Charlottesville in Virginia hit world headlines in 2017 during clashes between white supremacists and neo-Nazis who attacked protestors, including clergy, calling for the removal of a controversial statue.
The attack by the extremists in the small U.S. city led to the deaths of three people.
One of the American founding fathers, Thomas Jefferson, once had his home there, but one of its parks also has a statue of General Robert E. Lee.
Lee led the side fighting to retain slavery during the 19th century Civil War, and Rev. Seth Wispelwey was one of a group of clergy and laypeople among those calling for his statue’s removal.
Wispelwey, a United Church of Christ (UCC), minister grew up in Charlottesville and moved back there several years ago with his wife and daughter.
Shortly after moving back, walking with her father one day, his daughter asked about a prominent statue in the park.
“I explained that statue was a general from the Civil War, the war related to the freeing of the slaves,” Wispelwey recalls.
“Using perfect kid logic, she said that of course he fought for freeing the slaves. I had to say, no, that he fought to maintain slavery.”
His daughter asked: “So why is there a statue of him?”
Wispelwey, directing minister of Restoration Village Arts in Charlottesville, didn’t have an answer at the time.
But from that encounter, and from others, he came to realize that a good part of the combatting racism is having the guts - both spiritual and physical - to show up.
To say something. To refuse silence. To come up with an answer.
“We have to name these things and claim these things,” says Wispelwey, recalling the way events unfolded on 12 August 2017.
He is proud and grateful for the few hundred clergy and laypeople who joined together to counter the white supremacists who marched in the usually quiet college town
But he also thinks about those who didn’t attend.
“Summer of hate”
“I wanted to impress on them the urgency of showing up,” says Wispelwey. With other clergy, he felt called to mobilize when their town needed them, publicly bearing witness during what they later called the “Summer of Hate.”
Speaking bluntly, Wispelwey says that in some ways, the haters - that is, the 500 Nazis and white supremacists who marched in Charlottesville – displayed more honesty than their supposed opposition.
“They grew up in a country where, from the age of birth, you just absorb it.” It says you’re king, “by simple virtue that you’re born a white man in the USA. You’re top of the heap.”
U.S. public institutions have failed, Wispelwey says, “for not taking the systemic evil of white supremacy seriously enough. It’s sort of the fabric that knits our society together - a fabric purposely structured to maintain white supremacy.”
Now, six months later, Wispelwey terms it “a weird journey.”
Congregate Charlottesville started as a group of pastors willing to “show up” and stand up against white supremacists. It has grown into a standalone nonprofit, and Wispelwey remains on its advisory board.
Congregate Charlottesville’s genesis came to Wispelwey and his friend, Rev. Brittany Caine-Conley, more than a year ago, long before the unrest on 12 August.
“We needed a mechanism for faith leaders,” he says. “I asked: what if we had a mechanism where we train people up?”
Train people to stand for peace; protest nonviolently; show up for justice.
Starting in mid-July, Congregate Charlottesville hosted training. People wanted to be ready for what was to come to their town. They knew the potential severity, and Wispelwey had trained and participated in nonviolent civil disobedience in troubled zones before.
Still, the Summer of Hate was unprecedented in Charlottesville, and preparing was shown to have been vital.
Around 70 people showed up for training each week, most of them laypeople.
“At the training, we’d do everything from singing to practical simulations,” explains Wispelwey. They also trained in how to prepare to be arrested.
Often Wispelwey is asked: did you know it was going to be so bad? “The truth is we were preparing people for violence and death. This was such a raw trust episode.”
Since that day, Charlottesville has become - for better or worse - known as “ground zero” for a fight against racism that has spread across the USA.
Congregate the nation
Wispelwey hopes to see Congregate Charlottesville’s model replicated across the country. At the same time, he acknowledges there is still significant healing needed in Charlottesville.
“We’ve all been so shocked and traumatized,” he says, “and we were in the position of building the airplane while flying.”
Requests for more information have swamped Wispelwey and his colleagues on how to create anti-racism groups for churches. “It doesn’t just have to be for urgent situations - racism is both urgent and systemic.”
As Congregate Charlottesville progresses, Wispelwey can return his attention to Restoration Village Arts, a retreat, learning and action community for artists and ministers creating resources within today’s liberation movements.
“I want to show that transformational work is possible, and already happening.”
And that is what Wispelwey and his peers created on 12 August. “We stood together to say that God is not okay with this.”
Can we overcome systemic sin?
Every U.S. community needs to be involved in the long, hard work of overcoming the systemic sin and evil of white supremacy, Wispelwey says.
“How do we get churches mobilized in an urgent yet long-term way?”
And what does one do with the anger at white supremacists and other racists?
“I think anger is a natural and good human emotion,” says Wispelwey. “At times, I still have rage and my anger is connected to my mourning.”
Wispelwey is angry with those who hid behind insufficient excuses and did not stand up against racism.
“I heard many prominent reasons and excuses that allow for the belief that we can opt out. I was told in these long exchanges over email and through conversations that we were inciting violence by showing up.”
What will it take for the USA to change?
“It is going to take hard honesty and divestment from the lie of white supremacy and patriarchy,” says Wispelwey.
How can you help? Bring your body and risk it, Wispelwey says. “White people need to be much more honest and blunt with each other. Show up.”
National Council of Churches (USA) Endorses Sweeping Initiative to End Racism, starting 4 April 2018
In Charlottesville, can “the power of love” prevail? (WCC press release of 14 August 2017)