Loving Charlottesville

Early on the morning of August 12, 2017, my husband and I woke up, got dressed, and drove a little over a mile to West Main Street in Charlottesville, Virginia. We find ourselves on West Main Street a lot; our favorite restaurant, Mel’s, is there—they have the best burger and the warmest welcome in town. On this particular morning it was too early for burgers but we parked near the restaurant anyway and walked together down the street.

As we made our way up the steps of First Baptist Church we found ourselves in a crowd; we all moved together toward the warmly lit stained glass and open doors. We were there to prepare for the day. I almost didn’t leave the house with my husband, but at the last minute I decided this was something I needed to be present for. We were hosting family that weekend and I knew this was the only chance I would have to gather in solidarity against the hate that would be expressed that day.

I didn’t take to the streets in protest, a decision that I’ve wondered about in the days since, but I did sit in a church that morning and pray over my friends who would. We sang. We prayed. I was filled with hope and inspiration as Dr. Cornell West spoke and other clergy and organizers from around the country gathered with our community to strengthen us for the day to come. Rumors reached us that there was danger outside the walls where we were gathered, and we had to stay there until it was safe to leave.

When we were allowed to leave, my husband and I walked back to our car and met up with family. We chose to spend the morning away from the center of town. We got word pretty quickly that before the Unite the Right rally was even scheduled to start things had devolved into violence, eventually resulting in one woman’s death.

I’ve really wrestled with how to share my reflections about August 12th. It’s been difficult to wrap my words around all of the things that happened in the days leading up to it and all the days since. It’s strange that it’s already been a year. For those of us who live in Charlottesville, we call it “August 12th,” but to the rest of the country—the world even—that day is known simply as “Charlottesville.”

I’m still caught off guard when I hear my town’s name dropped in conversations on podcasts and in other forms of media. It’s weird to live in the place that has become a rallying cry—for competing ideologies—around the country.

In general, the internet is not a generous place and at moments on August 12th and in the days after, I let people on Facebook and other social and traditional media shame me. I absorbed their opinions about how they would have responded and what my actions should have been. I watched in shock as people held up pictures of my town and my neighbors and used us to make whatever point they wanted, some I agreed with and many that I didn’t. I eventually just had to turn it all off.

This is part of why writing this blog post is so hard. I don’t want to add to the noise or to the pain. I don’t want to use my neighbors to make a point. It is tempting for me to use days like August 12th to prove to myself and everyone else that I am a good and faithful follower of Jesus, that I am showing up on the right side of history. But the truth is, I am a person full of sin. I mess up and I am still learning.

As I have reflected and written many revisions of this piece, I’ve struggled with what to share and what to hold close out of respect for my neighbors and our larger Charlottesville community. We are still healing. There’s a lot of uncertainty and distrust swirling around. As we approach August 12, 2018, we are once again preparing for the likelihood that members of the Alt Right, the KKK, and other iterations of white supremacist groups will return. Certain leaders have tried and failed to receive permits to gather here again. They have been denied protected access to our streets and parks, but it doesn’t seem likely that will actually deter them showing up.

I mentioned this in a previous post, but every Wednesday I must walk past the Robert E. Lee statue on my way to Spiritual Direction. When I do, I always think about “The Summer of Hate” as it has come to be known. It was the call for the removal of this statue, and its brother Stonewall Jackson in a park down the road, that sparked last summer’s violence. Honestly, I didn’t even know the men’s specific roles in our country’s history when I moved here. I grew up in a part of Texas which is not culturally The South and I didn’t learn much about the Civil War. Some streets and schools were named after Confederate figures, but I didn’t realize what they did or who they were. Unfortunately, learning history makes me sort of glaze over unless I am studying it in context.

I am now in context.

When I moved to Charlottesville in March of 2017 after marrying my husband, who is a pastor here, I quickly realized how little I knew about the Civil War. I had to ask a lot of questions to understand why people would still choose to fly the Confederate flag even though they lost the war and especially when it communicates such hate. I had—still have—a lot to learn. All of the history I received growing up in school was told primarily from the perspective of white males—I need a broader and deeper understanding. I chose to listen first to my African-American neighbors’ experiences. I made an extra effort to attend presentations on our local history of race and to begin reading and listening to more perspectives. It was and is important for me to take the time to learn the history of my new home—the good and the bad.

Because of what I’ve learned I cannot speak about my love for Charlottesville without also speaking of the horrific treatment my neighbors have endured over the past centuries and up to this moment.

And I do love Charlottesville; it’s beautiful here. I’m obsessed with the mountains that are always in view in the distance. The food is wonderful. I live within walking distance of the Downtown Mall where little shops and restaurants line a cobblestone street and an outdoor concert venue pulses music into my backyard. I love that I get to walk my dog here twice a day and that I have met so many friendly neighbors. I love that my neighbors don’t all look like me or think like me. I love that we actually have seasons here and I can enjoy my balcony almost year-round.

There are so many things to love, but I learned very quickly as I settled into life here that not everyone is made to feel safe. Not everyone can enjoy these spaces to the same extent I do. It upsets me that many of my neighbors have felt especially uncomfortable in our parks and Downtown Mall because of the hate emboldened last summer. I confess that I’ve only recently made the choice to learn about and face the privilege I have as a white, middle-upper class, abled, heterosexual Christian woman.

August 12th wasn’t the first gathering of white supremacists in our town last summer. On July 8, 2017, the Ku Klux Klan showed up to protest the removal of the statues. That day, I gathered with many others in the sanctuary of the First United Methodist Church because it sits very near to the parks where the statues stand. We offered prayers and a space to rest and reflect for those who chose to meet the KKK in the park in protest.

On that day I wondered, “have I done enough?” Had I been faithful to my call to follow Christ and to love my neighbor?

On August 12th and all the days since, I’ve wondered the same thing.

What I have learned over the past year, though, is that I have to be faithful to Christ alone. If I bend to shame as I try to answer this question, I am worshiping my own image and the opinions of others over God.

I am no longer who I was on August 12, 2017. God has grown me through countless conversations, podcasts, books, documentaries, and times of prayer. I have grown as I have worshiped with my own church community even as we differ in our opinions on all sorts of topics.

This is the grace of this walk with Christ: we are not left where we once were. I will continue to grow and understand and hopefully use my privilege in more and more effective ways for the sake of my neighbors and my own humanity. We have the freedom to grow and to move forward and to learn what it means to really love where we live and the neighbors we live with, even when loving is hard. We are never left alone. There are a multitude of people here in my town responding in their own faithful ways. They are in my church. They belong to different faith communities and traditions. They are my neighbors who check on each other and on me. I believe that God is taking all of these humble, failure-rich offerings and working them together for something good.

This is long, hard work. It is justice work that will hopefully lead to peace. White supremacy is present in the very structure of our country; it did not just show up on August 12th. Facing this is difficult and it cannot be solved in one day or one protest. It requires showing up again and again, having uncomfortable conversations, and learning to listen to those who have been hurt, systemically and generationally, because the sin of white supremacy is still prevalent in white privileged people.

In many ways I see Charlottesville as a microcosm for the reality of what our country is facing. We certainly aren’t moving through this difficult space perfectly, but my hope and prayer is that we will continue to see the redemptive work of the Spirit of God bring reconciliation that is far beyond our human capabilities. It is humbling to walk with Christ in this pursuit.

Liz Andrasi Deere is a Texan living in Charlottesville, Virginia with her husband and puppy. She loves food, trees, travel, and practicing hospitality—both offering and receiving it. Liz graduated from Truett Seminary with her Master of Divinity and is a freelance writer and editor. She shares some of her writing each week on her blog Lamplight Stories.

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