Charlottesville Faith Leaders Unite for Public Prayer to Heal Community Wounds

As Virginia city grapples with a negative independent review of August 12 rally, faith leaders unite to contend that societal healing goes beyond public policy.

On Saturday, Dec. 2, hundreds of people gathered to march and pray in downtown Charlottesville, Va. Local and national faith leaders from diverse racial and denominational backgrounds stated that prayer, Christian witness and activism go hand-in-hand.

By Josh Shepherd Published on December 4, 2017

This past weekend saw attention again turn to Charlottesville, Virginia. The release of an independent review of the violent August 12 Unite the Right rally fueled national headlines on what went wrong. Locally, a united response of faith leaders brought hundreds together from area churches.

“We believe the healing of this city begins with prayer,” said Pastor Alvin Edwards of Mt. Zion First African Baptist Church. He spoke in front of the Robert E. Lee statue which sparked the protests. The 26-foot statue is now draped in a black tarp. 

“After hearing the word, we must become doers of the word. It’s not just about today, but it’s about what is going to happen afterwards.”

Edwards and Pastor Mark Beliles of Grace Covenant Church convened local and national ministers as a coalition known as Healing4Charlottesville. A prayer walk and solemn assembly on Saturday launched a year of action with seven specific initiatives planned. Other leading voices included Bishop Harry Jackson, Pastor Herman Martir, Apostle Sarah Kelley, Will Ford, Matt Lockett and Doug Stringer.

“Only a united church can heal a divided nation,” — Will Ford

“We’re here because the community needs the church to bring people together,” said Beliles. “We are coming into the public square, joining with African Americans, Hispanics, every race and tribe — asking God to heal our land. That’s the America we love and what we seek to restore here in Charlottesville.”

Owning Up to Painful Realities

Faith leaders condemned racism and white supremacy, urging those assembled to view the tragic losses through a new lens. The August 12 rally led to three deaths: 32 year-old Heather Heyer was run over by a white nationalist. Two police officers monitoring the riots were killed when their helicopter crashed. 

“I heard their Nazi chant of ‘Blood and soil,’” said Will Ford, a professor at Christ for the Nations Institute in Dallas. “But there is a blood that speaks a better word — it’s the blood of Jesus. It is able to heal our souls, able to heal our land and able to unite us together.”

While organizers had planned the prayer event for months, it attracted greater interest due to Friday’s release of the independent review. The 207-page report by former U.S. Attorney Timothy Heaphy found failures the day of the rally in communication, tactics and procedures by the Charlottesville Police Department and other local agencies.

Several parties took issue with the review, including the Virginia State Police (VSP). “What happened in Charlottesville on August 12, 2017 was unprecedented in Virginia’s history,” said the VSP in a statement. “[It] required the largest deployment of VSP personnel and resources to a single event in our 85-year history. That decision to assign more than 600 sworn and civilian personnel to this event did not happen overnight.”

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In a press conference prior to the Saturday prayer walk, Pastor Beliles referenced the new report. “Last night, we heard an assessment of blame,” he said. “All of that’s important, but we’re not here for any political purpose.”

Event leaders did not shy away from discussing the realities of racism. After sharing how his ancestors were mistreated as slaves prior to the Civil War, Will Ford said he too has encountered hurtful bias.

“I know what it’s like to be racially profiled,” he told hundreds gathered at the Sprint Pavilion in downtown Charlottesville. “I know what it’s like to have police follow me and say things to me that are derogatory. But not every white person or every police officer is like that. We need each other now more than ever before.”

“Only a united church can heal a divided nation,” he said, words echoed by other leaders.

Where Valuing Every Life Leads

With Charlottesville only 100 miles from the nation’s capital, the politics of race issues inevitably came up.  Bishop Harry Jackson of Hope Christian Church near Washington, D.C. serves on the council of faith advisors to the White House. He offered his view on how President Trump has handled race issues.

“God is looking for a people who can drop their agendas, come together and believe,” urged Ford.

“Behind the scenes, he is working very hard on criminal justice reform and economic uplift,” said Jackson. “The overcriminalization of black and Hispanic communities is part of creating a permanent underclass in the nation, which perpetuates racism and the sins of the past. I think his actions will bear some fruit and will go to deal with racial injustice.”

Ford also refused to compartmentalize the issues at hand. He stated how any assault on human life does not align with a Christian ethos.

“God weeps over all the shedding of innocent blood,” said Ford. “The same God who wept over Philando Castile and Tamir Rice is the same God who wept over the five police officers who were killed in Dallas. He wept over the shedding of innocent blood of Heather Heyer from this place. And He weeps over the shedding of innocent blood of 60 million babies aborted in this nation.”

Pastor Mark Beliles admitted there is work to do in his community. As white evangelicals, we need to take responsibility,” he said. “Let’s be a part of the solution. We need everybody: black, white, Republican, Democrat, liberal, conservative. This is our time.”

“God is looking for a people who can drop their agendas, come together and believe,” urged Ford.

New Vision for Unity From the Black Church

A large contingent at the weekend events hailed from Faith, Hope and Love Church of Deliverance, an historically black church. Hispanic and white believers joined with the group for a prayer walk to the larger assembly.

In a sight that turned some heads on Charlottesville streets, many walked arm-in-arm singing “Amazing Grace,” “I Shall Not Be Moved” and other choruses.

The march silently passed the 4th Street intersection where Heather Heyer was killed. The white woman had been standing in solidarity with the black community when a neo-Nazi activist drove his car into counter-protestors. Sarah Kelley, leader of the historically black church, recast these events in spiritual terms.

“What we need is change in our hearts. … Lord, take away the veil that blinds people.” — Sarah Kelley

“We recognize that the forces of hell showed their ugly head on August 12,” prayed the clergywoman. “God says there is nothing hidden that will not be uncovered. It’s uncovered and now it will be covered with the prayers of the righteous. This is the beginning of a new day.”

The faithful found particular hope in a remarkable narrative recounted by Ford and his friend Matt Lockett, director of Justice House of Prayer D.C. Interweaving threads from civil rights history, they emphasized how providence was still at work.

“Perhaps this is the moment in American history where God lifts the curtain,” said Lockett. “What if we begin to see his hand intricately weaving together our stories in a redemptive pattern?”

Fervent with Scripture verses and deep emotion, the prayer assembly reflected a sense of grief and longing for justice. “What we need is change in our hearts,” prayed Kelley. “Lord, take away the veil that blinds people.”

“We thank you for giving us a chance to show Charlottesville is a praying place.”

Watch their press conference at Emancipation Park in Charlottesville, Virginia:

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