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In our image: Churches depict Jesus to reflect ethnicity of congregations


The Jesus is white. The Jesus is black.

Look closely. The Jesus depicted in sanctuaries, homes, and stores throughout the nation also could be Asian or Latino.

For those who believe in a more inclusive image than the white, blue-eyed savior of Renaissance art, it is a beautiful sight.

“Jesus really belongs to each and every one of us,” said Sister Mary Thomas Schiefen, a religious artist and contemplative nun in Cleveland.

Josh Gunter/The Plain Dealer

A black Christ is a source of reflection during Bible study at Live Ministries Church of Recovery in Cleveland. A growing desire of individuals to celebrate their racial origins is broadening acceptance of that Jesus represents all ethnicities.

At the monastery of the Poor Clares of Perpetual Adoration, Schiefen is working on a painting of Mary and Jesus with darker, Latino-type features for the adjacent St. Paul Shrine Church. She hopes her Jesus will be welcoming to the urban congregation, including its Asian and Indian worshippers. The large painting will be unveiled March 25, the Feast of the Annunciation.

In early Christian history, Jesus was portrayed in the image of the European culture that was the dominant voice of the faith. Those powerful images – ingrained by some of Europe’s most renowned artists and continued in 20th century art, film, and television – still exert massive influence.

But the rapid growth of Christianity throughout the world and the desire of individuals to celebrate their racial and ethnic origins is broadening acceptance of the idea that Jesus transcends boundaries of color.

This Christmas season brought two major movies that veer away from The King of Kings imagery of the story of Christ.

Color of the Cross has a black Jesus. The Nativity Story features an international cast, including Guatemalan-American actor Oscar Isaac as Joseph and Iranian-born Shohreh Aghdashloo as Mary’s cousin Elizabeth.

Jean Claude LaMarre, director of Color of the Cross, said he hopes his film won’t divide Christians but will broaden their perspective.

“For black people, I hope this film will build their sense of self-esteem and self-worth,” he said. “For white people, I hope it will break down and destroy the lines that divide.”

Walk into the T & L Christian Bookstore in Cleveland, and you will find Christmas cards depicting a young joyous black family, a large framed painting of a black infant child, and striking pendants of a black Jesus engraved by Jonathan Stith, a local artist.

Bill Kennedy/The Plain Dealer

An Orthodox icon features a white Jesus with his mother Mary. In early Christian history, Jesus was portrayed in the image of the European culture that was the dominant voice of the faith.

“The black people like a black Jesus. The white people like a white Jesus,” said Larry Wolf, the store’s owner.

Does the color of Jesus matter? Not to Wolf.

Let’s face it, he wasn’t white-white. He wasn’t black-black,” Wolf said. “He was Middle Eastern.”

What is important, a growing number of religious leaders say, is the ancient idea that people are able to see themselves in the central figure of Christianity.

A powerful black Jesus on the cross dominates one of the walls near the front of the Live Ministries Church of Recovery in Cleveland.

“It allows people of color to see we are all included as children of God,” said Franklin Smith, pastor. “Every person needs to be included on a human level, so they don’t have a God so distant that on a human level he can’t be seen, he can’t be touched, or he can’t be felt.”

Stith, who portrays Christ as a strong black man in some of his work, said it was “unhealthy” to have only white images of Jesus.

“People are looking to see Jesus and God more like in their image,” he said. “It gives you some kind of connection to him and the biblical story.”

Not everyone is comfortable with the diverse images.

Michael Butler of St. Innocent Orthodox Church in Olmsted Falls, Ohio, said the Jesus of Orthodox icons can have variations in skin tone but could never be portrayed as Asian or black.

“Christ was a historical figure,” Butler said. “He’s not a tablet on which we project” our own images.


David Briggs writes for The Plain Dealer in Cleveland.