Why I Went to Charlottesville
August 23, 2017
By Kathleen Kelleher, Mercy AssociateGod works in mysterious ways.
At an Advent retreat last December I listened to an older woman struggle to make sense of the U.S. presidential election. She said, “I don’t want to be a good person who does nothing.” I nodded in agreement, wondering what I would do with my own disbelief and foreboding. Fast-forward to Lent; I was invited to offer a reflection at a Good Friday service on the 11th station of the cross, Jesus is crucified. I began by singing the refrain from the African-American slave spiritual, “Were You There When They Crucified My Lord?” I then reflected the following:
“I wonder where I would have been? Would I have stayed to witness Jesus’ last moments of being one of us? Could I have functioned through the shock and trauma to comfort anyone else, or would fear and survival have ruled me? I am grateful that I have not been tested; or, are we all called to witness the crucifixions of today? Can I still tremble or am I numb to new attrocities? Some ask, ‘How can a loving and merciful God allow it all?’ But I do not blame God, then or now. I ask myself, how am I crucifying Jesus today? When I reject another and turn away, when I judge and don’t make room in my heart or home, when I’m too tired to make an effort? When will my love and courage rise, when and where will I stand for something?”
Fast-forward again to the end of July. A colleague forwarded me an email from a resident of Charlottesville, Virginia; the city’s faith community was calling for a 1,000 clergy, Catholics in particular, to come stand against a planned alt-right/white supremacist rally. At first I thought the best use of my time would be to pass the request along to faith and social justice networks I knew in Washington, D.C.
However, as the days moved closer to the rally, the information coming out of Charlottesville was sobering if not frightening; violence was not only threatened, but promised. I began to back off organizing others to go and discerned that I needed to go. My courage was bolstered by a friend in faith who is no stranger to putting right faith into right action. We would journey together and, in word and deed, join with the Body of Christ, once again being crucified by the coalescing of hearts and minds that have turned away from God. As the Irish political philosopher Edmund Burke said, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” So we two Catholic women went to be a prayerful presence, witness and opposition to free speech that is hateful, false, and inciting. We carried signs that read, “The Body of Christ is present” and “Who is my sister, my brother?”
We went because we were asked, because we could, and because it was important to say, “This is not who we are.” We went for those who could not go, for those told to stay home or go back home for their own safety. For those who fought this fight in the 1860s, 1940s, 1960s and for those who never stopped fighting because racism and anti-Semitism never stopped. For all people who are hated for who they are, for where they come from, for whom they love and for how they worship. For the Jewish woman who hadn’t gone home since July, when her Charlottesville address was chanted outside her place of work. Because nooses are being left in public places; because black men, innocent or not, are being shot dead in American streets. For my friend Harry from South Chicago, whose mother was on the bridge at Selma; for the memory of my friend Dave who labored on a chain-gang for registering blacks to vote. For friends and coworkers who could still be lynched, shot, fired, not hired, or denied housing because they do not look like me. For the University of Virginia student who screamed in panic, “Where are you America?” while tiki-torch bearing white supremacists marched through his campus. For Heather Heyer, whose last public posting read, “If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention.”
We went because it was the right stand to take at this time of national confusion, rage, false narratives and empty promises. We were told that it was not smart to go, but we did not go because it was smart. Is this a new moment in our American experiment? Can we be outraged and pay attention long enough to finally debride the wounds of racism and anti-Semitism, which only survive as long as they are taught and learned? America seems broken at this moment in time, and it is up to all who call her home to stand up and heal her.