We Sang ‘This Little Light of Mine’ As Torch-bearing Neo-Nazis Surrounded Our Church

by Leah Wise

I have lived in Charlottesville, Virginia, for five years. I used to work along the city’s Downtown Mall, the shop-lined pedestrian street where Heather Heyer was killed this weekend by a participant in a neo-Nazi rally.

The place I viewed as a microcosm of Charlottesville’s contented citizens and progressive politics—packed with townies in hiking gear or polo shirts and families making their way to the children’s museum—turned into a landmark for racist violence.

Inspired by the legacy of its beloved founder, Thomas Jefferson, Charlottesville is a town enamored with its values. We pride ourselves on community, innovation, and progress. Yet, throughout the city’s history, the economically secure white population has experienced a very different Charlottesville than the rest.

It took me a while to realize the extent of segregation in the city, but the signs were there. Beyond the racial segregation by neighborhood, there’s the cultural divide between conservative Southerners and liberal-leaning University of Virginia (UVa) professors and grads. Heightened economic disparity and rising housing costs in this “happiest town in the USA” certainly aren’t helping. We are united by our bordering-on-idolatrous love for our city, but sometimes that’s all that connects us.

Because of this demographic diversity, Charlottesville lives in the tension of its progressive values and its failure to live up to them. Nothing more effectively demonstrates this tension than the events of last weekend. While the majority of white supremacist protesters were not from here, notable UVa grads Jason Kessler, who initiated and organized the rally, and Richard Spencer, who popularized the term alt-right, were determined to make Charlottesville the center of their movement. They believed they could get a foothold here.

An estimated 600 self-described neo-Nazis traveled to Charlottesville last weekend, some of their faces now made infamous by haunting photos on the news. Our town of 46,000 people, anticipating as many as 2,000 attendees, started planning counter-protests and events as soon as word got out about the “Unite the Right” rally, advertised as the event that would consolidate white supremacist authority and start a national movement.

Among the people I know in Charlottesville, debates broke out over the right way to respond. No one show up. Everyone show up. Protest the police. Attend counter events far removed from the city center. I tried to prioritize pragmatic, ethical, and popular tactics to decide what I would do. And then, of course, there was the question of what my faith commanded me to do.

Having grown up in a patchwork of evangelical and mainline Christian traditions, I know that “there is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28). Jesus commands us to care for the “least of these” (Matt. 25:40), and for me, inaction would be a denial of my baptismal vow to “seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself.”

So I ended up going to church.

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SOURCE: Christianity Today

Leah Wise writes on sustainable fashion, social justice, and personal faith, primarily at stylewise-blog.com. She lives with her husband in Charlottesville, Virginia, where she works in lay ministry in the Episcopal Church. She tweets as @stylewiseblog.