My friend was in Charlottesville to offer a non-violent presence when the recent chaos erupted.
Ann and I have served together for more than a decade as pastors at Massanutten Presbyterian Church. I know her to be a faithful pastor with a keen mind, a compassionate spirit, and a servant’s heart.
And, for what it’s worth, she’s also a hoot.
Ann is also my friend.
While I was grateful she decided to go to Charlottesville, I confess that I was afraid for her. Each time my phone buzzed throughout that Saturday, I rushed to answer to find out if Ann and her daughter, Brigid, were still safe. And I was so relieved to get the text that they had arrived home safely.
In the days since, Ann has processed the things she saw and heard in Charlottesville. Through her sharing, she has also opened my eyes to things I have been slow to understand. I asked her to share her thoughts by way of an interview on my blog, and I am thrilled that she agreed. I am confident you will be as well.
How did your decision to go to Charlottesville happen?
It started with an email, forwarded by a colleague.
The subject line read: Clergy Call for love over fear in Charlottesville.
On August 12, will you please join us in prayer and in person in Charlottesville, Virginia? We call on white clergy, especially, to join us in person. This is a call for partnership in direct, nonviolent action on a crucial day for our city, and in a critical moment for our country. We need your prayerful presence.
What were your initial thoughts upon reading that?
There was a time when I might have simply deleted the message, a time when such activism was just ‘not me’ – my Call is to pastoral ministry, not to stir up trouble. Even the day I received it, late in July, I was conflicted on how to respond. My understanding and convictions about justice, mercy and faithfulness have deepened over the years – but I’m not an activist. That word – activism – has always conjured up images of strident and aggressive rhetoric spewed at people in demeaning ways. That’s just not who I am.
How did you get past that initial thinking?
A story I recently heard on the radio stirred me. A writer, Michele Oberholtzer, took a job to make ends meet, riding a bike around the city of Detroit, evaluating homes in foreclosure. Invariably, the homeowner would come talk to her. Sometimes, she discovered, they didn’t even know their homes were in foreclosure, so she became the face of that heartbreaking news. Michelle knew at the foreclosure auction, $500.00 could be all it would take to buy back the home, but $500.00 might as well have been $500,000.00 for these families. Michele found herself compelled to do something; she set up a fund soliciting donations, and when she thought she had enough money, she watched the auction and made the bid. Sometimes it was the winning bid, and a family’s home would be saved. This job, which started simply as a way to make money, changed her life. Her experience with the people moved her and compelled her to do something. In the end, she said ‘I’m an activist, because all you have to do to be an activist is to take action.’
Michele’s story changed how I see activism – it became a logical response when injustice and opportunity intersect. As I considered this call to take action in Charlottesville, her words swirled around in my head; at what was almost the 11th hour, I replied with my plans to be there on Saturday – to come and worship and pray; to be present in a non-violent, faithful response to protests that day.
What exactly did you do in Charlottesville?
I began by attending the 6:00 am worship service at West Main Street First Baptist Church. Speakers from near and far offered faithful and encouraging words, even as they clearly named Racism and white supremacy as the sins that they are, and acknowledged their insidious hold on all of us.
When we left the sanctuary, those of us not trained for direct action marched to McGuffey Park, where we heard from more community members as well as those who had traveled to take a stand against hate.
Are you glad you responded to the Clergy Call?
Yes, but I regret my slow response, and I confess my reluctance to go at all. I regret I didn’t go on Friday, to join with other clergy in the training to be part of the non-violent direct action – even as I am grateful we were safe and unharmed.
What did you learn from your participation?
My understanding of privilege was deepened by simply choosing to do the safe thing – a choice available to me by virtue of the color of my skin. Our nation’s racial history makes that clear, as does every racially motivated crime and protest that hits the news. But it’s clear in other ways: driving my car, walking down the street, meandering around a store, talking on the phone – all of these things and many more make me aware of how much easier my life is because I am white.
Do you think you’ll do something like this again?
I do – that morning, I held fear, awareness and regret in tension as Brigid and I made our way to McGuffey Park. I know I’m just another white person beginning to come to terms with my part in an entrenched culture of racism, but I also know I have a choice with what I do with that. And more importantly as a person of faith, I am called to take action. And by God’s grace, I will.
Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates.
Waking Up White, and Finding Myself in the Story of Race by Debby Irving.