and not understand."

Others agree. The Rev. Melbalenia Evans, executive minister at Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, which has undertaken a $500,000 project to install stained-glass windows, said the images of blacks as biblical figures, slaves and patriarchs in the church are "priceless in terms of letting young people look up and see themselves in roles that are positive and affirming."

"It is priceless in terms of what it does to one's psychological mind- set," she said.

It was in a bookstore while he was on sabbatical in 1999 at Harvard Divinity School that Mr. Hatch stumbled upon "The Middle Passage: White Ships Black Cargo" (Dial, 1995), a narrative art book by Mr. Feelings. Mr. Hatch was overpowered by the image, which now fills his church's east window. In his neighborhood, where poverty and crime run deep, he hopes the image will be one of hope.

Even for the artist, seeing the window at the New Mount Pilgrim Missionary Baptist Church at a dedication ceremony seven weeks ago was moving. Mr. Feelings, 67, of Columbia, S.C., said he had not been to church in years because he was "turned off" by the images still prevalent in black churches.

"Any black person who goes into that church and sees that image realizes that we're bound together in this particular way," he said, adding that his art had never been used in a church until now. "Even though it's a painful experience, out of it comes this positive spiritual connection."

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