Mt. Zion: Being In The Neighborhood

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

I’ve got another Yes, Lord (in my soul)” Mt. Zion’s choir sings. In the same way that the church’s historic 105 Ridge Street building holds echoes of a century of worship, praise reverberates in the sanctuary of the new edifice at 105 Lankford Street. Theirs is a resilient adoration. 

As Reverend Dr. Edwards noted in an interview in 1986, five years into his ministry at Mt. Zion, they are a “survival church.”[1] My research this summer has been a project of storytelling, attempting to bear witness to an intersection of communities “sing[ing] better songs with [their] lives.”[2] The harmonies and disharmonies that I have encountered swell around me, holding despair, pain, and, ultimately, “triumph and calm confidence.”[3]

Early on a Tuesday morning, I walked into Mt. Zion’s church office to interview the Reverend Dr. Alvin Edwards. Characterized by most who know him as a busy man whose love for his congregation and his city orders his schedule, he graciously agreed to sit with me for a sizeable portion of his morning. Within those few hours, in the spirit of calm confidence, Reverend Edwards shared his experience of God’s faithfulness in Mt. Zion’s survival. 

When he stepped into his ministry at Mt. Zion in 1981, Reverend Edwards stepped into a story and a history that preceded himself. “When I came, my focus was probably more healing than anything else,” he notes, since the church was very divided in the wake of pastoral transition. I asked about his relationship with Reverend Hamilton, who served Mt. Zion from 1960 to 1980. “To be honest,” he started, “I did not meet him until years later at the 125th Anniversary when I invited all living former pastors to come preach.” 

I had assumed that Reverend Hamilton, who led the church during Charlottesville’s urban renewal initiative, which razed the Vinegar Hill neighborhood surrounding the historic church building, had shaped Reverend Edwards’ vision for the future of the church, particularly its move to the Lankford location. However, as Reverend Edwards describes it, the congregation directed his energies for the first 20 years of his ministry. Upon his arrival to Mt. Zion, he felt a tense air, “so thick you could cut it.” Church membership, as he understood it, dwindled and the average age rose. In the early days of his leadership, faithful church members invited him into the church’s recent history. “I began to hear the stories about Vinegar Hill and how they razed the community, how it dispersed all the African American people, their families, their businesses; to see how the city of Charlottesville really cheated Zion Union Baptist Church. That destroyed,” he reflects and starts again, “that decimated the Black community.”

Prior to Charlottesville’s urban renewal, many members of Mt. Zion lived in the Vinegar Hill neighborhood, easily within walking distance of the church. With the demolition of the neighborhood, residents were forced to relocate, which resulted in many moving to the 10th & Page, Ridge Street, and Belmont neighborhoods. Physical distance, as well the absence of a centralized communal space, dimmed the liveliness of the community. The land set to be “renewed” remained untouched for decades. Confusion and grief shattered the Black community. For Mt. Zion’s purposes, community engagement became a completely new project, and relocated members now had to commute for worship on Sundays. Mt. Zion’s new problem? No parking lot. 

So, it would come as no surprise that when Reverend Edwards asked the congregation in 1981 their hopes for the church’s future, he noticed that the church was in desperate need of space, something he had little of in the historic building. Thus, the land for the new church building at First and Lankford was purchased within the first few years of his pastorate. He told his congregation and the broader city of Charlottesville, “I want to put our church back into the neighborhood.”[4]

Beyond moving the congregation’s physical presence “into the neighborhood,” Reverend Edwards himself entered into the realm of city leadership. For him, politics and religion cannot be divorced, especially in his role as a pastor. “There is a separation in the sense that you can’t legislate righteousness,” he offers; however, “do[ing] what’s best for [the] community,” which he understands to be his responsibility, means that he must involve himself in the workings of the city. Repeatedly, he tells me, “[m]y faith makes me look at the total person, the head, the heart and the soul.” To see someone as a “total being” should direct the Christian longing for justice and participation in spaces where there are opportunities for growth towards a more just, nurturing, safe community. To this end, Reverend Edwards had involved himself in leadership spaces such as the Monticello Area Community Action Agency, Alliance for Interfaith Ministries, Charlottesville Redevelopment Housing Authority, Charlottesville Albemarle Boys and Girls Club, Charlottesville City Council, and Back to School Bash.[5] “I want to keep working,” he looks at me and shakes his head, “I don’t want to rust out in life, I want to wear out.” 

The church should be a place where the desire for the health of the “total being” abounds. Yet, as Reverend Edwards solemnly addresses, “the church as the body of Christ is polarized.” Our differences, he argues, prevent us from working together for the flourishing of our shared community. He, alongside the Charlottesville Clergy Collective, “a group of faith and allied  community leaders” and his “brainchild”[6]  pray for solidarity in the fight for justice and righteousness. 

What can that solidarity look like in our racially separated church communities? Well, for one, the White church has to shift its understanding of solidarity. “If White churches expect Black churches to act like them, it’ll never happen,” Reverend Edwards notes, “because the Black church has been the one to have to fight and defend who we are historically, because the White church hasn’t stepped up to do it, especially the ‘body of Christ’.” Growth in this area will start with truth telling. “I think some of the white pastors and their members need to start speaking out against the wrongs that they see and stop burying their heads in the sand,” he cries out, “if we don’t turn it around we are getting ready to lose another generation of people because we haven’t ministered to them in a way that their lives have been transformed. Because we are scared. We are comfortable where we are. It ought not to be that way.” 

His prayer for the body of Christ is that God would “liberate all of us from our prejudices, from our biases.” There is a richer future available to the Christian community. God invites us into an active, lived faith. This faith points to God’s inauguration of the eternal Kingdom, where God’s love in us transcends the brokenness of this earth. The more I read, the more I feel that proximity, “being in the neighborhood,” as Reverend Edwards described, is central to this future reality. Our brightest conceptions of racial reconciliation and the renewal of our church bodies are glimpses of a future not yet accessible to us.[7] Until that time, God has protected and steadied communities like Mt. Zion, communities that desire to “make kingdom kids, kingdom churches, to make God’s kingdom here on earth as in heaven.” Ultimately, I hope that God stirs us to work that grows “far more organic, meaningful, and authentic relationships than any of us can think of and project in the abstract from the alienated and still unredressed ground on which we currently stand.”[8]

This summer, I’ve been blessed to sit and reflect at the intersection of communities, Mt. Zion, the Music Resource Center, and Church of the Good Shepherd, which I have been able to research. It has been a summer of resonant worship, and songs have echoed within me and refashioned my soul. Maybe I’ve sung “Got Another Yes Lord” too many times,  but I think that God continually places sustained, partnered work in front of us. My summer ends calmly confident in prayer for “another yes.” 

[1] Charlottesville Daily Progress, (12/24/1986).

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

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

[4] Charlottesville Daily Progress, (12/24/1986). 


 Reverend Edwards states that one of his dreams would be to see communities of believers work together to help every child reach grade reading level. The potential for human and community flourishing from this effort would be transformative. 


[7] Harvey, Jennifer. Dear White Christians. (100)

[8]  Harvey, Jennifer. Dear White Christians. (100)

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.

Until Justice and Peace Embrace

In 1983, the philosopher Nicholas Wolterstorff’s landmark book Until Justice and Peace Embrace was published by Eerdmans to the praise of scholars and practitioners in the United States and throughout the global church.  Originally delivered as the 1981 Kuyper Lectures at the Free University of Amsterdam, the book mines the resources of the Dutch Reformed, neo-Calvinist tradition to address contemporary challenges and conflicts in Christian faith and practice. 

“Now forty years after its publication, does Until Justice and Peace Embrace still speak to our times?” Dr. Mark Gornik asks in a recent essay, which we are delighted to share

Gornik answers in the affirmative. Wolterstorrf’s enduring significance is his crafting of a political theology and a piety rooted in grace – “and a project of hope marked by struggle to continually hear and live the Word in and for changing times.”

Mark Gornik is the director of City Seminary of New York. He has spent his life as a pastor, community developer, teacher, and scholar of world Christianity. His 2005 book Word Made Global: Stories of African Christianity in New York City, originally appeared as his doctoral dissertation at the University of Edinburgh, and it was revised for publication during his fellowship with the PLT Virginia Seminar.

Dr. Gornik also contributed a deeply personal and moving essay on the late Allan Tibbels in our recent volume People Get Ready! Twelve Jesus-Haunted Misfits, Malcontents, and Dreamers in Pursuit of Justice.

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.

Spring Seminar: Faith and Doubt in the Modern World

PLT Director Charles Marsh returns to the classroom to teach “Faith and Doubt in the Modern World” at UVA this spring. This course introduces students to seminal writings in modern western thought concerning the meaning, truthfulness, and uses of religious belief. The goal is to develop a multi-storied narrative that conveys the variety of interpretations given to the idea of God in modernity and to clarify the conditions of responsible religious belief in a pluralistic and post-modern, post-theistic, post-something world. 

Lectures and discussions will follow such questions as: 

Is belief in God a product of wishful thinking?

Is religious belief a symptom of neurotic behavior? 

If there is no God, is everything permissible? 

Is atheism (new and old) parasitic on the moral convictions inspired by religion? 

Is religion a primitive stage in human intellectual development in need of an education to reality? 

Does religion promote violent tendencies among individuals and groups? Is it inherently immoral? 

How do we account for the fact that some intelligent people argue that belief in God is rational and others that belief in God violates reason? 

We will consider such questions by studying the modern critiques of religion and the implications of such critiques for believers and people of faith.  

We will build our narrative not only from philosophical and religious sources but from novels, film, music, and psychology as well.  

Students will be reading:

Albert Camus, The Stranger 

Isak Dinesen (Karen Blixen), Babette’s Feast

Sigmund Freud, The Future of an Illusion

David Bentley Hart, Atheist Delusions

David Hume, The Natural History of Religion

Friedrich Nietzsche, The Genealogy of Morals

Flannery O’Connor, A Prayer Journal

Dorothee Soelle, Suffering

Howard Thurman, Deep River

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.

Public Health, Religion and Spirituality Bulletin with Susan Holman as Guest Editor

VA Sem 1- headshot Susan R. Holman- Interview with Susan Holman - Grawemeyer Award, on writing lived theology

We are delighted to share the fall issue of “Public Health, Religion, and Spirituality Bulletin.” Susan Holman is a guest editor and contributor for the issue. Holman served as Senior Writer at the Global Health Education and Learning Incubator at Harvard University. Currently she is the John R. Eckrich Chair and Professor of Religion and the Healing Arts at Valparaiso University. Her work as an academic writer and editor explores connections between public health, nutrition, human rights and religious responses to poverty, particularly examples from early Christianity.

Holman has made significant contributions to The Project on Lived Theology. She was a participant in the first class of the Virginia Seminar in Lived Theology. As part of the seminar, she presented her paper “On Writing Lived Theology.” See Holman’s contributor page for more of her publications, interviews, and writing.

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.

Best-selling author and essayist Jonathan Malesic to visit UVA

The Office of Graduate and Postdoctoral Affairs, in partnership with the Department of Religious Studies, is hosting best-selling author, essayist and UVA alumnus, Dr. Jonathan Malesic, on October 19 at 5 pm in Wilson Hall, Room 301. The title of Jonathan’s talk is entitled “Burnout Culture in Academia: Where It Comes From and How We’ll Get Beyond It.”


Jonathan is the author of The End of Burnout: Why Work Drains Us and How to Build Better Lives which was named as one of Amazon’s Best Books of 2022 and a selected reading by The Next Big Idea Club. In The End of Burnout, Jonathan traces his own history as someone who burned out of a tenured job to frame this rigorous investigation of how and why so many of us feel worn out, alienated, and useless in our work. Through research on the science, culture, and philosophy of burnout, he explores the gap between our vocation and our jobs, and between the ideals we have for work and the reality of what we have to do. 

Additionally, Jonathan’s essay work has been recognized as notable in Best American Essays (2019, 2020, 2021, 2022) and Best American Food Writing (2020) and have received special mention in the Pushcart Prize anthology (2019). His work has appeared in The New York TimesThe New RepublicThe AtlanticThe Washington PostAmericaCommonwealNotre Dame Magazine, The Hedgehog ReviewThe PointThe Chronicle of Higher Education, and elsewhere. He has been the recipient of major grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Louisville Institute. His first book, Secret Faith in the Public Square, won a ForeWord INDIES gold medal for the religion category (2009).

Jonathan earned a Ph.D. in religious studies from the University of Virginia’s Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. He lives in Dallas and teaches writing at Southern Methodist University.


Thursday, October 19, 2023 | Wilson Hall, Room 301 | 5 pm | Light hors d’oeuvres and refreshments will be served.

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 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.