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By Jeannie Dortch. Family photo by Paul Bickford.

“Suddenly an angel appeared among them, and the landscape shone bright with the glory of the Lord” Luke 2:9 (The Living Bible).

Tilley Christmas card - 2010 edition

Tilley Christmas card - 2010 edition

Every year before December, Charles Tilley gets out his pencils and watercolors and begins working on his annual gift to relatives and friends—a hand-painted Christmas card. Since his college days at Clemson University in the early 1990s, Charles has been sending religiously themed Christmas cards as a way of keeping in touch and sharing the love of God in Christ.

“I started with simple line drawings of a Christmas theme,” Charles explained. “Angels mainly, but gradually I looked for nativity type scenes and made black and white line drawings of them. In 1997, I started adding color to the drawings, and then, when our daughter Emma started preschool at First Baptist Church, I began a series of paintings based on the stained glass nativity scenes in the sanctuary windows. There is so much depth and symbolism in our windows, and I have learned a lot from studying them.”

Tilley Christmas card - 2000 edition

Tilley Christmas card - 2000 edition

Over the years, Charles, an architect with BCWH Architects, has painted many windows in churches around the city, including the chapel at the University of Richmond and Grace and Holy Trinity, Saint Stephens and All Saints Episcopal Churches. “Richmond has a lot of great religious art if you look for it,” he says.

After taking a photograph of the window he likes, he makes a line drawing of it, and then paints with watercolors. “I am still developing as a painter since I only do this once a year, and trying to capture the light that brings these windows alive is the hardest part.”

Tilley Christmas card - 2001 edition

Tilley Christmas card - 2001 edition

“This is a wonderful way for Charles to express his faith in a way that he enjoys,” commented Charles’ wife, Gwen, during an interview. Charles added, “It wasn’t intentional, but it turned out to be a way I could celebrate the talents that God has given me in a way that feels really comfortable.”

Charles and Gwen work together to match each card’s painting with an appropriate scripture greeting that appears inside the card each year. And in 2000, Emma, Virginia, and Mae, the Tilley’s three daughters, added their own artistic flair to the annual family gift by each painting a picture of a Christmas angel on the back of the cards. “It has been interesting to witness the girls’ artistic progression, as well as my own,” remarked Charles. “They have become better than I am at mixing and blending color.” Thinking about the hallway gallery at home that displays all the cards they have painted together, Emma said, “It wouldn’t be Christmas without this family project. I would have it no other way.”

Tilley Christmas card - 2004 edition

Tilley Christmas card - 2004 edition

Charles continued, “Stained glass is a beautiful art form, but it’s art that is activated by a natural source that changes and moves throughout the day. As the intensity of light changes, the colors adjust and reveal details that may not be apparent otherwise. It reminds me of how the Holy Spirit enlivens us as Christians. When we let the full light of Christ shine through us, we reveal the beauty of who we are, the craftsmanship of our creator, and the impact that we can have on the world.”

Charles’ impact on those he loves has been profound. And he trusts that God will continue to use his talent as he strives to grow artistically and spiritually each year.

Tilley family

Tilley family

Author’s note: It is unusual to find families in which multiple generations have consistently attended the same church. Charles and his wife, Gwen, members of FBC since 2003, are among the few. Gwen is the daughter of Carolyn Land and the granddaughter of Mae Martin. And the Tilley’s three daughters, Emma, Virginia, and Mae, make up the fourth generation of this family that calls FBC home. But, Gwen can trace her FBC heritage all the way back to Joshua Morris, pastor from 1780-1786. Charles and Gwen attend the Disciples Sunday School Class.


Jeannie DortchJeannie Dortch joined FBC in 1974 after being lovingly mentored by the members of Buddy Hamilton’s Sunday school class. A grandmother of four, Jeannie has served as a deacon, taught in our children’s, youth, international, and adult Sunday school departments, but attends the Journey class presently. Recently retired from 16 years of teaching at Rudlin Torah Academy, Jeannie enjoys exercising, cooking, reading, tutoring New American students at Maybeury Elementary, and writing articles for FTF.

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