The Folklore Project

Danville, Virginia

The Most Segregated Day of the Week

By Nicholas Harrelson

This is what Sunday looks like at my church:

Country folks from Caswell County, North Carolina, both black and white.

Inner-city kids from Danville, Virginia, accustomed in equal parts to antebellum mansions built with tobacco money and to violence born of economic desperation.

Old ladies dressed in their Sunday best.

The bearded fellow dressed like a tree, having just returned from his deer blind.

The parking lot and Main Street are filled with lifted trucks adorned with Confederate flag stickers, Jeeps, and the odd coupe dressed out with rims so shiny you could shave your face in them.

Last Sunday, I walked in behind a family, a young black mother walking hand-in-hand with two kids. At the front door, a white man with a distinct Southern drawl, openly carrying a pistol, greeted and welcomed her. I passed a small car with an “I’m With Her” sticker parked directly beside a truck displaying the third national flag of the Confederacy and the largest Trump sticker one could imagine, placed prominently on the rear window.

Union Church is a mishmash of cultural stereotypes, all under one roof, in the heart of the last capital of the Confederacy, and my hometown of Danville, Virginia. Head Pastor Adam Cook is a man born and raised in Caswell County. His home county is notable for containing the largest Ku Klux Klan organization in the country, which led the protests against the removal of the Confederate flag from the state capital grounds of Columbia, South Carolina. I’ve known him for 15 years, having first been introduced to him as my youth pastor at Fairview United Methodist Church. In this age of political and cultural extremes, Pastor Cook and Union Church are truly breaths of fresh air in this city of passionate extremes and opposites.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., a man who visited Danville on four occasions during the Civil Rights Movement, once noted that Sunday was the most segregated day of the week. That has always been the case in my hometown, a city many refer to as “The City of Steeples.” Growing up, I remember being enormously bored at church and thanking my lucky stars that my run-of-the-mill Methodist church let out at noon, on the dot, every Sunday, unlike the many African-American churches we passed on our way into town. I distinctly remember being intrigued by the noticeable differences between our worship styles. Ours had the monotonal, depressing hymns accompanied by an organ that seemed more appropriate to a Dracula film than church. Theirs had joyous praise music one could occasionally catch if the wind blew just right as you walked along the road outside of town.

I remember asking my father why there were white churches and black churches. He responded by noting the historical nature of the separation and the cultural norms that were associated with self-segregation in the South, ultimately proclaiming that right or wrong, it was simply the way it’s always been. I thought it strange, but I eventually accepted it as the norm in a town so defined by racial tensions. Danville was built on tobacco, and much of that tobacco was picked by the ancestors of the black folks who worshipped down the street from my home, many still living in areas their ancestors once toiled over as slaves.

The evangelical community has remained prominent in the cultural wars born of our national and regional politics. Jerry Falwell Jr. of Liberty University, which is just north of Danville in Lynchburg, guided the Trump campaign’s evangelical outreach. At first glance, one might wonder what the average conservative evangelical has in common with Donald Trump; it would also be reasonable to assume the answer is very little. But the evangelical community turned out in droves to elect him president. It likely had less to do with religion than culture and economic desperation. Still, many of the young students at Falwell’s school spoke out in opposition to his support of Trump, noting the obvious moral failings in Trump’s past and the seemingly hypocritical nature of supporting such a flawed candidate. For all the hate and animosity my Millennial generation receives, I find our disdain for hypocrisy and blindness to cultural differences reassuring.

The first thing I noticed about Union Church is the color. No, not the light display accompanying the praise music. Not the wonderful videos accompanying many of the messages, but rather the people. White, black, Latino, almost all races are represented in the chairs that fill the old YMCA building. The mission of Union Church is simple:  “Love God. Love People. Prove It.” We all share a common human experience. We yearn for love, we strive toward our dreams, and we all seek the necessities of life, regardless of our differences. Union focuses on these commonalities, offering a message that supersedes politics, culture, and even religion in many instances. It has variously been referred to as a “liberal” church or the “new age” style church, even garnering its own hate website dedicated to admonishing Union’s audacity in making a “Harlem Shake” video. Pastor Cook told me the website was run by Baptists. Of course, we know of certain Baptists’ disdain for dance. Adam often jokes he’s a recovering Baptist, and I would assert that among Union’s congregation — black, white, Latino and otherwise — he isn’t alone.

I attempted to learn why people of so many varying backgrounds feel welcome and attracted to Union, how people with such disparate political beliefs and cultural affinities can find solace in the same place. I believe it’s because Union Church caters to our humanity, our common human experience. There have been trials — as one could imagine, in a small Southern town defined by race and its history as the last capital of the Confederacy — but Union Church makes it work. In fact, not only do they make it work, but they also flourish, against all odds. I look forward to attending the service every week, not only for my routine dose of Jesus but also for my oft-needed dose of humanity, the odd reminder that despite the animosity we are constantly fed on television and in print, Americans are still capable of coming together through adversity, finding solace in our shared experiences and needs, if we will drop the political and cultural adornments that so often define and separate us. Just as Jesus sought to heal and save the masses, often associating with those who had little resemblance to today’s archetypal “Christian,” so too does Union cater to the many who would otherwise lack a spiritual home.

In the end, as Pastor Cook often reminds us, we’re all messy, jacked-up people, in need of faith and the touch of human kindness — that we can minister to each other, regardless of our differences.