Simple stitches, ragged edges, and contrasting fabrics. Wrapped from start to finish in prayer.
That’s how Sandra Revelle—artist, storyteller, and member of Colonial Presbyterian Church in Kansas City—brings the buried narratives of former slaves to life using machine- and hand-sewn panels vividly illustrated with scenes from the past.
“I see my characters as the lesser-known stars in the vast heavens of Black history,” said Revelle, who researches Depression-era archived interviews that Federal Writers’ Project journalists conducted with former slaves and turns them into historical fiction.
Revelle then takes those stories and stitches together fabrics, textures, and patterns to illustrate scenes from the lives of her characters.
“These were ordinary people, just like you and me—people who endured unimaginable hardships but kept hoping and persevering in spite of the losses,” Revelle reflected. “That’s why it’s so important to tell their stories.”
During February, Revelle shared her art exhibit with Colonial’s two campuses as part of a “Kingdom Oneness” initiative that the congregation held in conjunction with Black History Month.
“I always try to insert a character in my stories who encourages from a Christian standpoint,” Revelle said. For example, in one of her stories a young man helps ferry escaping slaves across a river—risking his life to help others find freedom. “Although that young man is not particularly spiritual, the person who encourages him to take that step of faith is a believer.”
Jim West, Colonial’s Lead Pastor, believes it’s important for the church to hear these stories.
“God’s given Sandra a gift of being able to share a difficult history in a way that doesn’t shame anyone, but rather elevates our awe and respect and reverence for what people had to endure,” he said. “How they kept their faith in God amidst great suffering and injustice is a beautiful part of Black history that is not often told.”
West acknowledges both the history of (and the current) racial tension in the United States. He says the church cannot ignore it.
“The redemption work of God has to start in the church,” he said. “I feel it happening slowly in our church and in other churches—particularly within the EPC.”
Through the Kingdom Oneness initiative, Colonial is intentionally seeking to hear and understand each other’s stories, champion diversity, and promote unity. Church leaders are building on efforts of a group called “the Bootstraps” that started organically within the congregation.
Rosie Bettis, a Colonial Ruling Elder and founding member of the Bootstraps group, said discussing issues of equality and racial differences “goes a long way” in promoting unity.
“We have Kingdom Oneness conversations every Wednesday, and that will continue past Black History Month,” she said. “We use a curriculum based on some of Tony Evans’ race relations material, which talks about how it’s not a ‘Black thing’ or a ‘white thing’—it’s a ‘Kingdom thing.’” The group is led each week by Greg Ealey, Campus Pastor for Colonial’s South Kansas City campus.
Bettis said Colonial also promoted specific events to acknowledge Black History Month. When a local theater put on a dance production telling the history and heroics of the Underground Railroad, the church purchased tickets and encouraged church members to attend. Bettis also went on a trip with five other women from the Bootstraps group to visit the Greenwood Rising and Cultural Museum in Tulsa, which tells the story of Black Wall Street and the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre. When they returned, they shared the story with the whole congregation.
Bettis says the trip was “uplifting,” “convicting,” “eye-opening,” but that the greatest benefit was the relationships forged among the women who participated. The experience had such an impact on the group that they have scheduled an overnight bus trip to the museum in April, and anyone in the church can attend.
A bumpy road
But the road to Kingdom Oneness at Colonial has not always been easy.
When Bootstraps originally launched, “Be the Bridge” groups were formed to bring people together to talk about race in light of the gospel. The meetings were so well-received that Colonial soon invited local African American congregations to join the conversation. Relationships were formed, groups grew rapidly, and the congregation seemed eager to truly “be the bridge” to racial reconciliation.
Then came the pandemic, followed by police incidents around the country that provoked racial tension. Suddenly the divide seemed wider than ever.
The rift impacted the church.
“It reached a point where you could not mention reconciliation without someone getting triggered,” West recalled. “It was so painful to my heart as a pastor.”
When Revelle joined the church and was willing to share her gifts with her new church family, it was like a breath of fresh air.
“When she starts out by saying ‘I joined Colonial in November of 2021’ it takes all of the political angst away from the conversation,” West noted. “She’s part of our family. She chose us. That’s our sister telling us about her gift and her passion and her heart for this, and it endears us to her immediately. So we hear it from a whole new perspective—from her perspective.”
Revelle says that she is still amazed at how her work has been received.
“When I first started writing and when God first impressed on me to make the themes for the panels, I started thinking, ‘Lord, who’s going to want to see this?’ But I just kept creating them. I wasn’t sure what people would think. It’s been completely from the Lord. I just stepped out in obedience.”
Her exhibit—originally planned for two Sundays in February—ended up showing on all four weekends. One participant left this comment: “Amazing doesn’t describe the gifts and talents that this Woman of God has. Thank you so much for blessing and sharing your beautiful journey with us!”
“So many people at both campuses loved her art and hearing her story and getting to know her as a person,” West said. “She’s a storyteller who captures the pain of the slaves and Black history, but she’s so full of grace. Her heart just comes out.”
A place to call home
Revelle said she knew from the first time she visited Colonial that she had found her home. Bettis had the same experience years earlier.
“I joined the church because I heard the word of God,” Bettis said. “Those beliefs are the same throughout. The word of God is final. The word of God is the benchmark.”
Both women hope the conversations around race will soon be embraced more readily.
“It’s difficult for some people to talk about,” Bettis acknowledged. “Like if we avoid the conversation, then the tension doesn’t exist. In Bootstraps we use the term Imago Dei—we are all made in the image of God. I don’t want to be defined by the color of my skin. I want my friends to say, ‘All I see is Rosie.’”
Revelle said that having her artwork on display has helped spark conversation.
“My first desire is Kingdom,” she said. “If we can all just learn to walk as Jesus walked and keep our hearts pure before the Lord, He’ll show us where we are diverging from the truth and bring us back into unity.”
For more about Revelle’s art, see www.remnantsarise.com.
by Kiki Schleiff Cherry