The first anniversary of the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, is approaching.
I want to reflect on that event and highlight what the faith communities in the Charlottesville area have been doing since then to address racism in our community.
The events of Aug. 11-12 traumatized us; we are still feeling the aftermath of those two days of violence that terrorized town citizens and students at the University of Virginia (UVA).
For many long-time residents, it was hard to see the name “Charlottesville” linked to white supremacy and violence.
“This is not our city,” many say, as they blame racist and hate-filled outsiders for invading and disturbing the peace in this idyllic college town.
For other residents, many of them black and minority, they say that it was time that others finally saw the oppressive reality they have been living under for generations.
“Welcome to our world,” they say, “where we struggle against gentrification, racial profiling, micro-aggressions and disparity in wages under the shadow of a world-class university founded by slave owner and white supremacist Thomas Jefferson.”
As tempting as it is to blame Aug. 12 on “outsiders,” we are reminded that the organizer of the Unite the Right rally was born and raised in Charlottesville and a UVA graduate.
Many of us were forced to face the uncomfortable fact on Aug. 11-12 that we are a community still steeped in systemic racism.
I am a part of the Charlottesville Clergy Collective, a group of interfaith leaders formed in 2015 in the aftermath of the deadly shooting at Mother Immanuel Church in Charleston, South Carolina.
Headed by Alvin Edwards, pastor of Mt. Zion First African Baptist Church, we meet monthly to deepen our relationship and trust in order to address racism in Charlottesville.
We have realized we still have much to learn about each other and from each other. The white faith leaders among us expressed a desire to learn from our black colleagues.
Some of the black pastors responded by saying that they are “white weary,” tired of educating well-intentioned white people about the black experience and the oppression of blacks.
“It is not a black person’s responsibility to teach white people about racism,” they say. “It is white people’s responsibility to educate themselves about the history of racism in America.”
“And yet,” they continued, “whites cannot do this totally alone without us.”
Whites need blacks as guides, teachers and truth-tellers.
However, sometimes it is hard to hear the pain, frustration and anger of our black brothers and sisters.
Sometimes, it is embarrassing to be called out for our false assumptions, our ignorance and our savior complex.
This work requires that we lay aside our egos, that we risk showing our ignorance, that we lean into the discomfort of giving up our privilege and hearing hard truths.
This work is too important for us to worry about being nice at the expense of being real to each other.
With those insights in mind, many members of the collective are committed to do the work of raising our awareness about white privilege and of learning the history of systemic racism in America and in Charlottesville.
We’ve made use of many fine resources, including:
- Screenings and discussions of the documentary I’m Not Racist, Am I? organized by Beloved Community Charlottesville.
- Ibram X. Kendi’s Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America.
- Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.
- Richard Rothstein’s The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America.
- Scene on Radio‘s podcast’s “Seeing White” series.
- James Robert Saunders and Renae Nadine Shackelford’s Urban Renewal and the End of Black Culture in Charlottesville, Virginia: An Oral History of Vinegar Hill.
In addition to these resources, a small group from the collective is meeting several times a month to read and discuss Debby Irving’s “Waking Up White: And Finding Myself in the Story of Race.”
Rabbi Tom Gutherz of Congregation Beth Israel will lead another group of collective members to read and discuss Simon Wiesenthal’s “The Sunflower: On the Possibilities and Limits of Forgiveness.”
Around 15 members of the collective will gather later in May to spend an afternoon in a facilitated dialogue on race.
The desired outcomes of these educational opportunities and conversations are not merely greater knowledge and mutual understanding of each other.
We hope to come away with concrete actions that leverage the unique resources of our faith traditions to support Charlottesville and advocate for racial and social justice.
“We’re tired of all this talk and no action!” That is the sentiment of many of the black pastors in the Charlottesville area.
In response, we are clarifying what “taking action” means, and in the process, we are learning that “action” may mean different things to different congregations and faith traditions.
For some traditions, just having a conversation about race is a challenging action that requires courage and persistence from congregational leaders.
For other traditions, action may involve a nonviolent, prayerful presence during white supremacist rallies, participating in interracial worship services or collecting school supplies for students.
Still for others, action may include using their white privilege to call out racist actions and policies, to advocate for affordable housing and a living wage or to challenge our elected officials and lobby for specific legislation so that blacks and other minorities can also enjoy the same privileges whites enjoy.
As we attempt to clarify our action, we are learning that there are different – and sometimes conflicting – strategies toward the goal of racial justice.
We’re also realizing that each house of worship is at a different place in their understanding of the role of social activism.
Therefore, we are learning to acknowledge the diverse actions of congregations while lovingly challenging each other to go beyond our comfort zones to dismantle racist structures in our society.
In the end, we are a clergy collective and we must offer our unique strength: the spiritual resources of our faith traditions.
Therefore, for the week leading up to the first anniversary of Aug. 12, a subcommittee of the clergy collective is organizing an interfaith community service that highlights how our faith communities can make our way together for a greater unity.
Finally, another group within the collective is organizing a Charlottesville to Jamestown pilgrimage on Oct. 6-20.
This pilgrimage will acknowledge the history of oppression and injustice toward indigenous peoples and enslaved Africans, in anticipation of the 400th anniversary of the landing of the first slave ship to Jamestown, Virginia, in 1619.
During those two weeks, there will be educational and worship opportunities in Charlottesville, Monticello, Richmond and Jamestown / Fort Monroe.
We pray that pilgrims will experience personal transformation, which leads to the transformation of our community.
Our hope is that several years from now, the name “Charlottesville” will no longer be linked to white supremacy and violence.
Our prayer and work are aimed toward a day when the name “Charlottesville” will serve as an example of how one city is transforming itself into a beloved community, where its faith leaders and citizens continue the difficult work toward racial justice and equity.
Michael Cheuk is a leadership coach and church consultant at MichaelKCheuk.com. He is a Baptist Center for Ethics / EthicsDaily.com board member, who lives in Charlottesville, Virginia.You can follow him on Twitter @MichaelKCheuk.
Editor’s note: This article is part of a series focused on racism and the local church.
Previous articles in the series are:
Recognizing Hidden Racism’s Grip on Our Society by Ryon Price
When Will Churches Begin to Reflect Racial Diversity? by Timothy Peoples
Engaged Advocacy: Working Together for Racial Justice by Stephen K. Reeves
The Church Will Never End Racism by Ignoring It by Starlette Thomas
Lynching Memorial’s Haunting Reminder of Present Brutality by Charles Watson Jr.
Royal Wedding Lesson: Becoming an Intercultural Church by Chris Smith
How Martin Luther King’s Focus Changed in His Last Years by Wale Hudson-Roberts
Leadership coach and church consultant at MichaelKCheuk.com. He is a Good Faith Media governing board member, who lives in Charlottesville, Virginia.