Faith leaders: Unity, love needed in Charlottesville

Pastor Andy Ballentine could feel a terrifying energy Saturday in Charlottesville.

The pastor from Williamsburg's St. Stephen Lutheran Church was on the scene downtown, responding to a call from his bishop be a part of a peaceful interracial, interfaith gathering, to exemplify what community should look like.

Despite the palpable energy, Ballentine was marching among counter-protesting groups during what has become an internationally recognized event because of the violence that erupted.

"We were told to walk in groups, because individual clergy who were identifiable — you know, I was wearing my clerical collar and all — that the alt-right groups were harassing individuals," Ballentine said. "One of the bishops that came up was spat upon, as he was coming to the park."

He said the complexity of the hate and violence, both among the white supremacists and some of the armed counter-protestors, stunned him.

"We felt like we were staring at this neo-Nazi evil, and we could tell that there was going to be ... something was going to come down," he said.

The event Saturday was initially billed as a "Unite the Rite" rally against the removal of a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee from what was formally known as Lee Park. The city had previously agreed to rename the park as Emancipation Park and remove the statue.

The event quickly grew to include people who used the rally permit as a platform to support white supremacy, display swastikas and wear Klu Klux Klan regalia. Friction between the alt-right groups and several counter-protesting groups led to violent clashes.

Charlottesville resident Heather Heyer, 32, died when a car driven by a white nationalist plowed through a crowd of counterprotesters. Two Virginia State Police officers died when their helicopter crashed in Albemarle while monitoring the rally, the Associated Press reported.

Snuffing out evil

Clergy in the James City County area are banding together to diminish the chances of any similar tragedies occurring here. Part of that battle is understanding the problem.

"I would say that the root of the problem is the presence of evil in the world. There are any number of micro-opinions, but I think it's a big, big thing," said the Rev. Catherine Tyndall Boyd of St. Martin's Episcopal Church in Williamsburg. "This is a battle between good and evil."

Apart from general sin and evil, Pastor Daniel Willson of Williamsburg Baptist Church, who organized a multi-faith service after a 2016 nightclub shooting in Orlando, said he thought the racism and violence displayed in Charlottesville was a symptom of misplaced love — a hindering love of self that stops creation from flourishing.

"What we saw in Charlottesville was just a sad symptom of a reality that I think too many people in our country ignore. It's not just white supremacy as we think of it, neo-Nazis, white nationals and all that — but it's common in many attitudes still to ignore history, and how history has shaped our present," Willson said.

"The word futile comes to mind," Willson continued. "There's a futility, I think in persisting in the subjugation of other peoples. We opt for a past that is fading away, I believe — and for good reason."

Even if the racism is futile, Rabbi David Katz of Temple Beth El in Williamsburg said the events in Charlottesville have deeply unsettled his congregation, since some of the demonstrators were specifically targeting Jews with their chants.

"It's a combination of horror and some fear, and a distinct desire to express feelings of warmth, and to help make the world better — as well as to clearly express that this is not something that should take place in America," Katz said.

Katz said there could be a simple solution to such conflicts.

Understanding each other

"One of the deeper causes of some of the social unrest that is going on in society that manifested in Saturday's demonstrations," Katz said, "is a lack of knowledge and understanding about the 'other.'"

His convictions about estrangement between people groups have led him to officially kick-start a community organization he's had in the works for years, called Peninsula Historic Area Religions Together (Peninsula HART). Katz said this group aims to establish an infrastructure whereby community faith leaders can form relationships and start educational and community programming.

Katz said Peninsula HART will see people from different backgrounds asking questions like, "Who are you, and what do you believe, and what are you about, and what are your priorities, and how do you live in the world?"

The group, still in a nebulous form, is already highlighting the community's similarities rather than its differences.

"Rabbi Katz and I agree that love is what matters," Tyndall Boyd said, "and not just an intellectual exercise, but relationships with people who love each other on purpose."

Pastor Corwin Hammond of Chickahominy Baptist Church in Toano said he's determined to spread peace, love and unity among his congregants and the community.

He said one of his community efforts will be to help organize a demonstration in Williamsburg on Aug. 28, to commemorate the 54th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.'s March on Washington. But beyond that, he's going to continue to preach the faith he believes to his church.

"I refuse to allow the people that I pastor to become jaded by what they see, or to become confused by what is portrayed, and to make sure that we understand that every one of us, no matter what race, are children of God," Hammond said.

He said his faith contrasted everything that happened in Charlottesville last weekend.

"To claim white supremacy and Christianity is impossible, because to claim supremacy means that "I am a supreme being," but as a Christian, you're not supreme," Hammond said. "You understand that God the Father, God the Son and God the Spirit are supreme, and we are to walk in humility. And we are given a command to love your neighbor as yourself."

Ballentine said the events in Charlottesville not only went against the Bible's directive of equality, but also against Jesus' physical habits and practices.

"Jesus was weeping over that," Ballentine said. "Violence had no place in Jesus' teaching, and Jesus was open and welcoming and invitational, especially to those who were feeling oppressed, feeling like they were out in the margins. We just have to practice that radical hospitality in our community."

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