Faith and community are key to combating white supremacy, according to various interfaith leaders who spoke in two virtual events Wednesday.
Both events, which featured local faith-leaders from various religions, focused on the experiences of those individuals over the weekend of Aug. 12, 2017 and the work that has been done since.
“Praying With Our Feet: Religious Activists Remember the Unite the Right Rally in Charlottesville,” featured a panel of clergy who worked to combat the white supremacist views espoused at 2017 rally.
Moderated by Jalane Schmidt, an associate professor of religious studies at the University of Virginia, the panelists spoke candidly about their experiences and how the rally challenged and strengthened their belief.
Rabbi Rachel Schmelkin, who served as associate rabbi for Charlottesville’s Congregation Beth Israel from 2016 to 2020, said the rally served as a wake-up call for her and other members of the Jewish faith that it was important to actively combat white supremacy.
“I really had a deep sense deep within me that ignoring white supremacists and neo-Nazis was not an acceptable response to what was about to occur,” she said. “I think … Jews know all too well that uncontested fascists quickly turns deadly.”
Don Gathers, a deacon at First Baptist Church, said that the training he underwent prior to the rally was heavy and instilled in him the fact that someone could die at the rally. After the rally was broken up by police as it devolved into violence, counterprotester Heather Heyer was killed when white supremacist James Alex Fields drove his car into a crowd on Fourth Street.
Above all, Gathers said, he learned to use nonviolence to combat hate.
“The teachings of civil disobedience through nonviolence, to not respond to the evilness that’s presented in front of you, that’s the difficulty we continue to face,” he said. “Being able to bear all that hatred as it presents itself but still trying to speak to a soul that dwells within, that’s where the true dichotomy of man presents itself.”
For Grace Aheron, a graduate of UVa’s Religious Studies Department and communications director for Showing Up for Racial Justice, her work preparing for the rally taught her that activism is a lot more than just showing up for a day or two.
As a member of the Christian faith, Aheron said she has tried to model her life after Jesus, whose life she said was a lot more than miracles and glamour, but also a strong emotional component that helps sustain justice movements.
“When I think about … my spiritual disciplines of training that I learned that summer, some of it was learning how to be in principled conflict with people, it was learning how to say sorry and mean it and stay in relationships,” she said. “It was learning how to be accountable for my actions and hold my friends accountable for their actions because we want to be growing together.”
Just prior to “Praying With Our Feet,” another virtual interfaith event touched on similar topics via a video service.
Hosted by the Charlottesville Clergy Collective, the service featured more than 30 leaders from seven faiths reflecting on 2017 and efforts to remove Confederate statues.
The approximately 40-minute long video highlighted several local voices, including Apostle Sarah Kelly, a pastor at Faith, Hope, Love International Healing & Deliverance Center, who grew up in a racially segregated Charlottesville.
Growing up, Kelly said she would have to walk past what was then Lee Park in order to reach the Paramount Theater. Each time she and her family passed she said they were harassed by white people in the park, the same park that Black residents were not allowed to visit.
“We would have to pass Lee Park where there was more than likely gatherings of white people and in those white gatherings there was always someone mocking us, taunting us as we would go by,” she said. “It was a very frightening place to go by.”
Tom A. Gutherz, a senior rabbi at Congregation Beth Israel, shared his experiences and the experiences of his congregation during the rally weekend.
Gutherz said he and many of the older members of the congregation — some of whom are survivors of the Holocaust — were shocked to see young people openly spouting anti-Semitic phrases they’d heard decades ago in Germany.
Historically, Jewish people have been a common target for people looking to “other” their neighbors and replace them, Gutherz said. The idea of “us and them” needs to end, he said, and he invited viewers to move past ideas of division.
“Reject this lie that sets up so-called ‘true Americans’ versus ‘foreign invaders,’ that imagines a noble race and culture — call it Aryan or white or western or whatever — versus allegedly inferior races and religions and cultures,” he said. “Reject this form of thinking and resist it even as it speaks loudly in some corners of our society and even as it is cynically manipulated to divide us.”