Reflections from Charlottesville – Part 1

Reflections from Charlottesville - Part 1

By Elaine Whitney, Synod Vice President

Part 1 – Healing: Be the Light

Q:  Why, O Lord, are you calling me to Charlottesville?  Why me, Lord? Why now?

A: I was called to Charlottesville because my middle class privilege has allowed me to become blind to the pervasive cost of racism in our nation.

My parents were a part of the Great Migration. They, along with more than 6 million other African Americans, left their homes and families in the South to move North and West for opportunities to work, vote, and escape the violent racism they experienced. My parents didn’t talk much about their lives in Florida and Georgia; mostly, those were not happy times and they tried to leave those experiences in the past. I grew up in an ethnically diverse neighborhood and attended ethnically diverse schools. I have worked in ethnically diverse workplaces and I have never been afraid to register to vote. I worship in an ethnically diverse congregation and on most days, I don’t worry about being a Black person in America. August of 2017 changed my perspective on what it means to be a follower of Jesus and to live, in truth, to my beliefs.

A white supremacist grabs a counter protesters’ sign during a rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, U.S., August 12, 2017. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts

Last year, a high school student circulated a petition to remove a statue of Robert E. Lee, Confederate General, from a public park in Charlottesville, VA. As the City Council moved to remove the statue, white nationalists began to protest the action. Over the weekend of August 11-13, 2017, race-related protests escalated to violence and death.  Ahead of an expected “Unite the Right” rally on Saturday, 1,000 clergy and worshippers held a prayer service that was interrupted when white nationalists surrounded the church.  The local police evacuated the church for the safety of the worshippers. That same evening, Friday, white nationalists marched with torches across the campus of UVA. On Saturday, protesters and counter protesters clashed in the streets of Charlottesville resulting in hundreds of injured people as the local and state police withdrew from the protest areas. A young paralegal, Heather Heyer, was killed when a white nationalist protester drove his car into a group of counter protesters.

 In October of 2017, the Synod Vice Presidents and the Council of Bishops met together in Chicago. I worked with our Bishop, Mark Holmerud, along with the Bishop and Vice President of Virginia, to start the Charlottesville Listening Project. I traveled to Charlottesville in November and began to meet with residents and survivors of the August violence. While my expectation was to spend time with UVA students, I received more attention from clergy, city employees, and educators.


 My first afternoon in Charlottesville, I met with Pr. Susan. She is an incredible dynamo. She asked me great questions, gave me good connections to follow up with and really gave me a faith-based workout about being intentional and understanding the degree to which Charlottesville is microcosm of a larger American problem. She said that we were missing the “Come home” message to our young adults. She said that for us to understand racism, we needed to get in touch with the pain of our own people and feel empathy for others. The next day, I walked through the UVA campus in 40 degree weather and up to the closest Lutheran church to meet with Pr. Viktoria. She is very engaged in the Charlottesville Clergy Collective. We talked about how she and members of her congregation were experiencing trauma. We talked about the way that more liberal clergy participate in two different groups; one into peace tactics only and the other is willing to engage in faith-based confrontation.

 One fall evening, I visited the spot where Heather Heyer was run down and killed by a White supremacist protester. Many others were injured as well. The evening streets were wet and slick as the leaves were falling. The streets were quiet and yet not quite still. As I walked down the hill with a friend to the spot of Heather’s sidewalk memorial, I felt the steepness and the slight narrowing of the street. I became increasingly aware of how people were easily trapped in this tight space. I could feel their panic. We stopped and stood at the memorial, reading the messages written in chalk on the wall, and observing a moment to honor the life of a young person who died for opposing racial bigotry. We prayed for Heather and for the community. In the same area of town, we stopped at the parking garage where a young African-American man was beaten brutally on the same afternoon. It was time for me to rest and reflect on all that I had seen and heard.

I attended an amazing event for the African American Teaching Fellows Legacy Dinner: Celebrating Diversity in the Classroom. This group raises money and supports early career African American teachers in the Charlottesville and Albemarle schools to increase diversity in the teaching pool of local public schools. It was an incredible event and the room of people had such a commitment to embracing diversity and loving one’s neighbor and children. I was introduced around to many people who were interested in my presence there and the room was full of love. It felt like a three-hour group hug after an unearthing of violence and trauma in their community. As a third-generation educator, it renewed my Spirit in the power of teaching to raise up more whole and healthy human beings.  My teacher ancestors were weeping inside of me; I came to Charlottesville, to the South to experience this level of understanding of the sacredness of teaching. We also had a rousing performance by an African American concert pianist and the keynote speaker, rocked the room with a calm, yet intriguing take on the power of diverse teachers to nurture wholeness in human beings.

 On Sunday, I was introduced to Pr. Viktoria’s congregation and I helped to distribute communion. When I was leaving, a man approached me and said how much he appreciated our project and that someone cared enough to listen. Then, he told me that Heather Heyer (the young woman who was brutally killed on August 13th) was his employee. They had just celebrated her five years at the firm the week before. Now, her desk was empty and her mother visited the law firm every week. As he talked, the tears started to well up for him and I hugged him. That said it all; real people, Lutherans and other members of their community are struggling with their traumas and it means so much to be heard. I listened a lot over the days of my trip and their stories changed me. All the pieces of love and Spirit and connectivity and living out our faith were all interwoven in my days and nights in Charlottesville. I was loved and welcomed in as a stranger. I was pressed to tell some of my own truths for the good of Holy Conversations.