Reflections from Charlottesville – Part 3
by Kathye Hamm
By Elaine Whitney, Synod Vice President
Part 3 – Hope: Be the Church for the sake of the world
Q: Why is the Church important? How is Charlottesville like any other American community? Who is the most hopeful?
A: The Church brings us together with a promise of grace. Charlottesville has the same kinds of problems as other American communities. The most hopeful people are the ones who are least privileged and the most open to change.
To say that my cup is full, and overflowing would be an understatement. My time in Charlottesville was joyful, emotional, Spiritual, and educational. In my lifetime, an African American woman has been elected as a Synodical Bishop in the ELCA. The Church is changing. Sometimes, growth comes in spurts, painful in ways but so very necessary on our path to wholeness as a Church, as a people of God.
I met with Pr. Tracey and talked about faith and justice. She finds a sense of belonging in a Church that supports more non-traditional ministry. Her focus is becoming the embodiment of our Spiritual beliefs. She said that Whiteness and capitalism blind us to engaging in a Spiritual life. She advocates for White people to have an awakening. She is a pastor married to another pastor, and both are White Americans. She said that Whiteness is a false understanding about European ethnicity; that Whiteness demands amnesia about one’s ethnic history. Pr. Tracey is committed to fostering sacred conversations to end racism. She said that we must be specific in our efforts to resist racism. She said we need to decolonize our worship services and create dissonance with White supremacy.
Pr. Brenda is an African American woman in her sixties and a native of Charlottesville. By the time we were scheduled to meet in the afternoon, the weather was in the upper 80s and I didn’t relish leaving the cool, funky coffee house that I had my previous interview in. Pr. Brenda sent me an e-mail asking to conduct our conversation by telephone and so I agreed. She explained that she had accompanied someone to court in the morning, that she was a stroke survivor, and that her energy was falling. You can imagine that I didn’t want a stroke survivor to suffer a setback while trying to meet my needs. I was a little thrown off by not meeting in person because I try to let the conversations evolve organically; still, I wrote out some questions so that I wouldn’t stutter on the telephone or sandbag her time. She is an amazing person; she suffered a stroke at 43 years old and they did not give her much hope of recovering her mobility or her mind. She recovered both and learned, however, that when her body says she needs to rest, she rests. She is the co-pastor of a small congregation that takes the “rejects” from many other churches in Charlottesville. Her congregation welcomes people who have been incarcerated, those in recovery, and other people who are not welcome in houses of God. This was a fact that she found objectionable in other congregations, that some people “did not fit in” as children of God. She talked about how racism was not imported or new in Charlottesville. She talked about the housing crisis, the building of luxury condos with a mandate to build affordable housing but that developers could pay a fee and avoid building housing for working people. She talked about the racist history of the University of Virginia (UVA) and about her own struggle with the call to ministry as a woman. She talked about the importance of small congregations where pastoral care could go deep into building Spiritual growth.
I talked a little about my experiences and then I asked her if she had been with the group of pastors that stood between the White supremacy protesters and the multi-ethnic counter protesters. She said, “No, as a stroke survivor, if they had to run, the group would not be able to take care of me.” She told me that she was in their base camp at the church praying with people during that day of protest. My heart dropped. To think that these faith leaders put their bodies in harm’s way, knowing that they could have to turn and run; I had to force myself to breathe in a measured way. It hit me so hard; the call to peace and justice was so strong for this group that they could only send the able-bodied. When I had listened to Pr. Brenda, I asked her if I could pray for her. She was surprised, touched, and said that people didn’t pray for her; I prayed with tears in my heart for her because she is the real deal and she needs our prayers. I think it helped and she shared resources with me after we got off the phone.
I learned that Charlottesville is like other communities. They struggle with race and class issues, housing limitations, economic disparities, gentrification, social anxiety, public safety concerns, and quality of life challenges. Their difference is that they are living out their struggles on a national stage. My understanding of what it means to be on the front lines of advocating for justice has changed. I don’t meet many Black people who have lived in the South for their entire lives. My parents, their friends, and the Black community I grew up in were refugees from that life and we have lived more freely, if ignorantly, of the true cost of pervasive racial injustice. My heart still weeps but the love that Pr. Brenda shared with me in telling me her truth was liberating. I left my last meeting blown away, wandering up the Downtown Mall, being in the moment and waiting to meet a friend for dinner.
Resources from Charlottesville and beyond:
Congregate Charlottesville resources – https://congregatecville.com/read-me/
Charlottesville Clergy Collective – https://www.cvilleclergycollective.org/
Charlottesville: Office of Human Rights – http://www.charlottesville.org/departments-and-services/departments-a-g/city-manager-s-office/human-rights
United Church of Christ: Advocate for Justice – http://www.ucc.org/justice_issues
National Council of Churches: Advocacy for Justice and Peace – http://nationalcouncilofchurches.us/joint-action-and-advocacy-for-justice-and-peace/
ELCA: Racial Justice Resources – https://www.elca.org/Resources/Racial-Justice
The Episcopal Church: Resources for Racial Reconciliation and Justice – https://www.episcopalchurch.org/resources-racial-reconciliation-and-justice
Southern Poverty Law Center – https://www.splcenter.org/
African American Teaching Fellows – https://www.aatf.org/
National Geographic – “America Inside Out with Katie Couric” – https://news.nationalgeographic.com/2017/08/charlottesville-racism-confederate-couric/
June 18, 2019
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