Among the many groups that descended on Charlottesville last weekend for Saturday’s rally of white supremacists, a collection of faith leaders from around the country stood together to provide solace and solidarity in the midst of chaos. WMRA's Faith Pinho has this story about how the Episcopal Church responded to events in Charlottesville -- and how it is addressing issues of race in general.
The night before protests and violence broke out on Charlottesville streets last Saturday, a group of clergy members and churchgoers gathered together in Saint Paul’s Memorial Episcopal Church to prepare for the weekend’s events.
As the people sang and prayed indoors, a growing group of alt-right protesters gathered just across the street at the University of Virginia’s Thomas Jefferson rotunda, gearing up for the next day’s planned rally. The Reverend Elaine Ellis Thomas, associate rector at St. Paul’s Memorial, helped organize the prayer meeting for Christians from all over the country.
THOMAS: There was a lot of noise from across the street and people from over there coming to us to get away from the violence that was there, or coming to get help if they could. There were times when we had to lock our doors and keep people in place because it was not safe for some of our people to leave if they were parked in the direction of the University of Virginia. So we ended up letting people out the side doors in the back and encouraged them to go out in groups.
The meeting of protesters -- and counter-protesters -- at UVA Friday night foreshadowed the violent and fatal clashes that would take place downtown the next day. And the prayer meeting was telling of what kind of role the church would take as the weekend unfolded. Thomas said several people from her congregation -- and members of the interfaith group gathered that night -- showed up to counter protest. Others decided the best way to respond to the rally was to pray.
THOMAS: We determined that having a mass prayer meeting the night before, reminiscent of the Civil Rights gatherings. The night before there would be a march or a demonstration, Dr. King would come and preach and the people would pray and sing and gird themselves up for what lay ahead. So it was in that spirit that we had this prayer meeting on Friday evening at St. Paul’s Memorial Church.
Historically, churches have not always chosen one side when issues of race and justice arise. As far back as the Civil War, churches in the north offered platforms for abolitionists such as Frederick Douglass, while in the south, Confederates and pro-slavery supporters such as Jefferson Davis spoke from the pulpit. President Abraham Lincoln, speaking to both Union and Confederate supporters in his second inaugural address, acknowledged, quote, “Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other.”
As Father Daniel Robayo of Emmanuel Episcopal Church in Harrisonburg said, the church has been split in its message in more recent years, too.
ROBAYO: The church was involved, clearly, in perpetrating Jim Crow in the South. But the Church was also involved in dismantling it. So we’ve been both part of the problem and the solution.
These days, the Episcopalians are taking a stronger stance on one side. The national Episcopal Church issued a project back in May entitled, “Becoming Beloved Community.” This proposal for, quote, “racial reconciliation,” harkens back to Martin Luther King’s vision for a more just society, both in name – the Beloved Community – and in purpose. The plan outlines a range of initiatives, from taking a church-wide census to hosting story-sharing events to helping formerly incarcerated people re-enter society.
Bishop Mark Bourlakas of the Episcopal Diocese of Southwestern Virginia plans to host talks on racial reconciliation throughout the fall. He said his hope with the talks is to bring people from different parts of the community together to engage with each other.
BOURLAKAS: We need to be talking to each other so that when things like this happen, we know each other and we can come together with each other and we cannot assume the worst, but assume the best about each other.
Speaking just one day after the violence in Charlottesville, Robayo of the Emmanuel Church in Harrisonburg said now is an important time for churches to seriously look at issues of race and justice and understand what is going on in their communities.
ROBAYO: Three people were killed yesterday. For no reason. In Charlottesville. And we really need to come to terms with and address the deep-seated distrust that exists in our nation, in our communities around race, around belonging, around opportunity. And not doing anything … is to do something.
While the Episcopal Church has a reputation for being one of the more liberal denominations, Bishop Bourlakas said the purpose of the Becoming Beloved Community plan is to transform hearts and minds -- not to start a political debate.
BOURLAKAS: We don’t have to agree with everybody, right, but we have to believe that everybody is made in God’s image and everybody has a dignity that needs to be respected, regardless of whether you, you know, are in the same political party as me, work at the same university as me, go to a different church than I do, use a different barbecue sauce. I mean, whatever it is.
Local churches are beginning to respond to the national Episcopal Church’s call to action in different ways. Some congregations will use the opportunity to revisit their history and understand the church’s position on race over the years. Some will help fundraise for local historically black colleges and universities. And, as in the case of Saint Paul’s Memorial Church in Charlottesville, some will just be there to offer a place of prayer and song, as chaos rages on outside.