A tiny moment of weak March sunshine lights up Miriam’s face as she dances, hands raised in the air.
Around her, women and girls dance in celebration of their freedom from slavery.
Even when the sun disappears behind the clouds, the stained-glass story shimmers, the natural variations in the glass creating movement and life.
First Congregational United Church of Christ will unveil two new stained-glass windows to its congregation Sunday. The two windows, which were installed this week, will be dedicated officially at an April 7 service that will honor the families of the donors.
It’s the first time in more than 50 years that the 174-year-old church at 54 S. Jackson St. has installed new windows. Their existence is a tribute to the estate of Darlene McWilliams and the Kay Mork memorial fund that includes the family of Tim and Barb Cullen.
Those donations translated into a couple of two-story stained-glass windows and more than a year of work for the Rev. Tanya Sadagopan and her congregation.
“We looked around at the other stained-glass windows in the church, and we looked for what was missing,” Sadagopan said.
The sacraments of baptism and Holy Communion were two important parts of the church’s life that were not represented.
The other missing element? The women of the Bible.
Sadagopan worked with Ed Gilbertson of Gilbertson’s Stained Glass in Lake Geneva. It was particularly important to her that the two chosen women’s stories were told in a way that would represent the congregation’s values. She also wanted the windows to depict people of Middle Eastern origin instead of the Caucasian images that dominate in most churches.
The windows were designed to feature the biblical women in the lower half and the sacraments in the upper half.
Sadagopan and her congregation picked Miriam for the Kay Mork memorial window.
In the Christian tradition, Miriam is the first named female prophet in the Old Testament. The Jewish Talmud considers Miriam one of the seven major female prophets of Israel.
“There aren’t very many stained-glass windows featuring Miriam,” Sadagopan said. “And if there are, they’re part of the Jewish tradition.”
Miriam was the sister of Moses and Aaron. After the Hebrews were liberated and fled across the Red Sea, Miriam led the women in song and dance. She is known for singing one of the oldest pieces of Hebrew Scripture, Sadagopan said.
Exodus 15:20-21 reads this way: “Then Miriam the prophet, Aaron’s sister, took a timbrel in her hand, and all the women followed her, with timbrels and dancing. Miriam sang to them, ‘Sing to the Lord, for he is highly exalted. Both horse and driver he has hurled into the sea.’”
Miriam is celebrating the liberation of the Hebrews from oppression. For Christians, the story also can represent God’s ability to liberate people from real or metaphoric oppression.
Miriam’s singing also testifies to First Congregational Church’s strong musical tradition.
The Darlene McWilliams window features the unnamed woman at the well.
In John 4:4, Jesus meets a lone Samaritan woman at a well. Traditionally, the woman at the well is described as a fallen woman whom Jesus comforts. But Sadagopan points out that the conversation goes far beyond her personal life.
“It’s the longest conversation that Jesus has with anybody in the Bible,” she said. “They’re talking about theology. She and he engage in conversation as equals.”
The woman asks Jesus why the Jews insist that everyone worship in Jerusalem while the Samaritans worship on “this mountain.”
Jesus tells her that, in the future, God will not care where people worship, only that they worship with honesty.
“It’s so inclusive,” Sadagopan said.
Both windows represent more than just beautiful additions to the church, she said.
“We asked ourselves, ‘What do we want to tell future worshippers about who we are?’” Sadogopan said.
The congregation wanted to be seen as a church that embraces earthly ministry, cross-cultural engagement and welcoming strangers.
“That’s very much who we are,” Sadagopan said.