The recent horrific events in Charlottesville are deeply personal for me.
It felt like a gut punch when I saw the images of young men rendering the Nazi salute last Friday night. They were, in fact, standing across the street from the Virginia church where I served as rector for seven years, St. Paul’s Memorial Episcopal Church.
The white supremacists descended on Charlottesville ostensibly to protest the removal of a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee. But really, they came looking for a fight. Three people – including two state troopers – lost their lives. An apparently deranged young man with Nazi sympathies drove his car into a crowd, killing a young woman and injuring many others.
Something else happened in my former town that many did not see: Even as the demonstrators waved torches and shouted, “Jews will not replace us,” many more people of many faiths, from far and wide, gathered to meet evil with faith and courage.
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Yet something else happened in my former town that many did not see: Even as the demonstrators waved torches and shouted, “Jews will not replace us,” many more people of many faiths, from far and wide, gathered inside the church to meet evil with faith and courage. They prayed, sang hymns, and resolved to face evil with peace and love.
The next day, these people of many faiths walked through the streets of Charlottesville to show a different way than hatred. My former music director there, Daniel Hine, wrote a reflection that evening:
“What you aren’t seeing on the news media: the hundreds – no, thousands of people who were there, on the ground, bringing medical care, sunscreen, water bottles, washing off chemical attacks, giving hugs, singing songs of peace, truly showing forth God’s love in this hurting world!”
This also happened: Congregation Beth Israel, the only synagogue in Charlottesville, asked for police protection. None came. Nazi websites called for it to be burned down. The congregation hired an armed guard.
“For half an hour,” wrote the congregation’s president Alan Zimmerman on the website reformjudaism.org, “three men dressed in fatigues and armed with semi-automatic rifles stood across the street from the temple.
“Several times, parades of Nazis passed our building, shouting, ‘There’s the synagogue!’ followed by chants of ‘Seig Heil’ and other anti-Semitic language. Some carried flags with swastikas and other Nazi symbols.”
Why was Charlottesville at the epicenter of all this? It is certainly not the only Southern town with a Confederate War statue. In fact, Charlottesville’s monument has come under a fair degree of mockery in recent years. The annual gay pride festival is held at the foot of the statue, and old Bobby Lee is annually draped in rainbow flags.
On many levels, Charlottesville is the embodiment of the contradictions in American life around race. The town is primarily associated with Thomas Jefferson, the author of the Declaration of Independence who penned the words “all men are created equal” and yet was a slave owner to his dying breath.
Jefferson’s home, Monticello, sits on a hill overlooking the town, and his marks are everywhere in Charlottesville. The University of Virginia was not only founded by Jefferson, but also designed by him. Slaves built it. Among Jefferson’s more novel architectural innovations are wavy walls on the “range” that kept the slaves out of sight, perhaps reflecting his embarrassment at his reliance on slavery.
It is therefore no accident that the white supremacists last Friday gathered where they did. My former church is next to Jefferson’s signature university building, the Rotunda.
In the 20th century, Charlottesville was segregated like other Southern towns, and the scars run deep and are still noticeable. The Jefferson Theater, now a venue for rock bands, has a balcony where the “colored” were once confined.
The town went through convulsions in the 1950s, joining other Southern communities in “massive resistance” against desegregation court orders for public schools. Charlottesville’s schools closed rather than integrate, and the white churches were complicit, allowing their buildings to be used for whites-only schools.
The exception was my church, St. Paul’s Memorial, whose rector, the Rev. Ted Evans, labeled cooperation with segregation as “evil.”
The University of Virginia has gone through its own convulsions. It did not admit women, other than in the nursing school, until the early 1970s. More recently, the university was at the epicenter of a storm over sexual assault against women students following a story – that turned out to be false – in Rolling Stone magazine.
Yet through all of this, the University of Virginia has become all that Jefferson hoped for and more. Its students are among the brightest in the country; their annual “alternative spring break” has them working in poor neighborhoods rather than binging on the beach. On Wednesday evening, with the community still reeling, thousands of them stood with candles on the lawn where the Nazis had earlier stood. The students re-consecrated the lawn as their own.
In recent years, Charlottesville has worked hard to lower racial barriers. It began a citywide discussion on racial reconciliation a few years ago. Charlottesville has had black, Sikh and Jewish mayors, and the city voted overwhelmingly for Barack Obama – twice. President Obama was a regular visitor, bringing with him foreign dignitaries on visits to Monticello.
Yet with all of its progressive ethos, there is still a wide economic disparity between the white community and the communities of color. Neighborhoods are still defined by race.
The faith communities of Charlottesville have worked together for years on poverty issues through a community-organizing project called “IMPACT.” A new organization called the “Clergy Collective” developed in response to the invasions from the white supremacists.
There are lessons to be learned from Charlottesville – and the lessons are on the ground, not just in the halls of government.
Ordinary people can stand up to racism, hatred and bigotry with love, courage and strength. A community can renew existing alliances to reach across racial economic and religious barriers. We can do this everywhere.
The Rev. James Richardson, a former reporter for The Sacramento Bee, is an Episcopal priest. He was rector of St. Paul’s Memorial Church in Charlottesville from 2008 to 2015 before returning to Sacramento, where he is now based. He can be reached at email@example.com.