The Center Church on the New Haven Green, founded in 1683, has a past of racial division. In 1820, black members of the congregation, angered that they were denied ground-level seats, broke off and formed the Dixwell Avenue Congregational Church.
Today, ministers in both churches say that the relationship between the two congregations has always been friendly. Current members of Center Church have also begun to reach out to the descendants of the people their church once segregated.
But on Thursday, Center Church’s Board of Stewards elected to remove an emblem of the ongoing reconciliation. Artwork representing black parishioners — symbolically installed on the ground floor of the church — has been moved to the balcony.
“To reinstall it in the balcony, that is such a clear example of history repeating itself,” said Bradley McCallum, one of the exhibition’s artists.
The artwork, called “Silence,” was removed on Friday morning following the board’s decision. By Tuesday night, the exhibit had been disassembled, sitting in neat stacks on the third row of the balcony.
“We put it up in the balcony not to insult or offend or ‘repeat history,’ but simply to have a secure place to store [it] that was not in the middle of the worship space,” said the Rev. Patricia Carque, a pastor at the church.
Carque said the artwork was removed after a phone poll of the congregation by the Board of Stewards recommended the move. Since then, uncertainty has lingered among church officials over what will happen to the exhibit, and how the Dixwell parishioners will respond.
Originally, the artwork, which consisted of 19 portraits of current Dixwell churchgoers, was set on top of wooden stands and clamped to the pews throughout the church. The installation was intended to represent the physical presence of departed black parishioners.
Carque said that there were concerns that the installation blocked lines of sight for worshippers and that the clamps might ruin the cushions.
But McCallum said the photographs had the same physical presence as someone sitting in a pew, and he dismissed the idea that the installation would damage the cushions.
McCallum visited the Dixwell Avenue church on Sunday, and said that when he told people about the incident, they were surprised.
“Across the board it’s almost as if they did a double take,” he said.
Artspace Executive Director Helen Kauder, whose organization sponsored the installation, called the removal “quite insulting,” although she said that she hoped a dialogue among the churches, artists and Artspace staff would emerge.
Kauder added that the New Haven firm Community Mediation had been brought in to help the process of reconciliation.
The Rev. John Henry Scott III, minister of the Dixwell Avenue church, called the removal “unfortunate” and a “misstep,” but said there has never been a rift between the churches.
“I don’t think [the removal] has to do with race,” Scott said.
He added that Center Church was a multiracial and progressive congregation that preaches love and kindness.
Carque said that Center Church has a strong relationship with Scott and the Dixwell church.
“We are aware that people have been hurt,” she said.
She added that the church would hold a meeting today to discuss the controversy surrounding the past week’s events.
And for McCallum, some of the healing would come through art.
“We plan to generate another artwork to respond to this shifting drama,” McCallum said.