Charlottesville church remains a sanctuary

By Forrest White

The world watched as a “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville turned violent and deadly in August of 2017. Since then, the city has continued to experience a sporadic influx of white supremacists, white nationalists and Neo-Nazis, most recently on Dec. 14, 2017 when a handful of cases from August went to court, including the preliminary hearing of James Field, bringing back hateful imagery and profound sadness from the summer.First United Methodist in Charlottesville opened its doors on Dec. 14 as a sanctuary for all who would come, partnering with Congregate Charlottesville and the Charlottesville Clergy Collective to bring in mental health professionals as well as interfaith clergy and lay leaders from the area.  

More than 50 people came to the church, according to the Rev. Phil Woodson, associate pastor at First UMC. “From roughly 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., our sanctuary was open for prayer and quiet conversation,” he said. “We provided food and warm drinks in our gathering space. It was pretty cold outside. There were a number of faith leaders, and community activists who also held space in the courtroom, and outside of the courthouse throughout the afternoon. There was even a point during the day when we escorted a few teachers from the nearby Jewish preschool back to their cars.”

First UMC, now located at 101 East Jefferson Street in the heart of downtown Charlottesville, was established in 1834, on the south side of Water Street between First and West Second streets. 

The church website provides a detailed history of the church, including its ties to the University of Virginia and concluding with this statement: “As our history and tradition suggest, we continue to open our hearts, minds and doors in the name of Jesus Christ.”

As New Year 2017 dawned, the church and its people couldn’t have known just how much the community would need those open hearts and open doors through the events of August and everything after.

Those events have become a part of the congregation’s “sanctifying journey,” Woodson said.

“Through these trials and tribulations, we have grown, and will continue to grow, closer to God and closer to each other,” he said. “There have most certainly been some rough spots this past year that relate to ideas about racial justice and political perceptions – and while there are still many meaningful conversations that have yet to take place, I am confident that the sanctifying grace of God offered through the presence of the Holy Spirit will guide us through.”

As for the Charlottesville community as a whole, Woodson describes the current climate as “complicated.”

“It depends on who you talk to – and from my vantage point I can see a little bit of everything,” he said. “In many ways, there is a deep and abiding love that has drawn our community together. There are connections that have been formed between faith and community leaders that weren’t there before, and there is a sense of comradery, trust, and care amongst those who have been actively working against the evil of white supremacy. 

At the same time, Woodson named a “quiet anxiety” that keeps the community on high alert. 

 “Every new court case or news cycle brings all of this back to the forefront of our attention and hardly a week goes by without something pulling us back into the chaos and emotions of August,” Woodson said. “There is still a lot of pain, and hurt and mistrust that exists in different areas of our community and it’s difficult and frustrating for the most vulnerable communities to be told that they have to rush through this and just ‘move on.’” 

Come what may, First UMC will continue to open its doors and its members will open their hearts in the name of Jesus to those seeking answers and those seeking sanctuary in the days to come.

“First UMC has an extremely dedicated group of laity and volunteers,” Woodson said. “Our witness and justice ministries will continue to respond to the needs of our community as they arise. It is our hope and prayer that nothing even close to what transpired in August will happen again, but we are keenly aware that these groups of white nationalists, white supremacists and neo-Nazis have all promised to return to Charlottesville.”

-Forrest White is a news associate with the Virginia Conference Communications office.




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