On Saturday in Charlottesville, one woman died and 19 others were injured when a man who, after rallying with white supremacist groups, rammed his car into a crowd. Earlier in the day, two law enforcement officers lost their lives when their helicopter crashed as they patrolled the building crowds.
On Friday, the movement “Congregate Charlottesville” gathered pastors in a direct, nonviolent action, stating, “Charlottesville has recently become a hotspot for national white supremacist organizations and demonstrations.”
Religious leaders have united across faith lines, states and nations with clear message: they will not ignore racist extremism. They will not do nothing.
The disagreement, in the most simple terms, was sparked over the planned removal of a controversial statue of Confederate general Robert E. Lee. But many regard Charlottesville as a testing point of how the nation will - or will not - confront white supremacy, a history of racism, and the growing inability to participate in civil discourse.
World Council of Churches (WCC) general secretary Rev. Dr Olav Fykse Tveit expressed his condolences to people who are grieving, and called for an end to violence. “Terror and violence against peaceful people seeking justice in Charlottesville must be condemned by all,” he said. “We are proud of moral leadership by clergy and lay people standing against this promotion of racism and white supremacy”. Tveit added “We stand in solidarity with those who continue to use nonviolent means to work against racism and extremism.”
Love over fear
On Saturday night, after a day of violence associated with a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia (USA), Rev. Brenda Brown-Grooms was praying.
“My heart aches for those who lost their lives and their families who grieve them; for those traumatized at the scene of the hit and run,” she shared. “I am praying for the runaway teen whose family traveled to Charlottesville, hoping to find him among the radicalized alt-right, and persuade him to come home.”
Brown-Grooms, pastor at the New Beginnings Christian Community in Charlottesville, says she comes from people who were enslaved in the state of Virginia. “In order to survive, God gave those who did not succumb to total, utter despair, the ability to see more than their eyes saw; to hear more than their ears heard; and hearts to hope past all hope.”
As pastors came to the pulpit on Sunday, she believed they would allow God to remind God’s people, that "weeping may endure for the night, but joy comes in the morning.”
United against hate
The pilgrimage of justice and peace takes courage: As the chaos unfolded, Rev. Alvin J. Horton, senior pastor at the First United Methodist Church in Charlottesville, found himself in a role of emergency responder.
“First United Methodist Church opened its doors and hearts to those who sought refuge from the mayhem, offering prayers, water, bandages, and counseling to more than a few terrified people who simply wanted to stand up to those who seek to divide,” he said.
“Clergy from many faith traditions were united in their opposition to the violence and hatred that were being visited upon our community. Their fearless response to the intimidation of flag-waving, baseball bat-wielding hate-mongers is a strong witness to the fact that love will not yield to hate.”
What sparks hope? Perhaps more important, what keeps that hope moving, traveling along a path with people who believe in a pilgrimage of justice and peace, whether in a small city, whole nation, or entire world?
Rev. Elaine Ellis Thomas, associate director at St. Paul's Memorial Church in Charlottesville and part of the leadership team of the Charlottesville Clergy Collective, believes the answer to these questions lies in the power of love to change minds and turn hearts.
“We are united in our commitment to stand on the side of justice and equity for all people,” she said. “We do not lose hope because of the support and encouragement we have received from around the globe; because so many have come together in these last days; and we know that the power behind us is far greater than the evil that confronts us.”
Broken hearts - but a way forward?
As world headlines reported on the events of one small city, those who lost loved ones, those who are traumatized, and those have failed to turn away from hate, are in the prayers of many.
Feelings of sadness still permeated the city on Monday. “I can only say that our hearts are broken at the violence and hatred,” said Rev. Liz Emrey, a colleague of Rev. Brown-Grooms at the New Beginning Christian Community in Charlottesville. “This is the time for us to mourn for city and for our country. This is the time for us to reach out and take the hands of everyone around, Including those who came to the rally wanting to stand up for the statue.”
Emrey believes people need to reach out in love to one another. “Anger and hatred have a no place in Charlottesville,” she said. “As part of the faith community, we need to offer a way for everyone to heal. None of us believes that a statue is worth dying for, or killing for.”
“Things have just gotten out of hand,” she said. “We need to have a time to talk together.”