I got into Charlottesville Friday night, too late for the training that would have empowered me to take nonviolent direct action with other clergy colleagues and faith leaders (as seen in the above photo). We were told it would be a dangerous weekend and those taking direct action would be on the front lines. I opted to serve in a support role.
On Saturday morning I was up at 4:40 to get to the church for a six o'clock sunrise service. Preached by Dr. Cornell West, it was one of the most powerful spiritual experience of my life. The media won't focus on this, but folk trained, prayed, worshiped, hugged, and loved their way through this. The spiritual power present was immense. The song, the Word, the preaching, the praying, the Spirit was so immense that it's difficult to translate to those who weren't present. We had ourselves some church! That spiritual uplift was absolutely necessary for the unity, the waging of love and nonviolence, and the courage demanded of us throughout the rest of a heart-breaking, soul-diminishing day. This action was saturated in the spirit of love.
After the service we marched in two groups: supporters marching to one park, and the non-violent direct action faith leaders to Emancipation Park. I came with a group of folks from the church I now attend, Hope UCC in Alexandria, VA (a city now home to white supremacist Richard Spencer, who was arrested in Charlottesville). We had a wagon filled with water, snacks, a cell phone charging station, and first aid items. We wheeled it down to Emancipation Park to support and serve those on the front line.
When we arrived, the mood was tense. There were far fewer white supremacists than I had imagined, and those there seemed like an odd mix of white frat boys in their uniform of a white polo and khaki pants wearing ridiculous helmets, waving flags, and chanting hateful things. I was struck by how young and mainstream they appeared.
The most frightening sight was the militia. Dressed in camouflage, they were strapped with what appeared to be semi-assault rifles, some as many as three. Virginia is an open carry state, so this was perfectly legal. The militia were all white men, many of them large and muscular. At first I wondered if they were police, but then I saw that some had confederate flag patches. Emancipation park is elevated above the street, it was gated, and it looked like there was a ring of state police around the inside of the gate, looking out. Outside the park, the militia stood, also facing out, as if guarding the park. They were on a hill, looking down on those on the street.
On the street, alternately on their feet and on their knees, was an interlocked line of clergy and faith leaders. They chanted, they sang, they prayed, they held the line. I can't begin to stress how precarious their position was. In fact, the horrible thought crossed my mind multiple times that Cornell West would be recognized and just shot outright at some point.
Behind the clergy was the street, with some passersby, onlookers, and a few others, like our group, coming through with water. Behind the street was a church, a side street, and a large parking lot full of police, so there were armed men on both sides of the street. A loud helicopter droned above us all day.
As we began to hand out water, the white supremacists paraded through, heading to the park. We chanted and clapped, "Love has already won." As they entered the park there were a few skirmishes. Remembering my commitment to my spouse and thinking of my boys, I moved across the street to the church and took a break to pray. The anti-fascists (antifa) then paraded down the street, and more skirmishes took place. Our group decided to take a break and head to a safe house of a friend's, only to find out that things did escalate soon after, with white supremacists violently breaking through the clergy line with clubs, wielding pepper spray or tear gas. We later attended to some who were sprayed, and they were in obvious pain.
By the time we learned of the violence, the police had disbanded and cleared Emancipation Park. The white supremacists broke into roving bands all over the city, parading about in their helmets, waving flags and shouting hateful things. Most of us avoided them. Our group moved through the streets offering water, snacks, and first aid. The militarized police had now moved in in full gear, head to toe. A tank was behind them. Streets were closed off. We reached as many people as we could, and then I got the text that there was a need for clergy to come to the hospital. I heard this just after hearing news that there had been a pedestrian hit by a car.
Two members of my group took me to the hospital. I managed to meet the right hospital personnel, who ushered me in. The lobby of the hospital had turned into a triage center and I learned that the car incident was an intentional act, a hit and run in which the driver plowed into, at high speed, a whole group of counter protesters who were simply crossing the street. The clergy who had participated in the direct action at Emancipation Park were quickly on that scene and witnessed the chaos, then helped minister to people. Ambulances came, picked up the injured, performed CPR on Heather, and whisked folks to the UVA hospital, where Heather either died or was declared dead, I'm not sure which. Frantic calls were made from the injured to their loved ones either on site or in the ambulance. One injured individual had the ability to tell a stranger to take their phone and call their spouse in another state, giving the stranger the password on the phone. The stranger gathered this person's things and went to the hospital.
There were tremendous acts of love in the wake of this horrific act of hate.
At the hospital, they set up the library as a waiting space for families who had a loved one involved in the incident. When I first showed up, the chaplain was already there caring for families and indicated that many still hadn't received confirmation if their loved one was at this hospital or another one.
I circulated the room, introducing myself, placing a hand on someone's arm or back, listening deeply if they wanted to share their story, asking questions, and telling them over and over, "I am so sorry that this happened to you." I supplied them with kleenex, water, a cell phone if needed, and snacks, and often took the name of their loved one and went to a quiet place to pray for them. I heard horrific stories, and the love was plain on families' faces. Some had also been on the scene, others had been called in. They told me nicknames and ages and back stories, or they did not. They held in their hands cell phones, wallets, a red sneaker, the emptiness of not knowing the outcome. Some wailed, or wiped away silent tears, others shook, and some didn't want to talk while others shared quietly, wide-eyed with the surreal situation. By the time I had circulated the room, the head chaplain, the on-call chaplain, and a chaplain intern were all there, and families seemed to be receiving regular updates from the medical staff. I can't begin to explain how difficult the day was on first-responders at the hospital. One woman of color working the cafeteria nearly broke down because she didn't know what was going on and she was afraid.
I returned to the park where the day began with a rally, because we were to have a prayer service. But there was a threat which proved to be false, so the service was moved to a nearby church. It really was just a short time of sharing and praying with a remnant of faith leaders, many of whom were exhausted, sunburned, lamenting, sweaty, and some of whom had to preach the next morning to a congregation expecting to hear a word from God.
On the way home, as I reflected with a clergy colleague, I confessed the feeling that I did not risk enough. And yet my family also weighed heavily on me. How do we balance our own call to action with our commitments to our kids? How do we explain why we would put ourselves in harm's way to build the world we truly want for them and for all kids? How do we navigate our own fear to put our bodies on the line? How do we take risks even when others tell us it is irresponsible to do so, and our action makes no difference? These are the questions I've wrestled with as a white woman seeking racial justice and attempting to walk in God's ways rather than in the ways of white supremacy. I feel inadequate. I feel afraid. And yet I also feel so inspired by the Spirit of love that is far bigger than me and my one, precious life. I know that people of color risk their bodies and their sanity just waking up each day.
White folks, friends and family, please hear this: Now is the time, and we are the people who must each decide what we will risk. Learning to risk for the sake of racial equity, in resistance to white supremacy is our work. It has nothing to do with one person having more courage than another. It is a practice, a spiritual one. It requires that each of us assess what risk we are willing to take--talking to someone, speaking out, standing up, getting involved, teaching your kids, challenging the status quo. It doesn't have to be non-violent direct action, but it might be. One action can lead to another.
White privilege ingrains in us the notion we shouldn't have to risk anything. We should never have to be in danger. We should be protected. And the status quo protects us. And yet we lose our souls in the process. Part of loosening the hold that privilege has on our lives is taking risks. A risk necessarily invites us into a space of discomfort. We are pushing ourselves beyond what we imagine we can handle. But we are doing it together.
The Rev. Dr. William Barber announced this week a Poor People's Campaign that will mark MLK's movement of the same name that began 50 years ago. It will lead us into 40 days of action next spring into the summer. Let the time between now and then be a time of discernment and prayer, finding community to support us as we experiment with risk-taking for racial justice and equity. Let us learn to lean into discomfort, to make mistakes and try again, to grow weary with that ancient mix of lament and gratitude for a life that is so broken and yet so beautiful. Let's tell our kids about how we are taking risks for love, how we are love warriors who push through fear because there is a greater Spirit that calls forth courage we didn't know we had. It might just be a hard conversation with a neighbor or a teacher or a friend. It might be attending your first protest. It might be supporting others who are doing these things.
If you want to do something now, you can. You could send care packages to the Charlottesville churches involved in organizing the action this weekend, or to the chaplains at the UVA hospital. You can hold the families of those injured and traumatized in prayer, send out good vibes, make them your intention in yoga, however you share love. You can give a bold gift of your hard-earned cash to organizations that support racial equity in your own community. You can be unfailingly kind to every person you encounter. You can listen deeply to people of color. You can make it plain to friends, family, and colleagues that you are not with white supremacy and you will stand up against it. Come out to everyone. You can talk to your kids. You can read. You can breathe, eat, sleep, wake up and do it all again. But the time for inaction has passed. We must awaken parts of ourselves that have been asleep. When future generations look back on this time, they will ask us how we changed the world, how we lit our hearts with love, how we transformed systems that seemed so entrenched and impossible to move. What we do in the next year will be a big part of our answer.
My ride home was with a clergy colleague who works in war zones to bring about peace. She said Charlottesville this weekend was a war zone. And it was. I have never seen so many guns on the streets of an American city in my life. I have never heard such hateful thing said so openly, so publicly without even the klan-style hood to hide their faces as they said them. This is Trump's America, and every part of it is positioned to intimidate, to dog-whistle those who will join in the hatred, to say, "me first." It is against everything I believe in, and I will not stand by as it parades down the streets of our cities. I will lock arms with others, raise my voice in the songs of resistance, and let Love lead us out.