our UUCL community is reminded of how much more community means than just the building in which it comes together for worship. And yet. We do call our place of worship a sanctuary, and we crave sanctuary now. We need it for ourselves, we need it to hold together and repair the straining webs of all our different communities. Although our UUCL sanctuary raises up individual heroes, they all appear in groups, as leaders of communities that reach across time and space. Some of our heroes were heroes of religious faith in something approaching the way that phrase is used conventionally. Others are heroes who had no faith at all in the conventional religion of their day, and would not be revered in any church but our own sometimes rather peculiar one. As we think about the people memorialized in our windows, and why they are standing there grouped as they are, we are reminded that they and we have all been through a lot, sometimes certainly feeling alone but joined in hope and in faith that our communities will someday be repaired and healed. In the future, there will continue to be those who continue to work, as they worked, for the good of all. Some are working, even heroically, for it now.
The central windows of the sanctuary memorialize our country’s founders, and, opposite, national leaders in time of wrenching change. William Penn occupies the center panel of the east central window, and opposite him, Abraham Lincoln. The west central window, with its three panels, is generally referred to as “The Presidents’ Window”, as Lincoln is flanked by Thomas Jefferson (south panel) and Woodrow Wilson (north).
The choice of Lincoln seems obvious, since other panels, notably the one dedicated to Theodore Parker, focus on the issues of freedom and justice eventually joined in Lincoln’s presidency. Jefferson’s presence is usually said, in our church literature, to be motivated by his role in establishing freedom of religion in his home state of Virginia, and little if anything is made of the window thus juxtaposing Lincoln with a slaveholder. In general, it was part of the way the church ornamentation was planned, that people of different times and places should be represented together, to show how their different achievements contribute to progress shared along one or another specific trajectory, for example, science (in the northwest window) or philosophy (in the southwest). Yet we cannot help wondering how freedom of religion in Virginia is to be celebrated if the religion people were free to believe in supported their simultaneous belief in the superiority of white men and their inherent right to own people who were not white. No one, after all, would suggest we memorialize freedom of religion for people who consider it their sacred duty to tear out the heart of their eldest son and cast it into a burning pyre.
We sometimes think that the “Jefferson problem” has only been noticed in recent years, but then we think “noticed by whom, exactly?”.
Sarah Hemings’s descendants will have noticed long ago, and public notice is nearly as old as the republic. A hint of this may perhaps explain a peculiarity of the Jefferson window. Like other windows in our church, the diamond panes are occasionally interrupted by small round ones, mostly plain frosted glass. Only a few have any interior lead seams, and among them, there is one in the Jefferson window that has so many seams it seems hardly to hold together. These are not repairs, but belong to the original design.We do not know why W.H. Ritter, the architect, designed the window that way, but one may wonder if it was not a sign of the “Jefferson problem”, especially since we know that in the neighboring Lincoln window, the crack in the Stars and Stripes can only refer to the crack in the Union, while the essay named in Emerson’s window, “Compensation”, is the source of his famous statement: there is a crack in everything God has made. Isn’t there just.
Yet the most problematic of the three panes in the Presidents’ Window is the third, the northernmost, dedicated to Woodrow Wilson. It deserves a separate small place in our thoughts, so we will return to it, God willing, tomorrow.