The Harmonious History of Mt. Zion First African Baptist Church

by Lilly West, 2023 Undergraduate Summer Research Fellow in Lived Theology

Student performing in the sanctuary of 105 Ridge Street. Photo courtesy of The Music Resource Center

On the second of June in 2003, the Charlottesville Daily Progress reported that real estate developer Gabe Silverman purchased the former Mt. Zion First African Baptist Church building at 105 Ridge Street for $500,000.  He noted that his plan for the future of this building would be to find a user “complementary to the history the church has in it.”[1] Known for his “generous spirit” and his professional posture of “subtle sacredness,” Silverman’s various projects around Charlottesville’s downtown center began to “knit together a new version of the town” where “people got a taste for what it meant to thrive as a town [and] as a community.”[2]

Ultimately, the building was sold to the Music Resource Center (MRC). The mission of the MRC is to serve as a “safe, diverse, and creative community” which “foster[s] the youth of Charlottesville through music.”[3] To this end, the MRC provides after-school programs in a variety of creative, musical arts for 6th-12th grade students. 

Reverend Edwards of Mt. Zion responded to the new mission of his church’s historic space by saying that “Mt. Zion has a good history of music,” and indicated that the center would fulfill his hopes for the building. “I respect the historical fact about what it’s been and what it’s meant to the community,” he shared, “but for me, as long as it serves the needs of the people of this community, I’m okay with it.”[4]  

Considering the inhabitants of 105 Ridge Street, I have been reflecting on the role of physical space in community formation and vitality. As one Charlottesville Daily Progress reporter noted, there is a harmony to the reimagined space, woven together by “new music in the historic setting [and] young people [as] part of an old tradition.” The songs this building sings with its life ring with love for its surrounding community, and there is this sense that “the beauty of music sinks into the very bones of the building quietly reverberating to inspire new generations.”[5]

Vine Deloria’s God is Red invites his audience to reconsider how we understand the role of space and time in religious community. “Space must in a certain sense precede time as a consideration for thought,” he argues, because “if time becomes our primary consideration we never seem to arrive at the reality of our existence in places but instead are always directed to experiential and abstract interpretations rather than the experiences themselves.”[6] How does our dialogue of “already” and “not yet” erase our lived experience? How do I understand the shaping role of 105 Ridge Street both in the stories I encounter and in God’s redemptive story? 

I brought my questions to the current inhabitants of the building. Ike Anderson, Membership and Community Coordinator for the MRC, shared his unique story both as a member of the team at the center and as a former student served by the after school programs. Ike[7] experienced the MRC’s transition to its current residence in 2003 during his senior year of high school. A photo of Ike cutting the ribbon at the church entrance hangs in the entry hallway to the sanctuary. This physical space, he explained, is so much more than it appears. Centered between Westhaven, Friendship Court, and Prospect Avenue, the building is within walking distance of the communities the MRC serves. The sanctuary, with its “unbelievable acoustics,” serves as a performance space for young artists[8]. Stepping into the basement which is now transformed into recording and dance studios, Ike describes his place of work as a “music utopia” and his dance studio as a home. “Nothing knows me like that room,” he says through a smile of appreciation. 

Robert Cunningham and April Murrie, the pastoral team for Church of the Good Shepherd, tell me their story. Invited to plant Church of the Good Shepherd, they searched for worship space along abstract conceptions of proximity, walkability, general accessibility, and socioeconomic and ethnic diversity. Stumbling onto the space at the MRC, which is not in use on Sunday’s, they began a conversational process with Dr. Edwards of Mt. Zion and members of the Good Shepherd congregation with expert knowledge of Charlottesville’s racial history. Recalling one of their early meetings with the MRC, April Murrie remembers MRC leadership exclaiming “how excited the Edwards’s would be for there to be a church worshiping in the space.” Through prayerful deliberation and assurance that they were being faithful to the parties involved, they leased the sanctuary space for worship on Sunday’s. Both Cunningham and Murrie attest to Good Shepherd’s posture as “guests in the space, blessed by the reverberations of worship that were sung there for generations before [them].” Mt. Zion has built up a “robust missional presence” in the city, which Good Shepherd steps into to “come alongside” with humility and excitement. They share that, while they are unsure how long they will take up residence in this space, their experience stepping into this rich, interwoven history has been formative and will frame the life of their church. 

The life of this church building has not only been shaped by the passion of human activity within, but it also has shaped the lives of multiple congregations, communities, and individuals in return. Here’s where I’ll reach for “relatedness” from Ivone Gebara. Gebara suggests that God is relatedness, as seen through Creation’s web of “interdependen[t] life systems.”[9] This related reality “cannot deny all earlier moments and former phases.”[10] In fact, like music sinks into the frame of 105 Ridge Street, “our human experience is, in fact, to place ourselves within the tradition of our ancestors, of those whose bodies vibrated as ours do” in the physical, lived experience of space and history[11].  

[1] Charlottesville Daily Progress, 6/2/2003. 



[4] Charlottesville Daily Progress, 9/7/2003. 

[5] Charlottesville Daily Progress, 9/15/2003. 

[6] Vine Deloria, God is Red (73). 

[7] Ike requested that I call him Ike because “Mr. Anderson is from the Matrix.” 

[8] Fritz Berry, Charlottesville Daily Progress, 9/7/2003. 

[9] Ivone Gebara, Longing for Running Water (28). 

[10] Ivone Gebara, Longing for Running Water (48). 

[11] Ivone Gebara, Longing for Running Water (50). 

Learn more about the Lilly’s Undergraduate Summer Research Fellowship in Lived Theology here.

The Project on Lived Theology at the University of Virginia is a research initiative, whose mission is to study the social consequences of theological ideas for the sake of a more just and compassionate world.

PLT Seeks Undergraduate Research Fellow

Project on Lived Theology Logo

The Project on Lived Theology at the University of Virginia is a research initiative that seeks to understand the social consequences of theological ideas and to create spaces of collaboration and exchange between scholars and practitioners. We are seeking a work-study student for the academic year 2023 – 2024 who will work in our Gibson Hall office on a variety of tasks. Such tasks include general office organization, website postings, video and audio content processing, and occasional research.  Hours are flexible.

Work study eligible candidate is preferred.

Preferred Experience & Qualifications:

  • Ability to perform many different tasks.    
  • Strong organizational skills.
  • Excellent oral and written communication skills.
  • Attention to detail.
  • Website experience.
  • Proficiency in Microsoft Office Suite.
  • Video and audio content processing.

$15 – $18/hour

To apply, please send a resume and cover letter to:

Mt. Zion’s Liberated, Self-Forgetful Joy

by Lilly West, 2023 Undergraduate Summer Research Fellow in Lived Theology

“By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” (John 13:35) 

Jesus’s words echo through Mt. Zion’s sanctuary on the Reverend’s voice. A chorus of amen’s sound from the congregation. Another minister stands at the pulpit and breaks into song. 

“Resting on my feet,” as Reverend Edwards calls it, in the sanctuary of Mt. Zion, I am surrounded by laughter and expressions of joy, shouts of praise from the congregants around the room. The expression of unified community creates an atmosphere of self-forgetfulness to the end that, enlivened by cheery smiles and worship, standing becomes restful.

I return home, sit on the couch, and lean into James Cone and Malcolm X. Once again, a certain self-forgetfulness takes over. Cries for liberation and shouts of pain and suffering ring out. This unified community bands together in strength through the concrete and eschatological promise of Jesus as the “eternal event of Liberation in the divine person who makes freedom a constituent of human existence.”[1]

This community scribbles in smudged pencil on the back of a 1935 Mt. Zion choral program the words: 

“Sometimes I feel discouraged,
And think my works all vain,
But Jesus comes and helps me,
And revives my soul again.
Sometime[s] I feel discouraged,
And know not where to roam,
I heard of a place called heaven,
And I’m trying to make heaven my home.[2]

These past few weeks invited me to dwell on that last line, “trying to make heaven my home.” In one sense, I hear a reminder that Christ followers are called to live with a constant awareness of our promised reality of eternal liberation. But, I fear stopping there dilutes this ethic of liberation. That awareness surely bids us to live into that reality, to resist every system of oppression and exploitation, every lived experience of sin. I am not sure what form this resistance takes, but I have confidence it is not an “ethic of the status quo”[3] which condones the brokenness of our world. Our God of the oppressed is a liberator. His good creation will be fully redeemed. I think, or at least I hope, we, as Christ’s body, get to participate in the process of liberation in the murky state of “already” and “not yet.” Jesus “inaugurat[ed] [the] liberation of our social existence, creating new levels of human relationship in society.” As his body, do we not also liberate? 

However, in another sense, I hear that liberating truth and am not sure what to do with it. The realities and histories of oppression and exploitation are not accessible to me in the same way that they are for Cone, Malcolm X, and the author of the note on Mt. Zion’s choral program. I am not even sure it would be appropriate for me to apply Cone in the context of Mt. Zion’s liberated, self-forgetful joy. As the pastoral team at Church of the Good Shepherd models, the Christian position is to be deferential to a story that precedes us. 

Cone writes that all he can do is “bear witness to [his] story, to tell it and live it, as the story grips [his] life and pulls [him] out of nothingness into being.”[4] Listening in loving humility “invite[s] [us] to move out of the subjectivity of [Our] Own Story into another realm of thinking and acting.”[5] Our witness and our fight, by which the world will know us, must be humble, liberating love.[6]

[1] Cone, James H. God of the Oppressed. 34-35

[2] Adaptation of Hide Thou Me

[3] Cone, James H. God of the Oppressed. 199

[4] Cone, James H. God of the Oppressed. 102-103

[5] Cone, James H. God of the Oppressed. 102-103

[6] Perkins, John. Welcoming Justice. 128

Learn more about the Lilly’s Undergraduate Summer Research Fellowship in Lived Theology here.

The Project on Lived Theology at the University of Virginia is a research initiative, whose mission is to study the social consequences of theological ideas for the sake of a more just and compassionate world.

History of Charlottesville’s Mt. Zion First African Baptist Church

by Lilly West, 2023 Undergraduate Summer Research Fellow in Lived Theology

“Father bless this membership to follow and do those things that encourage people to love one another as You loved us…Thank you for what you are going to do; thank you Father for being a wall of fire and protection around this new congregation, the families, the children, and those involved in the development of this local body of Christ. 

Then, Lord, disturb Good Shepherd when they become too pleased with themselves; disturb them: 

when their dreams have come true and when they dream too little; 

when they arrive safely and when they have lost our thirst for the waters of life; 

when they have fallen in love with life and have ceased to dream of eternity; 

when they allow their vision of the new Heaven to become dim.

Then after you disturb them, let Your Word and their lights shine in such a way that they lift up Your Son so He can draw men, women, boys, and girls to You Father.” 

You have just read an excerpt from Reverend Alvin Edwards’ launch day blessing and prayer over Charlottesville’s nascent Anglican church plant Church of the Good Shepherd, one of many blessings he has prayed over the 105 Ridge Street worship space. Except, Dr. Edwards does not pastor the congregation of Good Shepherd. He has served as pastor of Mt. Zion First African Baptist Church since July 1, 1981. 

Mt. Zion traces its history back to 1863, when, in the wake of the Emancipation Proclamation, Black congregants of Charlottesville Baptist Church successfully petitioned for their own worship space and purchased the Delevan Hotel on Main Street[1]. Virginian law[2] (1832) mandated the presence of a White minister in Black worship spaces, so the new Black church body of Delevan Baptist Church was shepherded by local White ministers. Some members, dissatisfied with this condition, branched away from the original church body in 1867 under the leadership of “horseback preacher” Reverend Spottswood Jones, recorded as the first Black pastor in Charlottesville[3]. This community became the Mt. Zion First African Baptist Church.


The Black church body met “from house to house” until Samuel White, noted as a “consecrated Christian man,” volunteered his home as a permanent meeting place, which was centrally located between the city’s principle Black neighborhoods[4]. The frame of his home at 105 Ridge Street served as the worship space until 1883, when the Mt. Zion congregation celebrated the laying of the cornerstone of the present structure on the lot.  

The church, surviving a crisis of great debt in the early 20th century[5], grew and developed many modes of social outreach and leadership, including a Deaconess Board, Young Men’s Usher Board, Social Club, and the designation of the first Sunday of each month as “Young People’s Day.” 

In 1967, Mt. Zion undertook the work of recording the history of their lived experience. An existing copy of their publication “Mt. Zion Baptist Church: A Century of Christian Service” can be found at The Albemarle Charlottesville Historical Society. At the time of its publication, Mt. Zion’s pastor was Reverend James Hamilton. He would go on to serve from 1960 to 1980, followed by Mt. Zion’s current pastor Reverend Alvin Edwards[6]

Reverend Hamilton’s pastorate covers “an exciting period in human history” in which “confusion seems to be the order of [the day],” as he writes in his letter to the congregation. In the American landscape of the Civil Rights Movement, his congregation worked to “denounce the path taken by [their] culture” according to his guidance to “work and pray within it … to be instrumental in changing it.” However, a different national project would require much of Mt. Zion’s prayers and strength. 

Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, the federal government funded American cities to raze “blighted areas” for the goal of improving the utilization of the land. In Charlottesville, as in most participating urban areas, this resulted in the destruction of minority neighborhoods and displacement of their communities away from the center of public life. Charlottesville’s Vinegar Hill neighborhood, located directly across Main Street from Mt. Zion’s historic Ridge Street building, was razed as a result of a city-wide vote subject to exclusive poll tax in 1965[7]. Mt. Zion’s publication in 1967, in the wake of this loss of community, notes the “new dimensions … of Christian education and social outreach” which the congregation adapted to undertake. 

From this point on in Mt. Zion’s story, there is a shift in attitude. While unconfirmed, it seems as though this church body, which had recorded as its chief history the major renovations and additions to its worship space at 105 Ridge Street, began to search for a more appropriately located space for worship. To this end, Reverend Edwards worked to place 105 Ridge Street on the Virginia Landmark Register (1991) and the National Register of Historic Places (1992). In 2003, the congregation marched from their historic building to their new worship space at 105 Lankford Avenue. Their Ridge Street edifice, protected from destructive “progress” by its designation as a landmark, was sold to the Music Resource Center (MRC) of Charlottesville, with the helpful purchasing power of the Dave Matthews Band. Mt. Zion’s current history identifies the motivation for this new worship space as congregational growth and the need for a larger building, a new “magnificent edifice.” This certainly aligns with the growth of social outreach initiatives under Reverend Hamilton and Reverend Edwards’s leadership. However, a research project collecting the oral histories of Charlottesville’s Vinegar Hill neighborhood claims that the church relocated out of necessity as a result of the neighborhood’s destruction[8]. A small note in Mt. Zion’s current recorded history claims that Dr. Edwards fulfilled Reverend Hamilton’s goal of building a new church. 

So, where do we stand? The Lord has blessed the Mt. Zion community with resilience in the face of oppression, debt, and relocation. In fact, Mt. Zion’s witness has resulted in an expansion of their church body requiring a larger building and greater direction of many community-driven programs. Their historic building, where “ancestral voices echo” and the “deep histories and textures”[9] of a faithful, resilient community lie hidden from public view, is owned by a community outreach music center. The MRC’s programs provide after school direction and education in creative arts for local city children. And now, after 20 years of silent Sunday’s, the MRC has leased the space to a new tenant. 

Joining the voices of spiritual parents in the faith, whose liberating efforts have re-introduced the modern American church to the “true witness of Christian life [as] the projection of a social gospel,” a small, young, predominantly White Anglican church plant inhabits 105 Ridge Street. Pastors Robert Cunningham and April Murrie seek to join Mt. Zion’s gospel witness through truth-telling, listening, and acting alongside neighbors for the “flourishing of [their] community.”[10]

Mt. Zion and Good Shepherd stand at a crossroads ripe for participation in beloved community. In a tragic age where “men know so little of men”[11] and the city of Charlottesville and others like it remain functionally segregated, these two churches exist as a family of faith, whose Christian responsibility is to realize the colony of heaven. How does this happen? John Perkins, minister, civil rights activist, and community builder argues that beloved community has everything to do with place[12]. There is something to be realized about the interaction of physical space and community, of knowing and loving, of history sharing and future building, that feeds and nurtures beloved community. Thus, there lies an invitation to a new “alignment,” a new revelation of “collective body in Jesus.”[13]Certainly, this project must begin with truth telling, the effortful retaining of “constructive tension”[14], a harmony with undercurrents and histories of disharmony. Out of this tension grows compelling Christian witness, which, “depends on our ability to sing better songs with our lives. … in which our life harmonizes with others even the lives of those least like us and swells into a joyful and irresistible chorus”[15] of which “the minor cadences of despair change often to triumph and calm confidence.”[16] It will be through these songs that we, as Reverend Edwards prayed, prevent the vision of the new heaven from becoming dim. 

[1]Local expert on Race and Place in Charlottesville, Louis Nelson, points to the prominent position of this location. Placing themselves along the “major public thoroughfare” of the city claims space for Black voices in social and religious communities. 

[2] “an act reducing into one the several acts concerning slaves, free negroes and mulattoes, and for other purposes” (March 15, 1832)

[3] “Mt. Zion Baptist Church: A Century of Christian Service”, Charlottesville Albemarle Historical Society

[4] “Mt. Zion Baptist Church: A Century of Christian Service”, Charlottesville Albemarle Historical Society

[5] “Mt. Zion Baptist Church: A Century of Christian Service”; A 1967 written record of Mt. Zion’s first 100 years notes that Reverend Royal Brown Hardy was instrumental in support raising and stewardship of resources to rescue the church. 

[6] Warren Dawkins served as Interim Pastor between 1980 and 1981.  

[7] The Westhaven public housing development, which housed many previous Vinegar Hill residents, is located on Hardy Drive. This street is named for Mt. Zion’s Reverend Hardy. 

[8]Saunders, James Robert; Renae Nadine Shackelford. Urban Renewal and the End of Black Culture in Charlottesville, Virginia . McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers. 

[9] Willie James Jennings, Lived Theology “Disfigurations of Christian Identity” (74)

[10] The Church of the Good Shepherd;

[11] W.E.B. Dubois, The Souls of Black Folk (192)

[12] John Perkins, Welcoming Justice, “A Time for Rebuilding” 

[13] Willie James Jennings, Lived Theology, “Disfigurations of Christian Identity” (74) 

[14] Martin Luther King, Jr., Why We Can’t Wait (90) 

[15] Charles Marsh, Welcoming Justice, “The Power of True Conversion” (78)

[16]  W.E.B. Dubois, The Souls of Black Folk (222) 

Learn more about the Lilly’s Undergraduate Summer Research Fellowship in Lived Theology here.

The Project on Lived Theology at the University of Virginia is a research initiative, whose mission is to study the social consequences of theological ideas for the sake of a more just and compassionate world.

Lillian West to Study the History of Charlottesville’s Mt. Zion First African Baptist Church

We are pleased to announce that the Project on Lived Theology (PLT) has awarded an Undergraduate Summer Research Fellowship to Lillian West, a rising fourth year from Memphis, Tennessee, majoring in Religious Studies and Global Security and Justice.  

Under the academic supervision of Professor Paul Daffyd Jones, Lilly will research the history of Charlottesville’s Mt. Zion First African Baptist Church through the lens of its 1884 beginnings on Ridge Street. 

In 2003, under the leadership of pastor Dr. Alvin Edwards, Mt. Zion relocated to 105 Lankford Avenue. The historic building became home to Charlottesville’s Music Resource Center until the past year, when a new Anglican congregation called the Church of the Good Shepherd took over the lease. 

Lilly intends to study the history of Mt. Zion Baptist and the challenges of commitment to honoring its history, which is interwoven with the complexities of race and racism. She will also study the commitment that both congregations have made to community flourishing, and how they use their spaces to unite and engage community. She plans to visit the Albemarle Charlottesville Historical Society and UVA Special Collections, as well as the church’s archive, to examine existing historical documents to better understand Mt. Zion’s history.

Lilly plans to enter into conversation with the congregations’ respective leadership to discuss delicate, respectful, and appreciative inhabitation of prominent and powerful space. Lilly’s project will add to the Project on Lived Theology’s scholarship by gathering documents and stories from three diverse Christian communities operating for social justice and human flourishing in Charlottesville’s own Ridge St. neighborhood. She hopes to “participate in a project of unifying storytelling, which could discuss lived theology in relation to racism, the Kingdom of God, and human and community flourishing.”  

Within the UVA community, Lilly serves as a book study leader for Reformed University Fellowship (RUF). She also leads a local WyldLife ministry at Lakeside and Journey Middle Schools. Lilly hopes to pursue further education in religious studies.

 If you are interested in following along with Lilly’s reading plan this summer, here is the list: 

  • The Souls of Black Folk, W. E. B. Du Bois 
  • Why We Can’t Wait, Martin Luther King, Jr.
  • Malcolm X Speaks: Selected Speeches and Statements, George Breitman and Malcolm X
  • God of the Oppressed, James Cone
  • Places of Redemption: Theology for a Worldly Church, Mary McClintock Fulkerson
  • God is Red, Vine Deloria, Jr. 
  • Longing for Running Water, Ivone Gebara
  • Dear White Christians: For Those Still Longing for Racial Reconciliation, Jennifer Harvey 

The Project on Lived Theology at the University of Virginia is a research initiative, whose mission is to study the social consequences of theological ideas for the sake of a more just and compassionate world.

Charles Marsh has a Story to Tell of Evangelical Anxiety

Mark Wingfield and Maina Mwaura wrote on PLT Director Charles Marsh’s newest book, Evangelical Anxiety, for the Baptist News Global.

“And as someone who has walked the difficult road of unraveling the unhealthy messages of a narrow-minded faith, Marsh sees one other reason for evangelical anxiety: ‘It’s time for us to really roll up our sleeves and try to make sense of what emotional and psychological purposes are being fulfilled in the way these men and women think about God and how they use their faith as a weapon.'”

The full article is available here.

Jonathan Malesic Two Short Essays

A staff meeting at The Daily Texan, the student newspaper of the University of Texas at Austin. Credit: Ariana Gomez for The New York Times

Jonathan Malesic recently published two short essays, an essay for Notre Dame Magazine and an op-ed in the New York Times. The first essay is about a time when he volunteered to lead a Dungeons & Dragons campaign and the similarities to teaching college classes, connecting the narrative arc to the intellectual arc. The second essay is an op-ed about op-eds, and the perception that all U.S. college students are woke and out of control liberals.

Excerpt from “It’s Not How You Play the Game” in Notre Dame Magazine: “I wonder now if my subconscious mind got me to obsess over D&D so it could show me how self-destructive my obsession was with a job that rarely gave back what I put into it. The fantasy game wasn’t an escape from my real-life problems with work. It was the dress rehearsal for leaving them behind for good.”

Excerpt from “College Students Have Something to Say. It’s Just Not What You’d Expect” in New York Times: “Reading these essays is a deeply reassuring exercise. I see hope for the future of civic life in these students who are brave (or perhaps naïve) enough to examine an issue in their community and make their best case about it in writing. They know what matters to their readers and draw on shared vocabulary and experience. At their best, these essays exhibit all that opinion writing ought to be.”

Read more about the two essays here.

The Project on Lived Theology at the University of Virginia is a research initiative, whose mission is to study the social consequences of theological ideas for the sake of a more just and compassionate world.

The 2023 Scoper lecture featuring Bryan Stevenson

CHARLOTTESVILLE, VA – Theological Horizons, in partnership with Central Virginia Community Justice, Project on Lived Theology at UVA, and UVA Arts, is mobilizing local churches, justice organizations, student groups and community activists to welcome Equal Justice Institute Founder and New York Times bestselling author Bryan Stevenson for the 2nd annual Scoper Lecture in Christian Thought at 7:00 pm on Tuesday, March 28, 2023 in the John Paul Jones Arena.

The address, titled “Act Justly, Love Mercy: Exploring the Heart of Equal Justice,” will explore the spiritual foundations of Mr. Stevenson’s work as a pioneer in the criminal justice field addressing systemic racial injustice and working on behalf of those who have been wrongly convicted or unfairly sentenced. To date, nearly 2500 of the arena’s 3800 available seats have been sold for this unprecedented event, which has also mobilized almost 50 Community Partners and Event Sponsors that represent a diverse range of local schools, faith groups, justice and community organizations.

“Bryan Stevenson is an inspiration for so many of our students, and his message of hope is so timely for our wider university community which is still grieving from the tragic shooting last fall,” said Karen Wright Marsh, Executive Director for Theological Horizons. “Seeing the way groups and individuals from across the ideological spectrum are rallying to support this event is such an encouragement that despite our painful history, differences, and divisions we can still connect around a shared desire for justice and mercy to prevail.”

Mr. Stevenson’s bestselling book, Just Mercy, recounts the story of one of his first cases in which he secured an acquittal for Walter McMillan, an African-American man sentenced to death for a murder he did not commit. In 2019 the story was adapted into the box-office hit Just Mercy and the HBO documentary True Justice.

“To see this community coming together around the message of racial justice is really hopeful,” said Eddie Howard, Executive Director of Abundant Life Ministries and a member of the event’s Host Committee. “We’ve tolerated a lopsided justice system for too long, harming our most vulnerable communities. It’s time we follow Mr. Stevenson’s example and listen to what our faith has to say about caring for ‘the least of these’.”

The March 28 event is the second annual Scoper Lecture Series in Christian Thought, which brings eminent scholars to the University of Virginia to explore the breadth of Christian expression in science, medicine, culture, and the arts. The series is generously funded by UVA parent and past UVA assistant professor of ophthalmology Stephen Scoper, M.D. and his wife Nancy. Last year’s speaker was New York Times bestselling author and Duke associate professor, Kate Bowler, PhD.

“Too often, faith perspectives can be unhelpfully narrow,” Dr. Scoper said. “It’s so important we hear from people like Bryan whose inspiring work can challenge and stretch our understanding of what really matters.”

This event is open to the public. Tickets may be purchased for $8 (plus fees) via Ticketmaster at For groups of 20 or more tickets are discounted to $6/person (plus fees) or guests may purchase a livestream ticket for $4. This event will not be recorded.

The Project on Lived Theology at the University of Virginia is a research initiative, whose mission is to study the social consequences of theological ideas for the sake of a more just and compassionate world.

PLT Research Fellow to Present at Indiana University Symposium

PLT Research Fellow Emily Miller was recently accepted into Indiana University’s Undergraduate Religious Studies Association Spring Symposium for the work she conducted last summer during her internship in Lived Theology. The symposium’s central aim is interdisciplinary conversation about religion that span across the humanities—Anthropology, Area Studies, English, Comparative Literature, History, Philosophy, Religious Studies, Sociology.

At the beginning of April, Emily will travel to Indiana to present her work on Charlottesville’s two First Baptist Churches: on Main Street and Park Street, respectively. Her presentation will highlight her findings that were published as blog posts to the PLT website, including her work on Charlottesville heroes Fairfax Taylor, William Gibbons, and Lottie Moon. Two other UVA religious studies undergraduates have also been invited to speak at the symposium.

Abstract: The brainchild of President Thomas Jefferson, the University of Virginia’s white supremacist roots permeate subtly and not-so-subtly into the complex landscape of modern Charlottesville and Albemarle County, where the University is located. There are two First Baptist Churches in Charlottesville: Main Street and Park Street, predominantly black and white respectively. The original Charlottesville Baptist Church’s division into two in 1863 tells the larger story of the continued struggle for black freedom following Emancipation. Through a summer of archival research, visiting historic sites, and interviews with historians, clergy, and congregants, I attempted to piece together the full story of Charlottesville’s First Baptist. What I uncovered revealed the deeply spiritual nature of First Baptist on Main’s journey as an independent body toward autonomy, agency, and education. This paper presents the timeline of the establishment of First Baptist Church on Main Street, Charlottesville’s first black Baptist church, including the closely intertwined history of racism at UVA and in Charlottesville during its development. This microcosmic narrative- specifically the juxtaposition of First Baptist on Main and First Baptist on Park- is reflective also of the increasingly separated Baptist church in the United States at large: black and white. Through first-hand accounts of heroic activism, systemic inequality, and unending perseverance, this paper tells an important story of the spiritual meaning of liberation.

Emily wishes to extend profound thanks to Charles Marsh, Guy Aiken, and Jessica Seibert for their encouragement and guidance with this project.

Charles Marsh’s New Bonhoeffer Essay

“Are We Still of Any Use?” Dietrich Bonhoeffer on Christian Witness in a Perilous Age

Christmas 1942 would find Dietrich Bonhoeffer with his family and with his best friend Eberhard Bethge. It would be their last one together. Shortly before New Year’s Day, Bonhoeffer wrote a letter to his closest comrades in the Berlin conspiracy to overthrow the Hitler regime. The letter would come to be known by a name suggesting casual self-reflection: “After Ten Years: A Reckoning Made at New Years 1943”, though there is nothing casual in its intent to survey the ruins of the German nation and its apostate churches.

Reading “After Ten Years”, we meet Bonhoeffer in his last days of freedom and at the height of his intellectual powers. Promising that the future will be uncertain and that personal goals will remain unfulfilled, everything in the essay – and let’s call it that, since there is no salutation, complimentary close or other elements of a letter – rushes toward the one inescapable question: “Are we still of any use?”

Read Charles Marsh’s new essay on this essential late work.

The Project on Lived Theology at the University of Virginia is a research initiative, whose mission is to study the social consequences of theological ideas for the sake of a more just and compassionate world.