Lady Liberty Trades In Some Trappings
Rollin Riggs for The New York Times
At a megachurch in Memphis,
the Statue of Liberation Through Christ
was consecrated Tuesday.
The statue, says the church's pastor,
is a way of "letting people know that
God is the foundation of our nation."
By SHAILA DEWAN
July 5, 2006
MEMPHIS, July 4 — On Independence Day, Lady Liberty was born again.
As the congregation of the World Overcomers Outreach Ministries Church looked on and its pastor, Apostle Alton R. Williams, presided, a brown shroud much like a burqa was pulled away to reveal a giant statue of the Lady, but with the Ten Commandments under one arm and "Jehovah" inscribed on her crown.
And in place of a torch, she held aloft a large gold cross, as if to ward off the pawnshops, the car dealerships and the discount furniture outlets at the busy corner of Kirby Parkway and Winchester that is her home. A single tear graced her cheek.
It was not clear if she was crying because of her new home, her new identity as a symbol of religion or, as the pastor said, America's increasing godlessness. But although big cheers went up from the few hundred onlookers at the unveiling, and some people even wore foam Lady Liberty crowns bearing Christian slogans, she was not universally welcomed.
Most of the customers at the Dixie Queen food counter near the church viewed the statue as a cheap attention grab, said Guardia Nelson, 27, who works there.
"It's a big issue," Ms. Nelson said. "Liberty's supposed to have a fire, not a cross."
Elena Martinez, a loan officer visiting Memphis from Houston, said her family was speechless at the sight.
"The Statue of Liberty has a different meaning for the country," Ms. Martinez said. "It doesn't need to be used in a religious sense."
At the pizza place next door, Amanda Houston pronounced the combination of the Statue of Liberty and Christianity "ridiculous," though her co-worker Landon Condit was far less critical: "I can't see anything wrong with it. This is the Bible Belt."
The Statue of Liberation Through Christ, as she is called, stands 72 feet tall from the base of her pedestal to the tip of her cross. She was the idea of Mr. Williams, a very successful pastor whose church, World Overcomers, qualifies as mega: it has a school, a bowling alley, a roller rink, a bookstore and, he said, 12,000 members.
The pastor is not shy. His church has bought full-page advertisements in The Commercial Appeal, the Memphis daily, condemning homosexuality. At the World Overcomers' previous location, neighbors complained that trees were felled unnecessarily; Mr. Williams said it had to be done so that people could see the church from the road.
The statue, inspired by a Memphis church that has three giant crosses, strikes him as "a creative means of just really letting people know that God is the foundation of our nation," he said.
Mr. Williams has written several books and pamphlets analyzing a variety of matters, among them patriotism and the original intent of the founding fathers.
In "The Meaning of the Statue of Liberation Through Christ: Reconnecting Patriotism With Christianity," he explains that the teardrop on his Lady is God's response to what he calls the nation's ills, including legalized abortion, a lack of prayer in schools and the country's "promotion of expressions of New Age, Wicca, secularism and humanism." In another book, he said Hurricane Katrina was retribution for New Orleans's embrace of sin.
Mr. Williams said his statue's essential point was that Christianity should be the guiding ethos of the nation. But because the church he leads is predominantly black, as is he, there is an added dimension to the message.
In "From Slavery to Lady Liberty: Lady Liberty's African Connection: The Key to Black America's Liberation," he pointed out that the real Statue of Liberty wears a broken shackle around one ankle, and revisited evidence that the statue, a gift from France, was originally intended not to welcome immigrants but to celebrate the emancipation of slaves.
"Many blacks are not patriotic, and they are not patriotic because of the history of our nation," Mr. Williams said in an interview at the church, in the richly appointed sitting room he uses to receive visitors. "It's good for our people to know that the nation has something for them as well."
To critics who say there are better ways to spend $260,000, Mr. Williams responds that his church gives millions to the needy and says he views the statue as outreach: "I personally feel that the answer for the poor is Jesus Christ."
To celebrate the Fourth of July, a good crowd gathered on the church grounds for free hamburgers and grape soda, carnival rides, a barbecue cook-off and entertainment. Children ate sno-cones, and a small army of volunteers and members of the staff darted around on bicycles and golf carts, dressed in white polo shirts. But the main event was the unveiling, preceded by speeches, prayers and consecrations.
"I decree the spirit of conviction on this intersection," Mr. Williams boomed from a podium decorated with red, white and blue bunting. "This statue proves that Jesus Christ is Lord over America, he is Lord over Tennessee, he is Lord over Memphis."
Copyright 2006 The New York Times Company