Seeing dimly

What to do with the stained legacy of a white Jesus?

Rainbow Mennonite Church in Kansas City, Kan., is evaluating a stained-glass depiction of Jesus with white, European features in its sanctuary. — Ruth Harder Rainbow Mennonite Church in Kansas City, Kan., is evaluating a stained-glass depiction of Jesus with white, European features in its sanctuary. — Ruth Harder

It was noon on a Sunday in October 2021. Everyone at Rainbow Mennonite Church had left the building except for members of the Peace and Social Justice Committee and Visual Arts Committee. This group stayed late to meet Tokeya Waci U (TK) in person for the first time.  

We were mostly quiet as we waited, perhaps tired from the already full morning. Or perhaps others, like me, felt a mix of excitement and nervousness about the meeting ahead. Based on my prior calls with TK, I knew he felt both excitement and nervousness about a land acknowledgment art commission.

In our first conversation, he laid down the ground rules.

“I’m not your token Native,” he said. “I’m not the guy when once you get this art in your sacred place, you’re gonna prance around and say, ‘Oh yeah, we’re cool with Natives!’ ”

As we sat in silence, I wondered. What will TK think of us and this place? What will the committee members think of TK and his ideas?

We had already issued TK a down payment but had not settled on the size, style or even where the piece of art would hang. Or would it be a mural? A lot of work and conversation (and opinions) lay ahead of us.  

On that day, the sun was shining. I remember this because our sanctuary’s stained-glass windows cast a golden aura over everything. When TK arrived, I told him it was Rainbow’s golden hour.

“Even Jesus’ face turns gold at this hour,” I said, pointing to the stained-glass window in the balcony.

“Nice,” he said, although by then he was more interested in our organ than our stained glass.

I remember this moment because just a week earlier I had completed a pastoral study grant application to the Louisville Institute titled, “White Jesus, White Mennonites and Stained Glass: Seeing Through a Glass Dimly.”

I had told TK about this, and he seemed pleased the church supported this project.

A few months later I was notified that I had received the grant. So, as TK began working on the land acknowledgment art commission, I began to study liturgical stained glass. As TK sought to represent different nation groups in their beautiful particularities, I began to think about diversity, or the lack thereof, in stained-glass art.

I began to ask: Other than light, what do stained-glass windows transmit? Whose narratives are upheld? What cultural values are reinforced?

Stained-glass images aren’t neutral. Liturgical stained glass has been called a Bible for the poor. What if our renderings of biblical stories and figures are poor representations, made to lift some up and lay others low? If what is being communicated by stained glass is deemed racist or repulsive, then what?

Thanks to the book The Color of Christ: The Son of God and the Saga of Race in America by Edward J. Blum and Paul Harvey, I’m asking new questions:

— How do we participate in assigning a color to the sacred?

— How have we given whiteness a holy face in subtle and not-so-subtle ways?

— What racial assumptions about Jesus are embedded in the art and music around us?

— Are we aware of the racial lens through which we experience or interpret what we see and hear? 

— How are racial hierarchies, or white supremacy, created and enforced through art?

Rainbow’s building in Kansas City, Kan., was originally constructed by a Methodist congregation in 1907. The building has gone through many remodels and renovations, including after Rainbow Mennonite became the sole owner in the early 2000s.

The stained-glass windows have been restored, reconfigured and even moved at various points, but they are mostly intact and original to 1907.

We do not know what action, if any, we will take regarding our inherited stained-glass portrayal of Jesus as white, with European features. Do we modify it? Do we take the window down and start over? What about the cost, both of change and of not doing anything? A lot of work and conversation lie ahead.

As the apostle Paul writes, we see through a glass dimly. But Jesus didn’t ask his followers to accept everything as it is. Jesus, who had the sharpest vision of all, asks us to expand our seeing.

There is no neutrality when it comes to white supremacy. White dominance has infiltrated our hearts and sacred spaces in subtle and not-so-subtle ways. The struggle to see the fullness of Jesus and one another continues.

I seek to join the countless witnesses who are looking for and creating “golden hours” — times when Jesus and his love for our diversely colored humanity shines through our hearts and places of worship, dim though our seeing remains.

Ruth Harder is pastor of Rainbow Mennonite Church in Kansas City, Kan. To follow her stained-glass travels and discoveries, find her on Instagram@stainedtheology and her blog,

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