Republished with permission from Word & Way.

For 23 years, Highland Baptist Church in Louisville, Kentucky, has held a service on the second Sunday of Advent with a cross on its lawn for each person killed that year by homicide in the community. This year saw more crosses than ever for its service on Dec. 6, which the church live-streamed on its Facebook page.

Screengrab of Advent peace service at Highland Baptist Church as Mary Alice Birdwhistell speaks on Dec. 6, 2020.

“On our lawn today are crosses that represent more than 140 people in our city who have been killed in the past year by acts of violence. Today, we will call each of them by name as beloved children of God,” Mary Alice Birdwhistell, Highland’s senior pastor, said during the service. “There are too many crosses on our lawn. We actually had to make more crosses this year because after 23 years of this tradition, we still didn’t have enough. And there have been far too many lives lost to senseless violence, to police brutality, and to systemic racial inequities in our system this year.”

“Today we gather on the lawn and we gather virtually on this second Sunday of Advent — Peace Sunday — to lament over an especially heartbreaking year of violence in our city. We gather during what is often called ‘the most wonderful time of the year’ to hold space with people for whom it is anything but that,” she added. “In a year that has met a devastating record for violence and at a time when we cannot even be together face-to-face, we gather together to bear witness to the pain and grief in our community, finding solace in the God who meets us here.”

Screengrab of Advent peace service at Highland Baptist Church on Dec. 6, 2020.

Individuals from the congregation took reading the names and ages of those killed, the names joining the sounds of rustling wind, passing cars, and the hammering of crosses into the lawn. Those remembered included names in the litany during protests thisi year against racial injustices: Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old Black woman killed by police in her apartment; and David McAtee, a 53-year-old Black man shot at his barbeque restaurant by a National Guard member.

“God is devastated even more than we are by the symbol of these crosses,” Lauren Jones Mayfield, Highland’s associate pastor to young adults and missions, said during the service. “This honesty about the conditions into which God’s child will be born, invites us into the work of liberation across our city and across our lives.”

“So, while we live in this liminal space of waiting this Advent season — so that we can be authentic when we light the peace candle this week — we say to our city, to our city’s leaders, to our neighbors, to one another in our congregation: God loves you. God’s love is real. It is close. And it is on its way,” she added.

Mayfield also said Highland pledges next year to three practices to confront the violence and injustices lamented during the service, including working to address systemic racism in Louisville, challenging public officials to act for racial justice and equality, and moving forward with reparations.

“It will take all of us committing ourselves again to the work the Christ child beckons us to do,” she added. “It is the work of revolutionary, transforming love. And it is our call as we prepare to follow this holy peace child this year as a way to bring hope to our weary world.”

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