In the wake of August’s white supremacist gathering in Charlottesville, hundreds packed the parking lot at First Baptist Church Gainsboro in Roanoke.
Led by Mayor Sherman Lea and other civic leaders, the vigil allowed residents to decry the violence in Charlottesville, where neo-Nazis and Ku Klux Klan members clashed with counter-protesters, and one woman was killed after a vehicle drove into a crowd. But the gathering also sent a signal to area religious leaders: Roanoke needed a space to talk about the race, class, gender and political divisions facing its inhabitants.
“I think that was a testament of the community saying ‘We need something,’ ” said Kevin Kinsey, pastor at Central Church of the Brethren.
Now, six months later, a coalition of five downtown churches has planned a six-week Wednesday night discussion series, “From Confession to Communion,” centered on how privilege and marginalization affect the lives of community members. The goal, Greene Memorial United Methodist Church pastor Gary Heaton said, is to help people form relationships that are stronger than their differences.
“ ‘From Confession to Communion’ is about where we are and where we need to be,” Heaton said. “ Traditionally, Lent is the time when the church reflects on where we are. We confess where we are and where we aspire to be.”
Barron Wilson, pastor at First Baptist Gainsboro, said he and Heaton developed the idea for the series while meeting to discuss how they could improve community relations across race and class. They chose Gainsboro, a historically black congregation, as the location for the series so that the conversation would not be “white people talking about privilege to white people,” Heaton added.
“We’ve concluded that one of the most segregated times of the week in America is Sunday morning,” Wilson said. “So what a time to address that and try to come together as Christians or as believers.”
The series, which starts Wednesday, will begin with a meal of soup and sandwiches. Speakers will then recount experiences they had with privilege in their personal life. That “confession” will be followed by a sermon delivered by one of the participating pastors.
“We’re trying to stay away from pre-choosing politicians and just have people. But mostly white men, ’cause they can really talk about that,” Heaton said. “We hear marginalized people talk all the time about what it’s like to be marginalized, whether it’s the Women’s March, #MeToo, Black Lives Matter, it goes on and on and on. But many of these marginalized groups, if you talk to them they say, ‘You know what would really be cool? To hear a white guy get up there and affirm and acknowledge this.’ ”
The evening will end with a group activity meant to raise awareness among attendees of the disadvantages facing their neighbors, in the hopes of sparking discussion about how they can bridge their differences and lift up those who face discrimination.
“The goal is that no one will come in here and leave without opening their mouth and saying something about what they felt,” Heaton said.
“And the impact that we’re praying for is that they would leave different than they came,” Wilson added. “Knowing something about themselves or about their fellow brother and sister so that they can engage in better communication with them.”
Though the series will be conducted from a Christian perspective, the pastors say they hope to reach audiences they don’t normally see in the pews. The event has been shared with the Roanoke Diversity Center and with the organizers of Roanoke’s Women’s March, Heaton said, in hopes of drawing in people with vastly different life experiences.
“We want to be true to who we are. We are Christians, we are pastors,” said First Christian Church pastor Tim Dayton. “But we by no means want to be seen as ‘You need to be in our club already.’ This club is humanity.”