David Bailey and Erin Rose on Charlottesville, Violence, and Preaching
Seeing violence and racism up close is ugly. Two Presbyterians discuss how to help congregations prepare for and respond to divisive events.
David M. Bailey is director of Arrabon and a program affiliate with Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. Erin N. Rose is worship leader and teaching pastor at East End Fellowship in Richmond, Virginia. She sings with Urban Doxology, a band that seeks reconciliation through worship. In this edited conversation, Bailey and Rose talk about being in Charlottesville, Virginia, during the weekend of a white nationalist rally where dozens were hurt, and three people died.
Why were you in Charlottesville, Virginia, on the weekend of the Unite the Right rally?
ER: I was there on Friday, August 11, 2017, for an interdenominational prayer and music service organized by Congregate Charlottesville, a local clergy group. Clergy from all over the country had gathered to march in peaceful protest on Saturday against the white nationalist rally. I’d been asked to help with music at the Friday night service to cover the entire situation in prayer.
I drove down with other ladies from Urban Doxology. We parked near the church, St. Paul’s Memorial Episcopal, which is across the street from the University of Virginia Rotunda. When we walked in to rehearse, someone told us there might be a pre-rally gathering at the Rotunda, so maybe we should move our car. We said we’d be fine.
DB: There had been a white supremacist rally in May and a Ku Klux Klan rally in July in Charlottesville—all to protest the city’s plans to remove a statue of Robert E. Lee. In late July, when Unite the Right announced its rally, All Souls Church asked me to preach on August 13 and shepherd them through the events. I went on Sunday morning, because it’s only a one-hour drive from Richmond. Neither of us was in Charlottesville on Saturday.
What contact did you have with white nationalists that weekend?
ER: Our Friday night service was packed. There were about 600 people. Even the “bigger name” people there were so kind. The service was smooth and joyful, the prayers beautiful, and God was glorified. As we got ready to sing the last song, a musician got word that white nationalists were at the Rotunda. We sang “This Little Light of Mine” at the top of our lungs, clapping and stomping. Then we got word that men had surrounded the church with lighted torches.
The police said we had to stay inside. I graduated from the University of Virginia. It’s like home. After almost an hour, I said, “Let’s just go. It can’t be that bad.” But the police said, “Ma’am, no one is leaving.” It felt unreal. They let the white folks out first. We couldn’t leave till the marchers had moved to the university lawn. My friends and I went straight home.
DB: After my Sunday morning sermon, I had worshipers write down questions so we could dialogue after lunch. But our dialogue got cut short because we got word that someone had punched the rally organizer during a press conference. First responders came out to the church and locked us down. We didn’t feel we were in any danger, so we started praying for the situation.
Did the Saturday rally, counterprotest, and violence affect your sermon plans?
DB: Definitely. I was scheduled to preach at All Souls on Sunday morning. Erin was scheduled to preach at our church at 4 p.m. on Sunday. We talked a lot about how to preach about evil. Talking about racial reconciliation isn’t all kumbaya. We have to acknowledge powers and principalities and people who allow themselves to be used for evil.
EB: The proximity of Charlottesville to Richmond was jarring. This could have happened in Richmond, which was the capital of the Confederacy. I completely changed my sermon. We do that at East End Fellowship when tragedy rocks our city or nation. People depend on us to plan worship that helps them process hard things. My attention always returns to how the church responds to divisive events. God has reconciled himself to us, so we as churches are called to lead in reconciliation.
So, what did you preach on?
DB: I started with Ephesians 6:10–13 and Acts 19. Both describe what Paul faced in Ephesus. He said that we struggle not against flesh and blood but against powers of this dark world and spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. That power was manifest in Ephesus as the goddess Artemis. The synagogue leaders rejected Paul, so he found people of peace in a lecture hall. He preached there for two years, going deep into discipleship.
Followers of the Way learned they had to treat everyone as image bearers of God to experience the fullness of God’s kingdom. Through Paul, God started healing people and demonstrated the difference between divine power and powers not from God. All this cut into the business of craftsmen who made shrines to Artemis, so they incited crowds to riot. It’s fascinating that revivals always affect the economy.
ER: I preached from Ephesians 6 and 2 Corinthians 10:4–5 on how, as the body of Christ, we are constantly in battle. Our enemy is very real, but our enemy is not human. Principalities, powers, and spiritual wickedness in high places seek to divide us. Even though we are human, as born-again Christians we do not wage war as the world does. Divine power pulls down strongholds. Christ gives us power through the Holy Spirit to take every thought captive. We do that by staying prayerful, staying in God’s Word, and worshiping together. This helps us look forward with hope that the church can make a difference in this world.
How can churches prepare worshipers to address tragedy and violence?
ER: It’s helpful to have a regular practice of response and prayer. We have a time of response after the sermon. That may be silent meditation, writing down questions, or receiving prayer from elders or prayer team members standing around the worship space. We designate some services as lament services. Sometimes we have an open mike, especially after a tragedy or in a lament service. Anyone can say something, read a Scripture, or offer a prayer.
DB: We’ve learned as a church that it’s important to process hard things together. If you don’t have experience with a situation you care about, then partner with someone who does. All Souls in Charlottesville is a predominantly white congregation that wants to do more with racial reconciliation. That’s why they invited me to preach, lead dialogue, and follow up with them.
Watch East End Fellowship’s August 13, 2017, worship service. Erin Rose’s sermon begins at 7:37.
David Bailey transitions to open mike prayer at 38:00. Read a Deseret News story, “Is there a religious way to get angry?” Walter Wink’s book The Powers that Be: Theology for a New Millennium is easy to understand.