Presiding Bishop visits Charlottesville, brings message of Christian love in the face of hate

Presiding Bishop Michael Curry at Charlottesville statue of Lee

Presiding Bishop Michael Curry and the Rev. Paul Walker stand at the foot of the Robert E. Lee statue in Charlottesville, Virginia. The statue is wrapped in plastic while the city fights a legal challenge to the monument’s removal. Photo: David Paulsen/Episcopal News Service

[Episcopal News Service – Charlottesville, Virginia] Presiding Bishop Michael Curry on Sept. 7 visited each of Charlottesville’s three Episcopal churches, spoke at length with clergy and diocesan officials, and preached at an evening worship service here, less than a month after violence during a white supremacist rally thrust this Southern college town into the national spotlight.

Curry’s message was one of support, and of the power of Jesus’ love to show the way forward.

“We have been praying for you. We will continue to pray with you. Above all, we stand together,” Curry said in his sermon before the hundreds of people who filled St. Paul’s Memorial Church overlooking the University of Virginia campus.

On Aug. 12, Episcopal and other faith leaders joined with anti-racism counter-protesters in solidarity against the hate groups that had amassed in Charlottesville to oppose removal of a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee. The confrontation sparked clashes that injured dozens and left one counterprotester dead.

The melee also amplified a national debate over statues of Lee and other Confederate symbols, including at Episcopal institutions. In Charlottesville, subsequent City Council meetings have featured raucous debate on the issue, leading to a unanimous vote Sept. 5 to remove a second Confederate statue, the Daily Progress reported.

Paul Walker and Michael Curry

The Rev. Paul Walker (left), rector of Christ Episcopal Church in Charlottesville, Virginia, speaks with the presiding bishop at an informal orientation. Photo: David Paulsen/Episcopal News Service

The Episcopal churches in Charlottesville are focused on healing and weren’t looking to generate headlines by inviting Curry, said the Rev. Paul Walker, rector of Christ Episcopal Church, a large congregation in downtown Charlottesville. He and other clergy members were grateful Curry agreed to this pastoral visit, a day filed mostly with private gatherings, as well as the public worship service.

Curry began the day at Christ Church, where bishops of the Diocese of Virginia met him around 9:30 a.m. for an informal orientation. He thanked them and the local Episcopal community for its work – “not just what you have done but who you were in the midst of all this.”

Christ Church is on the corner opposite Emancipation Park, where the statue of Lee now is wrapped in a layer of plastic as the city resolves a legal fight over its removal. The park is visible from Walker’s second-floor office window, and before the day’s proceedings got underway, he walked Curry across the street to spend a few minutes at the foot of the Lee statue discussing its history and pending fate.

From there, the group drove a short distance northwest to Trinity Episcopal Church. It’s a smaller and historically black, but diversifying, congregation that on Aug. 12 hosted an afternoon prayer service for faith-based groups to conclude their day of opposition to the white supremacist rally.

On Sept. 7, Trinity’s vicar, the Rev. Cass Bailey, welcomed Curry in the parish hall for conversations – Curry would later describe it as “sacred time” – with about 50 priests and deacons from the 18 congregations in the diocesan region around Charlottesville.

The meeting was not open to the public, but later in the day, Diocese of Virginia Bishop Shannon Johnston said it was a profoundly meaningful experience for those present. Curry served as chief pastor to them and provided a ministry of encouragement, Johnston said, and affirmed the support of the Episcopal Church.

“In times like Charlottesville has come through, the feeling of being connected to the larger body is extremely important,” said Johnston, who was in Charlottesville on Aug. 12 with other Episcopal clergy members.

Presiding Bishop Michael Curry at Charlottesville luncheon

Curry answers questions during a luncheon at Christ Episcopal Church. Photo: David Paulsen/Episcopal News Service

Johnston introduced Curry at his next stop, a luncheon back at Christ Church. More than 100 attended, primarily members of Diocese of Virginia governing boards and committees. Curry, in his remarks to them, again applauded those who stood up and spoke out against racism in Charlottesville last month.

“I was never prouder to be an Episcopalian, in all the pain, than I was when I saw you,” Curry said, while underscoring that the issue of racism is bigger than one city.

“We never fully resolved or brought to completion the issues that were engaged in the Civil War, or the War Between the States,” he said. “The fundamental issues didn’t get resolved. And nobody in this room was there, and nobody in this room did it. But we’re stuck with it.”

Racism is a demon that “still must be engaged,” he said. “We’ve come here to figure out how do we follow Jesus in a time such as this, and how do we do it with integrity and with a sense of wholesomeness and in ways that can help us all end the nightmare and realize God’s dream.”

Curry also spent time Sept. 7 with Episcopal college students from the Charlottesville area and those attending the University of Virginia. The afternoon meeting took place in the parish hall at St. Paul’s, a couple hours before Curry preached at the Eucharist in the church.

The Rev. Will Peyton, rector at St. Paul’s, alluded to Curry’s role as chief pastor in an interview with Episcopal News Service before the presiding bishop’s visit.

“I’m grateful to him, to take care of us, to express the care of the church,” Peyton said. “I think there really is a pretty universal feeling in Charlottesville that we were attacked.”

St. Paul's Memorial Church

St. Paul’s Memorial Church in Charlottesville, Virginia, overlooks the campus of the University of Virginia. Photo: David Paulsen/Episcopal News Service

Peyton, whose church hosted a prayer service Aug. 11 on the eve of the white supremacist rally, kicked off the Sept. 7 worship service with a welcoming message that was followed by a long procession of choir and clergy.

Curry’s half-hour sermon directly addressed the prior month’s events in Charlottesville only briefly, yet his message of Christian love and compassion was an intentionally pointed contrast to the hate-filled views promoted by the neo-Nazis, Ku Klux Klan members and other supremacist groups that rallied behind the Lee statue.

He began by recounting the Gospel reading, the depiction in John 18:33-37 of Jesus’ response to Pilate. “Jesus was telling us then, and telling us now, that there is another way.”

Curry went on to pull in additional biblical references, from the Beatitudes and from Jesus’ last discourse in John 13-17 and his command to “love one another,” even your enemies. He continued that God’s unconditional love is embodied in Jesus’ selfless sacrifice on the cross.

“That kind of love is counterintuitive, it is counter to this world, but it can change this world,” Curry boomed to applause.

The presiding bishop also invoked the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s rules for nonviolent direct action, which began with the command to meditate on the teachings of Jesus. He also shared a personal story, of a white man who once told him that the love shown by members of an Episcopal congregation had changed his life and prompted him to convert and turn away from his family’s past in the Ku Klux Klan.

The lesson, Curry said, is to be people of Jesus’ love without shame and to bear witness to that love. He concluded with a message specifically for the Charlottesville crowd.

“Charlottesville. Virginia. Lift up your heads, straighten your backs, walk together,” he said. “Walk together and work together and live the way of love until the love of God transforms this world.”

— David Paulsen is an editor and reporter for the Episcopal News Service. He can be reached at dpaulsen@episcopalchurch.org.

Comments

  1. Terry Francis says:

    This was an appropriate visit from Bishop Curry to help counter hatred from the right. Can we now count on him to make similar visits to places such as the Berkeley campus where hate and intolerance from the left is on full display? Since our wise and omnipotent Episcopal clergy has elevated the double standard to an art form, I’m not going to hold my breath!

  2. ronald freeman says:

    are you people crazy? WHY ARE YOU trying to rewrite the past…then let us go and remove all the names episcopalians in the south who fought in that war.if we keep doing this then we do not wish to own our past!Ii am 71 years old a vet and yes my middle name is LEE and i am keeping it!

  3. Dorothy Royal says:

    Will the next thing to go will be our cross???

  4. Pamela Payne says:

    The concerns for victims of racism seem to cause a reaction in some people that I don’t understand. Apologizing for past wrongs does not negate the good done by our ancestors…it simply acknowledges that sin must be named in order to be overcome. I also agree that extremists on both sides need to be called out; two wrongs don’t make a right. Jesus reminds us to remove the plank in our own eye before we try to remove the speck in the eye of our neighbor. We can move forward together if we keep Christ’s example in focus.

  5. Doug Desper says:

    Each of us benefits from modern-day slavery. The era may have changed from the 1800s but be assured that each of our lives is intertwined in the dependence on someone’s servitude and misery, often captivity, just so we can enjoy our lifestyles. This is why I am so unmoved by all of the talk of oppression and perplexed by the constant visitation of anathemas on those who died well over a century ago. The clothing, cars, watches, batteries, seafood, shoes, jewelry and more of America’s “oppressed” are stained with the tears and blood of modern-day captives around the globe, and some within this country. From the Presiding Bishop all the way down to the newborn infant in our church basement Nursery, WE ALL benefit from the servile misery of faceless people around the planet. I am very sure that no one has a cogent recommendation on how to bankrupt ourselves and ruin our economies and social order to break the bonds of the slaves that we are so dependent upon. Since that is the case we have everything in common with those Southern Americans (and many, many others in the North) who were unwilling to be ruined on the eve of the Civil War. The heart-wrenching and pleading note sent by a Chinese worker in one of her wares bound for the West gets little attention as people in this country noisily clamor to claim some aggrieved status while enjoying a lifestyle that rivals most of the planet. Talk about “white privilege” is somehow hollow as Americans of all races stand with little concern on the broken bodies and dreams of today’s slaves — ALL are privileged because of the reliance on misery.

    Until the day that the people of 2017 shed our interdependence on this system of heartbreak and hopelessness there is not one song, sign, sermon, or criticism that can be leveled against Americans of the 1860s.

    Jesus said all of this simpler, and I add to it: Remove the board out of your own eye before trying to remove the splinter from …….the dead.

  6. Jawaharlal Prasad says:

    Thanks Doug but does it have to go this way. A group of people or a few nations enjoy a high standard of living while millions scrape just to get by. Why can’t we come up with a philosophy / religion where everyone is assured of adequate food, proper housing, good education, medical care, jobs, etc. Or do we just provide sermons on The Good Samaritan? Or Miss USA to say health care is a “privilege”?

    • Doug Desper says:

      I guess my main point is that we in America – of all races and social groups – hold a comparatively high privileged standing and therefore identity grievances disintegrate as we all recognize our common dependence on the misery of others. We are slaveholders just as surely as Americans in 1860. We are just like them in that we haven’t found a way or the will to destroy systems in order to create true equity. The hypocrisy of believing ourselves superior to those of another era is galling. Until we have literally ruined ourselves and destroy our entitlement and privilege system then we have nothing to say to those 150 years ago who likewise found the way forward almost impossible.

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