ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Pastor John McClean stood in the old stone sanctuary of the First United Methodist Church on Monday and delivered a solemn message to those who had gathered.
He wasn’t giving a sermon.
Instead it was an appeal to the 300 or so men and women who were spooning up cheeseburger mac at the “grace meal,” the free lunch church parishioners have offered to anyone in need for more than three decades now.
The appeal was simple: Help us find the person who is attacking our church.
“Please be our eyes and ears,” McClean asked. “If you see something or hear something, please let us know.”
First United Methodist is known for the beauty of its stained-glass windows. The old stone church, built in 1905 on the corner of Third and Lead, glows like a golden lamp when the sun hits its 19 tawny windows. In the new sanctuary, built in the 1950s on the corner of 4th and Lead, 40 large stained-glass windows blush to a deep crimson as the sun moves around the building.
They are jewels of Downtown Albuquerque, subject of history tours and a 58-page book published in 1990, “The Book of Windows.”
It was windows in the new building, all facing west and depicting the story of the New Testament, that were hit by one or more vandals who used heavy pieces of iron to pound holes in the leaded glass. McClean told me the windows had been protected by an outer layer of glass as a precaution. “But obviously they’re not protected enough,” he said.
The first window, a depiction of the Annunciation, was hit Oct. 25, a Friday night. The next night, four windows were smashed: Calling the Disciples, the First Miracle, the Lord’s Prayer and the Healing. On that Sunday night, two more windows were broken – the Transfiguration and the chapel window, which with some irony in light of the vandalism spree shows Jesus looking out over the city of Albuquerque with the words, “He saw the city and wept over it.”
Anyone who has been burglarized or vandalized knows the feeling of personal violation it brings. Then imagine you’re a Methodist and your church gets hit and the targets are all depictions of the life of Jesus.
Church members saw the destruction and wept over it.
When I encountered Kris Linton, a First United Methodist parishioner and a member of the church’s history committee, she was in the chapel, with light pouring in the baseball-sized hole in the glass where Jesus’s left foot was supposed to be. And she was crying.
“I’m sorry,” she said, wiping her eyes. “I feel like they’re members of my family.” Whoever attacked the church beat the windows until they broke through the protective glass cover and the leading of the decorative windows. Church officials know the weapons were iron because they became lodged in the leading and were left behind.
“Just to have it so targeted, it just feels like somebody’s beating up on your family and you don’t know why,” Linton said. “It’s not like something that teenage kids thought would be a funny prank and did on a lark. This is a serious beating to have done this kind of damage.”
I asked McClean the amateur detective’s obvious question: Do you have any enemies? Anyone who would want to harm you?
He laughed and pointed out that churches tend to do good works rather than pick fights. “We’re feeding the homeless as we speak,” he said.
Indeed, First United Methodist does the Lord’s work. It hosts addiction recovery programs and has a prison ministry, and for the past 32 years it has fed the needy every Monday. Wedged between the Downtown business district and the Barelas neighborhood, it is open to all comers.
Other windows along Fourth Street were also broken recently, including on businesses to the north and south of the church, and the clear glass panels protecting several stained-glass windows at the nearby Episcopal Cathedral Church of St. John. But the Methodists have gotten the worst of it.
“We’ve been hit three times, and we’ve been hit with such force and such deliberation,” Linton told me. “I truly believe there is something very deep behind this, and very bitter and very angry.”
Unleashing that level of violence on a stained-glass window is sort of like clubbing a lamb.
Stained glass, a 12th-century invention, was initially used in church windows to tell the story of the Bible to parishioners who were largely illiterate. They tell a story, but they also convey an intangible. There is something almost heavenly about seeing light pour through colored glass.