On Saturday, as I tried to prepare for a class I’m teaching, I found myself instead glued to my computer screen as I watched a group of religious leaders, along with author Cornel West, slowly make their way, arms linked, down the streets of Charlottesville, VA. The live Ustream feed on Facebook showed them lining up in front of a Confederate statue in a park, police barriers next to them, as they silently witnessed their support for the town officials who want to remove the statue. Quietly, then with passion, they sang “This Little Light of Mine” and then offered a brief prayer – some of them in Spanish or in Arabic – for that moment.
I was filled with gratitude to see UUA President, Rev. Susan Frederick-Gray, there. I also saw other members of our clergy: Rev. Jeanne Pupke, Rev. Wayne Arnason, Rev. Carleton Elliott Smith, Rev. Kathleen Rolenz, and many more. They were there with leaders of many faiths, having answered the call to come to Charlottesville, sent out by Rev. Dr. William Barber and others.
Then, violence occurred – many injured, one dead; then, two more killed as a police helicopter, surveying violence on the ground, crashed. It was, I am told, the largest white supremacist demonstration of current days. It was terrible. It still is.
When I was in high school in Hamden, CT (just outside of New Haven) I was in the Drama Club crowd. It was a large school – about the size of Lexington High School – and if you were going to survive you had a niche group to connect to. Mine were the artsy kids. One of them, another lifelong UU, was Alison Jacobs, an African American, gorgeous, kind, smart young woman. We went everywhere together, and we were in LRY (precursor to groups like FUUY) at church. And one day, things just imploded. The mostly-Italian youth who hung together had been taunting the African American athletes…football and basketball players – and the race-baiting reached the boiling point. I walked into the cafeteria to see chairs flying, windows breaking, and kids running. I turned and ran too, away from the cafeteria, to my locker to grab my bags, and outside to the street.
As police streamed in and students ran, I was relieved to see one of our friends in a car who yelled to me, “Get in!” I did and, as we drove away, I said, “Where’s Alison? We have to get her out of here!” One person replied, “I saw her – she’s with the other black kids.” The reality hit me like a thud: of course. She had to choose where to go, and she chose safety in people who looked like her and were, in many ways, like her. Somewhere, a very big line had been drawn. It was the first time the reality of the division cause by race hit me, square in the face.
People sometimes strive for their ten minutes of fame. Hamden High got its ten minutes that week, as a short piece ran in Time Magazine about the race riot, one that became similar to others happening around the country at a time when race relations were going from simmer to boil. And then, there’s Charlottesville, right now – in 2017. And here we are, in nice, safe, Lexington and Arlington, believing that these things won’t happen in our town.
We should delude ourselves no longer: it was not that many years ago that the Westboro Baptist Church, spewing their hate-filled rhetoric, came into town. It is a somewhat-regular occurrence that white supremacist groups appear on the Lexington green to celebrate the ‘freedoms’ that the American Revolution yielded. We need to know that our voices – voices of UUs and other faithful people – must to be heard, now, to counteract the hate-filled rhetoric.
And I know this: this is why we have religious education…so that our children can learn about values that support equity and justice. This is why we go to worship whether we like the sermon or not – because in worship, we can share our values and find support for our message of love and hope.
Let us continue to pray that this does not happen in our town. But let us remember that it happened in Hamden, CT and Charlottesville, VA. And it can happen here. And we are called – all of us, of many ages – to learn the values of our faith and bring our faith to the public square, to make sure that freedom and justice and equity endure.
Interim Director of Religious Education