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Repentance and Resurrection Statement
Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest? Jesus said to him, You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind… And… You shall love your neighbor as yourself.
Since its founding in 1821, the roots of First Presbyterian Church have wound inextricably through the roots of Charlotte, exerting a powerful impact both as a body of Christ and as a group of dedicated individuals acting throughout the community. Countless examples exist of faithful, compassionate, even courageous ministries spread by FPC and its members.
But because the Church is a human instrument used by God for divine purposes, there are also examples of human failings and sinfulness. Thus, the soil of our history includes numerous incidents of exclusion, racism, sexism, and other affronts to the promise of God’s inseparable love for all people. In particular, FPC and its members have condoned, sanctioned, and given moral legitimacy to slavery and white supremacy.
We confess these moral failings unequivocally. We do so not as morally superior beings casting judgment on the past, but as sinners in need of God’s grace. The purpose of confession and repentance is to acknowledge our need for grace before God. To be a covenant community means we must own the sins of the past if we are to repent and respond to God’s call to a new and better future together. We are committed both to remembering our history and to continuing to take steps towards repair.
As we work to repent of our sins, we look forward to the promise of forgiveness, and to the promise of resurrection – both of which remind us that change and a new way of life are not only possible, but are assured through Christ our Redeemer.
In memory of all those who entered and worshipped at First Presbyterian Church as enslaved or otherwise subordinated people, including these described by name in Session minutes: Marie, a colored woman belonging to Rev. Cyrus Johnson; Joe, a slave formerly the property of James Irwin; Charity, a servant girl of Mr. Irwin; Sophia, a servant to Joseph H. White; Charles, a servant belonging to John Williamson; and Alexander, a servant of Mr. Henderson.
This project grew out of the work of the history section of the FPC Racial Justice Task Force, which was convened in 2020. Among the recommendations approved by the Session were: “Add a new plaque that includes confession of our past sins and a statement of repentance to be displayed in a prominent location outside the sanctuary. Find a way of recognizing specific people who were enslaved at FPC.” To accomplish this mission, I worked to create a visual piece in hopes of enticing the congregation to think more deeply about what the words were intended to convey.
The initial call I received from FPC was unexpected, as I have not been an active member of the church since moving away some years ago. The first question was how to present the statement on “Repentance and Resurrection” in a way that stands out from the large brass plaques formerly in the sanctuary. How can we entice the congregation to notice and read the words?
We began by discussing the shape of the piece. What could we do to make it distinctly different from the other plaques? I asked about possibly reclaiming some wood that had been removed from the sanctuary. Little did I know that the inquiry would lead to the door to the former choir loft arriving at my home. For some members of the church, this particular door may not hold meaning or emotional weight. For me, as a former choir member, that door represents so much that is good and wonderful about the ministry of FPC. Once I realized that the door was available, there were no further questions about the shape. From there, the door dictated how this project would unfold.
The tree flowed naturally from my own work, where I often use them as a stand-in for bodies to make difficult statements relatable, but also to connect our past with hopes for the future. With the magnificent oaks standing in the front of the church and their presence in the “Repentance and Resurrection” text, it was very natural to use a tree as the main motif.
As we spoke about the intentions behind the piece, it became increasingly apparent that the words needed to be visibly personal, something that the viewers could relate to, as opposed to a formal corporate confession. The style of lettering conveys information beyond the words. Printed letters in a font convey a formal corporate tone. Calligraphic hand lettering styles are also frequently used in more formal settings. It dawned on me that the best way to make this text personal was to use my own handwriting with all of its inconsistencies and imperfections.
Much of my recent work emphasizes “the flaws” that speak to our humanity and acknowledge the paradox of both its beauty and its foibles. I now work mostly with silver, allowing it to tarnish. The process of oxidization takes time. It is not something that I can predict or control. That unvarnished truth made silver leaf ideal as a carrier for meaning on this project. It should be noted that the piece is not varnished. The silver will oxidize and darken over time.
Originally from Ohio, artist Amy E. Gray lived and worked in Charlotte from 1996 to 2009. She sang in the FPC choir from 1999 to 2009. While at FPC, she had the opportunity to create several works for the church: the artwork on the harpsichord, the decorative work in the youth area and the mustard seed drawings. In 2009, she relocated to the DC area to attend Wesley Theological Seminary where she studied the relationship between religion and the arts. There she spent a decade working at the Henry Luce III Center for the Arts and Religion. She currently lives in Alexandria, VA where she continues creating artwork that engages the relationship between our human frailty and the divine. www.amyegraystudio.com