The embroideries loom large at Plymouth Congregational Church in Minneapolis. Intricate and colorful, 16 feet tall by 25 feet wide, they cover a huge wall in the church’s Guild Hall.
But today, that wall is bare.
Plymouth leaders said one of the four seasonal embroideries contains images that are “disturbing and hurtful” and should no longer be displayed. First hung in 1974, the fall embroidery, titled “Churchmen in the New World,” depicts Pilgrims and Native Americans gathered around a table — a harmful myth, they argue — as well as a slave ship with people being led away.
“We made a commitment at our church a couple of years ago to really look at racial justice issues,” said Paula Northwood, acting senior minister. “We could see, OK, our white privilege has kept us from experiencing these images in a way a person of color would. For many of us, it took the blinders off.”
Some members have objected to the embroidery’s removal, saying it causes pain of another kind, including to the tight-knit group of women known as the Needlers, who met for years to stitch the massive artworks. They have petitioned for a congregational vote, set for Sunday, on an “alternative plan” to display the embroideries “in the same sequence and for the same time frames as they have historically been displayed.”
Rather than taking down the embroidery — a work of art that highlights key moments in Congregationalist history — they say the church should add new artworks that better reflect the community’s diversity, said Dobby West, a longtime member and author of the alternative plan.
“From our perspective, art is intended to raise questions, to challenge and be challenged,” West said. “It is far better to use these embroideries as a way of eliciting discussion, of educating.”
The disagreement, which has divided the congregation, comes at a time when institutions of all kinds are reconsidering their reflections of history. Governments and museums, among others, have taken down, added context to or switched out artworks deemed racist, outdated or inaccurate.
A church has a different calling than a museum or a government building, Northwood said. “You don’t expect to go into a church and have trauma triggered — which is what we have heard from people. And now that we’ve heard it, we can’t unhear it. We have to respond to it.
“Are we going to respond by saying: Oh, we hear this offends you, so we’re going to put up some signs that say ‘this is offensive,’ but we’re still going to hang onto this because this is ours? Or are we going to say: We hear you and we want to be different.”
Northwood has been trying to find a museum that could display the embroidery in its proper context, she said.
In May, the church’s leadership council announced that “Churchmen in the New World” would hang for one month, then come down for “an indefinite resting period.” The other embroideries could face removal too, following a period of “education and discernment.”
In September, the church received a petition, signed by 25 members, requesting a special meeting — an action outlined in the church’s bylaws but never before used. “The only avenue we had available to us,” West called it, saying that the entire congregation should vote on this decision, not just its leadership.
A complicated history
Members of the church have weighed the embroideries’ histories and future in newsletters and listening sessions, field trips and sermons.
During a February sermon at Plymouth, the Rev. Jim Bear Jacobs described speaking at an interfaith service on Thanksgiving, when he “spent my allotted 10-minute time at this very pulpit deconstructing the mythology” around the holiday. “Imagine my feeling as, after the service, we were ushered into Guild Hall for a time of fellowship. And there it was: the entire mythology that I had just attempted to deconstruct was proudly displayed.”
“It was very jarring,” said Jacobs, a member of the Stockbridge-Munsee Mohican Nation, by phone this week.
Historians have painted a more complex history of the so-called first Thanksgiving, a 1621 feast shared by Pilgrims and the Wampanoag tribe. Some argue that story blots out the larger context of colonists attacking Native Americans.
“A case can be made that the first time that word [Thanksgiving] was used in English, it referred to a celebration of the massacre of indigenous people,” said Jacobs, who is the Minnesota Council of Churches’ program director for racial justice. The church has made a similar argument.
As a pastor, “I have deep concern for how the church writ large presents itself to the world,” said Jacobs. This enormous wall hanging is “definitely a statement piece I believe that hinders the mission of that church to be a place of sanctuary, refuge and welcome.”
Last year, after an event in Guild Hall, several visitors wrote in the comment book, questioning the wall hanging. But people of color have raised concerns before, Northwood said. “The church has not wanted to deal with it.”
Illustrated in the embroideries are stories of the Congregationalists’ early work around freedom and education. Since its establishment in 1857, Plymouth has set social justice as part of its mission. In 1858, the congregation fired its minister “for not taking a strong enough stand against slavery,” according to the church’s website.
40 years of stitching
On a recent Sunday afternoon, the two sides debated history and hurt during a meeting in the Guild Hall that began with prayer.
The “Churchmen” embroidery was still hanging. In front of it stood panels describing the images’ “intent and impact.” The ship in the embroidery’s right-hand panel, is meant to tell the story of the Amistad — the kidnapping and rebellion of 50 slaves. “With the aid of former President John Quincy Adams the case of the Amistad slaves was pleaded before the high court and won,” explains the official Plymouth Embroidery booklet.
But according to the panel, that image “only tells a part of the tale, and with people being led off the ship in shackles ... the image more closely resembles enslaved people being delivered to ‘owners.’ ”
In short, emotional speeches, the two sides questioned and defended the process that led to the church leadership’s decision. They clashed over the best way to remember the church’s successes and shortcomings. Both sides, though, noted the Needlers' good intentions.
Decades ago, congregation members Mary and Paul Carson commissioned the series’ designs from British artist Pauline Baynes, who illustrated books by C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, for a broad wall in the church’s vaulted hall, framed by dark wood beams.
Then, in day and nighttime shifts over some 40 years, women stitched.
They stitched the autumnal scene’s trees and birds, Pilgrims and Native people, fires and muskets. There are churches here, ships there, but the Thanksgiving scene sits in the embroidery’s center.
This first giant embroidery, fashioned out of Irish linen and bright wool yarns, would later be joined by three others, each with its own season and theme: a Christmas scene completed in 1992, a springtime image in 1995 and the “Summer of the First Amendment” in 2012.
Inspired by the Christmas embroidery’s unveiling, Cynthia Callanan and her daughter, then 13, joined the Needlers.
“More important than the product was the bonding of the women who came together and supported each other in the creation of something that was way bigger than anybody could have done on their own,” said Callanan, now 63. She believes church leaders failed to listen to the Needlers’ perspectives in deciding to “rest” the fall embroidery.
“I just feel like we were sidelined in this whole yearlong process,” she said.
During church discussions, some people have suggested creating a new embroidery that has a new, more modern message, Callanan said. “To which I say: Go for it, honey. Find 40 people who are willing to put in 100 hours each for the next seven years. And in the meantime, while you’re working on your modern thing, let’s keep the old one. I’d be OK with that.”