Reflections from Charlottesville – Part 2

Reflections from Charlottesville - Part 2

By Elaine Whitney, Synod Vice President

Part 2 – Reconciliation: Welcome the Stranger

Q:  Who is my neighbor?  Why is it important to pull our community back together?

A:  My neighbor is anyone who crosses my path. We need our whole community to feel the presence of God and resist the temptations of discrimination.

I had four appointments on a warm spring day; three were with pastors and one was with an employee of the Human Rights Commission.  Each person had incredible stories to share; each person had heavy burdens to carry and soulful pain. I have not fully processed it all, but I know that I offered something important with listening and responding.

The pastor who helped me “hack into” the network of pastoral resistance (Congregate C’ville) is a young man (early thirties) who exhausted his local networking connections to gather clergy to stand between White protesters and multi-ethnic counter protesters on August 12, 2017.  The result for him is that he has been disconnected from most of his networks of support. He is a White man from Charlottesville, a graduate of UVA, and could have been a “good old boy”, and instead he is committed to place his body and soul in the way of oppressive forces for the sake of the Gospel. He’s rebuilding his associations and has paid a steep price for following his conscience. He is committed to transformative work and examining truth from different perspectives. He said that the community has a need for healing and for safe spaces. He said that we need braver allies in resisting racism. He works to get privileged people to confront their complicity in oppression and join in radical inclusion and hospitality. I brought my communion kit with me and used it several times to bring a moment of peace to people who really needed to feel God’s love and the communion of God’s people.

Charlene, an African American woman, works for the Human Rights Commission. I was immediately struck by the way she could balance the needs of many residents, from phone calls to drop-in appointments, from local allies to requests for community meetings.  She feels relatively safe in Charlottesville and thinks that it is a good place to raise a family. She likes the ability to connect with her neighbors in a small city.  She found that after the August violent events people had a heightened sensitivity about racism, especially White people.  Several smaller clashes and demonstrations of force had happened in the months prior to the August events. Charlottesville officials were not prepared to control violent outbursts and protect its citizens. Anxiety among the residents is continuously rising as the anniversary dates approach. The inadequate public safety response from last year has people worried about violence, mayhem, and death. She said that White supremacists aren’t only outsiders; some of them live in Charlottesville, too. Charlene provides a well-researched presentation in the racial and ethnic history of Charlottesville.  She said that some people want more, to get beyond just “feel good” events. Charlottesville is a liberal bubble in a conservative state. The August events were overwhelming and created a “fog” in Charlottesville that has persisted. The lack of resolution of violent acts and resistance has left the community unable to heal. People are beginning to ask city officials, “What is the strategy for change? What should we focus on? How can we engage in discourse and not allow violence?”

I spent time on the Downtown Mall before dinner one evening. I found a seat in the shade, that wasn’t a part of a restaurant’s seating. There were three seats and I took one and an older Black gentleman was sitting out in what seemed to be his “regular seat”. He knew all the Black ladies who passed by him and he was quite charming in an unpretentious way.  We talked a little and he said he was a retired teacher. He encouraged me go listen to the music that started after 5 p.m. Then, a Black guy in his forties came up and sat in the third seat between us. He had been drinking hard liquor and was seriously hurting. He said, “I don’t bother anybody.  Nobody should bother me.” He was a veteran of the Marine Corps and he had seen and done mortal harm to others. He didn’t really know why he was alive and he just needed to be in a safe space with other people. He said, “Ma’am, I apologize but I’m going to use profanity.” We sat and talked about being grateful for the day and for the small blessings that God sends to us to give us hope. The weather was warm, and I was glad for shade and rest; I was overwhelmed by my day and I transitioned to evening with two Black gentlemen that I didn’t know because God had made a way.

My time in Charlottesville was different than my time at home. I spent some time just being a physical human being there; listening, tasting, smelling, moving, touching, watching, and appreciating. That night, a friend and I had dinner at a restaurant on the Downtown Mall and then we walked down the street to Sprint Pavilion.  The City and businesses sponsor free music and dancing at Fridays after five. The seats and stage are tented and there are sun-splashed grassy areas as well. The security guard checked my bag on our way into the “party area” and he wanted to know what was in my kit.  He thought it might be medical (scary syringes or scalpels or something) but I opened it and explained that it was a communion kit. We made our way down to some seats near the dance area and stage where Mighty Joshua, a reggae band, was playing.  It felt good to enjoy the music and it was fun to people watch. The vibe was peaceful and relaxed. The crowd was interracial and intergenerational; one love, you know. It was truly beautiful!

 

In Charlottesville, I brought my vulnerable and curious self. I looked for signs of hope and renewal; I wanted to bring the love of God to the people of God. I felt loved and open to being loved. When I am at work, I bring my defensive and cynical self. I am tired of trying to be hopeful at work and I look for opportunities to gain an advantage or to not lose an inside track. I hope to bring more of my loving-self back to work; to listen more with a disciple’s heart, to be compassionate even if only for a moment and to live out my faith wherever I am.

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