Guided Sanctuary and Black History Tour: the Church of the Advocate-please note time change

1:00 pm - 3:00 pm

This Ending Racism Committee sponsored field trip will include: discussion of church architecture, social history and the African American History Murals. Topics may also include: African American Church History; Church Art;  Social Justice; Philadelphia Religious History; Church and Community; Religious History; Religion and Radicalism; Race Relations.  Suggested docent led tour donation is $5 per person The main entrance is at 2121 Gratz St.

There will be a second segment of the visit by car to key Black history sites in North Philadelphia in the afternoon.

If you’d like to carpool, contact Barbara Dowdall and plan to meet in the USG parking lot at 12:30pm, returning at 3:30pm.

Link to Church of the Advocate mural history.

Paintings on the Bible and The Black Experience

As the Civil Rights Movement gained momentum, the attacks of the opposition became more virulent. Civil Rights workers in the South, both white and black, were jailed, beaten and murdered. In September 1963, four little girls were killed in the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama.

Five years later, in 1968, the most outstanding leader in the Civil Rights Movement, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. African-Americans reacted with rage and despair. Violent riots exploded in the inner cities across America, leaving many black communities burned and in ruins.

At the rallies and conventions held by black groups at the Church of the Advocate in support of Civil Rights, more and more visitors raised their concerns about the cultural bias of the church.

“At that time”, Fr. Washington recalled, ‘there were people who came into the church, and as they looked around they saw nothing and no one, including the figures in the stained glass windows, with whom they could identify. Everything they looked at was white, white, white. They came right out and made it very clear to me. They would say, ‘How can we look at this white image for our liberation when it is our experience that it is the white man who is our oppressor?’”

“I heard that so many, many times,” Fr. Washington explained, ‘that my mind began to look back into history, and I realized that we could see the black experience revealed and defined in religious terms…and find parallel situations in what we read in the Old Testament every Sunday. It is the expression of the religious struggle for freedom and our understanding is that Jesus came to free us and to liberate us.”

Fr. Washington came to envision a series of large paintings to be mounted around the nave of the church that would show the parallels of the experience endured by Hebrew slaves in Egypt as described in the Bible and the experience suffered by Africans enslaved in America. He then presented the project to the congregation of the church.

“Being convinced that this would be an expression that would be religious in character,’ Fr. Washington said, “the congregation agreed to it, and I asked for offerings to be made.”

The artist and poet, Walter Edmonds, was involved in many of the activities of the church. He played with a jazz group and had painted a large mural as a backdrop for the stage on the upper floor of the Parish House. Richard Watson, the other artist and a musician, was also painting at the church. His work featured an African motif.

Knowing and admiring the quality of their work, Fr. Washington enlisted these two artists to undertake the project he envisioned. Consultations were held with an architect, Eugene P. Dichter, to ensure that none of the carvings or important architectural features of the church would be hidden by the paintings. Dichter’s advice guided the construction of metal offsets from the walls on which frames for the paintings were fastened. Instead of canvas, the artists painted on waterproofed plywood attached to the wooden frames. The scaffolding from which the artists worked was erected by Edmonds and his teenaged son at Edmond’s own cost.

Edmonds was assisted in building the scaffolding by a number of recovering drug addicts from the Mental Health Clinic in Mantua, West Philadelphia, where he was working at the time. Through the collection of special offerings, the Church of the Advocate paid for the materials, with some of the funds coming from the Rector’s Discretionary Fund.

Fr. Washington selected the Bible passages that would guide the artists as they designed each panel. He told them he wanted the paintings to portray God’s ongoing involvement in the world and how, down through the ages, God has worked through individuals and people to fulfill God’s purpose.

The artists took three years, from 1973 through 1976, to complete the paintings. Walter Edmonds remembers that he would come down in the evenings and stay weekends in the church, camping in the sanctuary to soak up the atmosphere. Richard Watson also stayed overnight. “I would come down at 11 o’clock and work through until early morning. There was nothing else about. The church was there, I was there. It was a totally encompassing situation.” The results are dramatic and riveting.

“One cannot look at these paintings”, Fr. Washington says, “and not be passionate.” Each person looks at them from his/her own perspective and each sees different things. Whites have represented the ‘master race’; they have written the history and rarely seen the darker side. Those who have been oppressed see a different reality because their experience has been different.”

The paintings have generated controversy and objections from members of the congregation as well as from visitors, largely because of the violence and rage expressed in them. Fr. Washington reported these objections to Walter Edmonds who had painted two of the most disturbing paintings, the two along the Diamond Street side of the nave, titled from the texts, ‘The Lord smote the firstborn in the land of Egypt’ (Exodus 12:29) and ‘God has chosen the weak to confound the strong’ (I Corinthians 1:27).

“People tell me”, he told Edmonds, ‘that they are trying to tell their children not to be violent, and then they come into the church and see the violence in the paintings.”

Edmonds replied, “Fr. Washington, you must remember that we are talking about oppression, about slavery. How can we paint pictures of that and make them look pretty? Those things were, and still are, so ugly.”

‘But it is so realistically portrayed,” Fr. Washington responded.

Whereupon Edmonds replied, “We are talking about crucifixion.”

Mrs. Christine Washington, wife of the Rev. Paul Washington, when questioned about the violence in the paintings asked “What can be more violent than the Crucifixion?” She pointed to some of the stained glass windows which show men in armor with drawn swords. Isn’t that violence?”

Others have noted that, because the Cross is such a familiar fixture in church, its significance as an instrument of torture and execution has been lost.

Speaking of the painting which shows a black man striking at the neck of a white authority figure with a sword (from the text from First Corinthians, “God chose the weak to confound the strong.”), Fr. Washington commented, ‘We are lying if we say there has not been black rage. And the artist (Walter Edmonds) has been bold and honest enough to paint it.”

In this series, most of Edmonds’ paintings are in bright, vivid yellows, oranges and reds. The paintings of Richard Watson are in cooler shades, mainly blue and violets. Watson speaks of both grief and losses, of those leaders who lost their lives in the struggle for freedom and equality, and also of new life beginning and growing in the darkness. The paintings passionately portray what Fr. Washington describes as “the conscious and unconscious, the suffering and the anger, as well as the strength and dignity of the African-American”.

Church of the Advocate