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Theology Thursdays: The Black Madonna and Black Christ by Samantha Henry

At the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary Church in Jamaica, a woman leads a boy to the altar of the Black Christ of Esquipulas. Whispering a prayer, she rubs the feet of the statue, then traces the sign of the cross in the air around her child's face.

The Black Christ of Esquipulas, named for the town in Guatemala where the statue originated, has a devout following among Central Americans. It is just one of the many black versions of Jesus and the Virgin Mary that are part of the religious iconography of countries from Poland to Panama.

Increasingly, immigrant groups are celebrating these black figures in New York City, where several traditional Catholic churches place the black statues alongside white religious icons in recognition of their increasingly diverse congregations.

Although each culture has a different interpretation of the black Christ or black Madonna mythology, many of the images have similar historical origins, said Anthony Stevens-Arroyo, director of Brooklyn College's Office of Religion in Society and Culture.

"There is no living record of what Christ or Mary or Joseph looked like, so artists would often paint the Blessed Mother as the most beautiful woman they could imagine," Stevens-Arroyo said. "The features reflected a cultural imagination of how she would look."

According to Stevens-Arroyo, for Iberians (predecessors of the Spaniards) in the 10th century, that meant depicting the Madonna as a brunette, in defiance of the blond images that were being imported from France. He said the blackness associated with some representations of Madonna today can be traced back even further in European history.

"When the Moors invaded Spain, destroying all religious iconography, much of it was hidden in caves to escape the destruction, where the combination of environmental conditions and the vegetable dye of the paints combined to cause the images to darken," Stevens-Arroyo said.

"When these images were then brought to the Americas , they quickly acquired a racial meaning, wherein the 1600s we saw in leaps and bounds the racialization of religion, and that was a sign that there was a God for those of color," he said.

For other groups, such as African-Americans, the image of a black Christ often has an added political dimension.

Ronald Brown, an associate professor of political science at Wayne State University in Detroit, is the author of the study "The Social Construction of a Black Christ Religious Ideology." Brown said some groups seek to prove that Jesus was black by tracing his roots back to Ethiopia or Egypt, and others simply view the notion of a black image of Christ as empowering.

"What's consistent for marginalized groups is they're trying to find their own representation of Christ, and for many the only way they can do that is to have an image that looks like themselves," Brown said.

"The only reason it's political in the U.S. is that skin color means everything in this country, so the image of Jesus Christ takes on the added political dimension because skin color doesn't just stay in churches, it exists outside the church as well."

The stories that accompany these black figures vary depending on the cultural context, but they often emphasize a connection with a specific ethnic group and feature a miraculous tale of the statue's appearance in a particular country. During a recent Mass in Queens to celebrate the Black Christ of Esquipulas, the sermon focused on the suffering of Jesus and equated it with the hardships many Guatemalan immigrants face.

"The suffering of Christ from the Latin American perspective is not to challenge power, but to understand the power," Brown said.

"That is the real difference between Latin American black Christs and African-Americans, who say, 'Yes, he suffered like you but you must mobilize against the forces of oppression.'"

In some instances, immigrant groups worship the same figure for different reasons. One example is the black Madonna of Czestochowa, Poland. A shrine in Doylestown, Pa., featuring a replica of the Madonna of Czestochowa, draws not only those of Polish ancestry, but also Haitian immigrants from Queens who make pilgrimages to the site each year. They believe that the two scars on the cheek of the black Madonna - believed to have been created centuries ago in Poland when the image was attacked by invaders - actually signify that she is of African origin.

Regardless of one's beliefs, many immigrants such as Julio Cesar Barillas, a Guatemalan who attended the celebration of the Black Christ of Esquipulas in Queens, say they feel comforted by these familiar religious icons.

"When I was a child, my parents used to take me to the church [in Guatemala] where El Señor de Esquipulas is," Barillas said. "I feel very proud, and very emotional, to see that here in Queens they also celebrate the day of El Señor de Esquipulas. It makes me feel as though I was back home in my own country."

Note: This article first appeared in Newsday

Copyright © 2003, Newsday, Inc.

Thursday, October 2, 2003

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