[Episcopal News Service – Charlottesville, Virginia] “Trauma” was the word Presiding Bishop Michael Curry chose in the aftermath of Aug. 12, the day white supremacists marched through Charlottesville.
“The bitter, painful reality of what we have called and known to be racism, which never went away, was like a scab was ripped off Aug. 12, and the whole country saw it,” Curry told the group of more than 100 who had gathered with him for lunch in the auditorium at Christ Episcopal Church, one of three Episcopal churches in Charlottesville.
Curry spoke Sept. 7, nearly a month after the white supremacist march turned violent and deadly, thrusting the city unflatteringly into the national spotlight. Since then, speaking of “August 12” in Charlottesville invokes a grim shared reference point, especially among those who stood up and spoke out against the hate groups that came to town opposing removal of a statue of Confederate general Robert E. Lee.
“This is an intimate, painful day for you, and for us all, but particularly you. And it’s almost like the same trauma when you just say the word ‘9/11,’” Curry said. “It’s trauma. It’s pain. It’s fear and anxiety. It’s all the demons that were unresolved at Appomattox Court House.”
Racism, that intractable demon that outlasted the Civil War, also turned “Charlottesville” into a national buzzword after Aug. 12. But the trauma wasn’t new. This Southern college town’s historic struggles with racism go much deeper, in ways that are interwoven with the city’s religious history and even the history of this church where priests, deacons and diocesan leaders had gathered with Curry at the midpoint of his daylong pastoral visit to the city.
When Curry opened the floor to questions and comments at Christ Church, a man spoke up and alluded to the history of violence, oppression and discrimination that have been a fact of life for blacks in the South for generations.
“You are witnessing what happened to us, still happens to us, every day … every single day as African-Americans,” he said. “Things are better, but they’re still the same.”
Journey back through Charlottesville’s history, and you’ll come across any number of dark mileposts. Slaves built the University of Virginia, starting in 1817. The city razed the black neighborhood of Vinegar Hill in the 1960s for redevelopment. In 2015, the beating of a black college student by state alcohol control officers made national headlines.
Charlottesville’s public schools took more than five years to integrate after the Supreme Court’s 1954 ruling in Brown v. Board of Education, and segregation’s legacy is still lives in the city’s Episcopal churches.
Virginia in the 1950s was among the states that attempted a legal maneuver known as “massive resistance” to undercut the Brown ruling, including shutting down white schools rather than integrating them. Under that strategy, the governor closed Charlottesville’s Venable Elementary School and Lane High School in September 1958 in defiance of a court order to admit 12 black students.
The parents of white students who suddenly had no school to attend created emergency schooling plans. For elementary grades, this involved makeshift classrooms in parents’ basements, as detailed in a 1971 doctoral thesis by Dallas Crowe. (The black students pursued similar temporary schooling.)
Two parent groups agreed on a separate plan for emergency segregated education for the white high school students. “Space was provided by a private club, an industrial education institution, and various churches in the city,” according to Crowe.
One of those churches hosting whites-only classes was Christ Episcopal Church.
A church, a statue and a century of history
The racial divide between Charlottesville’s Episcopal churches goes back even further, at least to 1919, when Trinity Episcopal Church was founded by a group of black Episcopalians in the Vinegar Hill neighborhood.
“The story as we know it now is that Trinity was started, not officially but certainly unofficially, by the sense that African-Americans who wanted to worship at Christ Church did not feel welcome,” the Rev. Cass Bailey, Trinity’s vicar, told Episcopal News Service.
Trinity formed in the middle of the Jim Crow era, a time of widespread segregation of public spaces in the South, from schools to lunch counters – and churches. At the same time, a movement was underway in the South, known as the “Lost Cause,” to recast the Confederacy as a doomed but noble fight for states’ rights rather than a brutal battle to preserve slavery. Many of the monuments to Lee and other Confederate generals were erected in this period. Plans for Charlottesville’s Lee statue began in 1917, and the statue was finished in 1924.
An undated picture hangs on the wall of Trinity Episcopal Church showing members of the early congregation standing in front of the first church, at High Street and Preston Avenue. Three crosses perch on the roof above the two dozen men, women and children shown outside their modest church standing tall in their Sunday best.
As the congregation grew, it moved from Vinegar Hill to a larger church building at 11th Street and Grady Avenue in 1940 before settling in 1974 at its present location a short distance northwest of downtown Charlottesville on Preston Avenue.
This historically black congregation now prides itself on being an “intentional, multicultural community” while emphasizing its outreach ministries, such as its signature Bread & Roses nutritional education program. Trinity’s single Sunday service now draws about 100 people on average, and Bailey estimates the congregation is split about evenly between black and white members. Its services cast the multicultural net even wider, incorporating Native American, Hispanic and other worship traditions.
And Trinity, still a mission parish, is now financially self-sustaining and on the path to becoming a full parish in two years. Its financial security is evident in one of its newest additions, a playground next to the church that will be dedicated this month.
The playground also pays tribute to two local heroes of desegregation: the Rev. Henry Mitchell, Trinity’s vicar from 1958 to 1977, and the Rev. Ted Evans, rector from 1947 to 1961 at St. Paul’s Memorial Church, which overlooks the University of Virginia campus.
The white congregation at St. Paul’s also struggled in the 1950s with divisions over segregation, and Evans’ support for integration unsettled some members. The Rev. Bill Wood later recalled attending a Sunday service at St. Paul’s and witnessing ushers bar a black family from entering the church. Evans intervened and escorted the family to a pew.
“It was a traumatic moment, we all realized, that was to divide us,” Wood said in a Trinity newsletter article about Evans.
Evans sought better relations with Trinity and opposed providing space at St. Paul’s for segregated classrooms, saying in a letter to the vestry, “The church of Christ is not a social club to encourage us in our preconceived prides and prejudices.” But he ultimately chose to resign rather than fuel further division in the congregation, according to an online history of St. Paul’s.
Some at Trinity are old enough to remember those battles over desegregation, but “not all the people know that history,” Bailey said. Even so, Christ Church’s historic role as a classroom site for white students’ emergency schooling remained a source of bitterness long after Charlottesville schools finally integrated in September 1959.
Christ Church “has had a long and storied history, with lots of good, lots of bad,” the Rev. Paul Walker, rector at Christ Church, said in an interview with ENS. Like Bailey, he thinks many local parishioners are unaware of the painful history between the two churches.
In recent years, his congregation and Bailey’s have embarked on informal reconciliation efforts, and members of all three Charlottesville congregations stood together on Aug. 12 with other faith groups in opposing the white supremacist rally. They ended their day of counter-protest with a prayer service at Trinity.
‘Some painful periods’ for two Charlottesville churches
Christ Church in downtown Charlottesville is on the corner across from Emancipation Park, where the statue of Lee still stands but has been covered in plastic by the city while it fights legal challenges to its removal.
Charlottesville’s oldest Episcopal congregation formed in 1820, a year after the University of Virginia was founded in the city by Thomas Jefferson and at a time when most Christian worship services were held at the local courthouse.
“The absence of churches in the early town formation significantly affected the town’s urban identity and growth,” according to a city history article on the University of Virginia’s website. “The sole point of civic focus was the courthouse and its enclosing square of shops and taverns.”
Jefferson gave money to help build the original Christ Church, the city’s first church building when it was completed in 1826. A new Christ Church was built on the same site in 1898. The church’s website notes with pride the church’s Tiffany stained-glass windows, its towers and its carillon bells, which played for the first time in 1947. Today, with average Sunday attendance of about 600 over four services, Christ Church is still growing, thanks largely to an evening service that caters to the university crowd.
Absent from the online history of Christ Church is any mention of Trinity Episcopal Church or the divide that widened between the two congregations over school desegregation. Walker and Bailey have begun navigating that past together as their congregations take steps toward reconciliation.
“We have a history together, and that history has evolved some painful periods and painful acts,” Bailey said.
This isn’t the churches’ first attempt at reconciliation. More than a decade ago, church leaders’ efforts fell apart before they even got off the ground. One reason cited by both Bailey and Walker was a certain Sunday pulpit exchange back then that generated sudden local news coverage before either congregation had fully committed to the work.
“I think it caught some people off guard because it hadn’t become a sustained process,” said Bailey, who became vicar several years later, in 2010.
This time, Bailey and Walker clearly understand the need to take one step at a time. Walker stressed the importance of developing “an organic and real relationship between the two congregations.”
Walker has previous ties to Trinity, which sponsored him to attend seminary in the early 1990s. He later spent six years as assistant rector at Christ Church, and after a stint in Birmingham, Alabama, he returned in 2004 to start the congregation’s evening worship service. He became rector in 2009.
The renewed reconciliation efforts began about three years ago with a joint celebration of Absalom Jones Day, which honors the first black Episcopal priest. Bailey preached at Christ Church on Maundy Thursday in 2016 and Walker preached at Trinity on Maundy Thursday this year.
Last fall, dozens of members of both congregations attended a presentation on racial reconciliation and the roots of racism, held at Christ Church and led by Charlene Green, director of Charlottesville’s Office of Human Rights.
“One of the things that I emphasized is how they wanted to move forward,” Green told ENS. “Knowing the history of your church could be one of those ways that you could bring your communities together more often.”
The congregations and their leaders aren’t trying to make a grand statement out of reconciliation, Walker said, adding he has “no faith in statements.” His faith is in the personal relationships that are forming.
“As believers, we seek to know and love each other and understand each other,” Walker said. “To be in communion with one another requires honesty and repentance and humility.”
A reconciliation with no road map
Racial reconciliation is a top priority of the Episcopal Church and of Curry’s term. This year, the presiding bishop released “Becoming Beloved Community,” a guide for congregations navigating their parishioners through discussions of systemic racism, white privilege and other topics that sometimes pose challenges, especially for predominately white churches.
Such discussions may be even more challenging when they involve white congregations and neighboring black congregations that formed many years ago out of a feeling of racial exclusion. The Episcopal Church has given less institutional attention to this form of reconciliation, but its value is significant, said the Rev. Chuck Wydner, the church’s missioner for social justice and advocacy engagement.
“Conversations between Afro-Anglican and predominantly white congregations around social and racial justice in their communities and exploring ways of engaging in collaborative ministry to embody God’s work in the world is critically important,” Wydner said in an interview Sept. 7 while he was in Charlottesville for the presiding bishop’s visit.
But Bailey and Walker underscored there was no formal process or agreement.
“There’s no road map. We don’t have in mind a sequence of events,” Bailey said. “We have just kind of continued to be in conversation and continue to look for ways our ministries and our celebrations can interact with each other.”
And they continue to share a hope that time has changed Charlottesville for the better.
“Maybe Christ Episcopal is not the same place it was,” Bailey said. “Certainly, Trinity is not the same place it was.”
The violent racism that struck Charlottesville on Aug. 12 unfortunately points to what Curry called the “resegregation” of much of American culture. “The end result of it is we don’t know each other.”
On his Sept. 7 visit to Christ Church, he called for “a revolution of relationships.”
“One of our tasks as the church is to dare to help us, in the church and in the wider culture, reclaim relationships with each other and with people who are other than we are,” Curry said. “And that other is racial, that other is religious, that other is political.”
In response to one woman’s plea for engaging in tough conversations about racism, Curry acknowledged: It’s not easy.
“This is awkward as hell. This is not comfortable, not for anybody,” he said. “And so, the truth is we’ve got to find – and I believe the church actually can find – ways to allow the truth to emerge.”
– David Paulsen is an editor and reporter for the Episcopal News Service. He can be reached at [email protected]