“O, let America be America again—
The land that never has been yet—
And yet must be—the land where every [one] is free.
The land that’s mine—the poor [one]’s,
Indian’s, Negro’s, ME—
Who made America,
Whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain,
Whose hand at the foundry, whose plow in the rain,
Must bring back our mighty dream again.”
~ “Let America Be America Again” by Langston Hughes
With a heavy heart, I write to you about the state in which I was raised, the Commonwealth of Virginia. On Friday, hundreds of white supremacists representing many racist organizations from across the country descended on Charlottesville, home of the University of Virginia and Unitarian-friendly president, Thomas Jefferson. Ostensibly, Saturday’s rally was booked to again protest the removal of Confederate statues and names from public spaces in the city, but it had another goal: to normalize white nationalism and terrorize Americans of color.
There is so much to say and write (and much has been) about this second large gathering of white supremacists in Charlottesville, Virginia. Here are a few of my thoughts: as Pastor John Pavlovitz wrote, it is necessary for us to name what has and is happening in the United States: racism, domestic terrorism, religious extremism, a “terrible, putrid sickness.” Author James Baldwin wrote that no problem can be changed if it is not faced, and we must face that racism has infected the body of the United States if we mean to cure ourselves of it. I am proud of the interfaith clergy, including our new UUA president Rev. Susan Frederick-Gray, who arrived in Charlottesville to put their bodies between armed white nationalists and counter-protestors (see photo); you can read her blog about the experience here . I am amazed by the huge response of anti-racists who showed up in Charlottesville to declare racism an un-American value. I also recognize most of those rallying for white supremacy were young adults — it shows we have much work to do in my own generation to stop the spread of racist ideologies. I am appreciative of police officers who worked to stop violence on the streets of Charlottesville, and sit with the reports that they did far less than what was needed to keep counter protestors safe. I find myself surprisingly proud of politicians who have the courage to speak out clearly against neo-Naziism — shouldn’t that be simple, nearly reflexive?
And, of course, my heart breaks for thirty-two-year-old activist, Heather Heyer, who was killed by another young adult who, poisoned by white nationalism, drove his car into a crowd of anti-racist counter-protestors. Many are calling Heyer a martyr to the cause of racial equity, the latest in a long line that includes our spiritual ancestors Rev. James Reeb and Viola Liuzzo, who were killed at the marches in Selma. I hold her family and friends in my prayers, as well as the communities of the two police officers killed in a surveillance helicopter crash and of those who were injured by the rampant violence on Saturday. There are GoFundMe campaigns both for Heyer’s family and to support all those who were injured.
Oddly, I write to you from Virginia itself; while Charlottesville roiled, I was engaged in what I often do when I return to my home state: meeting a friend’s new baby, spending time with my parents, attending a wedding. Many of my high schools friends attended UVA or have lived in Charlottesville, and were devastated by the images popping up again and again in the news. I was comforted to attend my home church where the senior minister, Rev. David Miller, spoke about his experience as a clergy counter-protestor and the guest preacher, UU candidate for ministry John Monroe, called us all to greater love, creativity, and unwavering dedication to justice. I recognize that my relative freedom and safety to live in the United States as a progressive clergywoman — able to take a weekend to kiss a new baby, toast an old friend’s marriage, and attend worship as a congregant — was hard won by activists through the generations. The work of marching, calling our representatives, getting out the vote, serving the underserved, and demanding equal treatment, protections, and opportunity for all is not done yet.
As Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel wrote, “We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.” May we each and all offer our unique gifts to the cause of justice so that our church’s children’s children will not live with the fear of white supremacy and its violence.