In Charlottesville’s ‘summer of hate,’ a Chinese American pastor found his place in the struggle for civil rights
On Aug. 12, 2017, I spent the day at First United Methodist Church, helping counterprotesters and faith leaders communicate while white supremacists, neo-Nazis and racists marched the streets of Charlottesville, my home town. The church was a sanctuary for counter protesters, where I witnessed people seek care after being bloodied and bruised by the violence that day.
Even though I’ve been a pastor for over 20 years, the experience changed my understanding of sanctuary.
In the weeks and days leading up to Aug. 11 and 12, 2017, I did not think I would directly respond to the Unite the Right rally.
I am a founding member and secretary of the Charlottesville Clergy Collective, an interfaith group formed to address racial justice after a white supremacist killed nine people at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Churc in Charleston in 2015. When the Ku Klux Klan planned to demonstrate against the removal of Charlottesville’s Robert E. Lee statue in July 2017, we heard that local police recommended that residents stay away from downtown. Some members of our collective were receptive to this suggestion, but others vehemently disagreed because they believed faith leaders should publicly show up to confront white supremacy.
Then came news of a much bigger demonstration of white nationalists in August — we in the Collective continued to grapple with our response.
For most of Charlottesville’s “summer of hate,” I did not know what my response should be either.
As an Asian, I didn’t “belong” in this conflict that seemed to play out along lines of Black and white. My ancestors were not a part of the history of slavery in the United States.
My family immigrated from Hong Kong in 1973 when I was 7, in anticipation of Hong Kong returning back to China in 1997. Growing up, I was raised to respect my elders and authority figures. I was taught to stay out of trouble. I spent much of my life assimilating into white culture by becoming a don’t-rock-the-boat “model minority,” a myth often used to pit minorities against each other. My sister and two cousins were the only Asians at my elementary school in Shreveport, Louisiana, and my classmates chanted at me: “Chinese, Japanese, dirty knees, look at these…”
I wanted to be accepted by my peers, so I smiled and walked away instead of responding. Those experiences informed my initial inclination to stay away from both rallies.
However, I remembered that during China’s communist Cultural Revolution, some of my ancestors were sent to re-education camps and my grandfather was harassed for being a business owner. I remembered that Asian Americans have not been safe from U.S. government discrimination, and that Japanese Americans were forced into incarceration camps during World War II.
On the morning of August 12, I heard about the chants of tiki-torch marchers who rallied at the University of Virginia the previous night: “Jews will not replace us. YOU will not replace us.” I wondered whether I, and other non-white community members like me, were also included in that derisive “you.” Whether I liked it or not, the struggle for civil rights has been a part of my past and is a part of my present.
To complicate matters more, in conversations with Collective members in 2016, I also realized that I have internalized racial bias against Black Americans even from a young age.
I remember one evening when I was 12, a Black man knocked on the door of our house in an integrated neighborhood in Shreveport, Louisiana. Peering through the curtains, I saw his car parked outside with the hood raised. Instead of helping, my family and I didn’t answer the door and stayed silent until the man finally went to another house. Looking back, I think I would have helped if that stranger were white.
I was a new immigrant, but I had already internalized a racist fear of Black men.
In 2017, when neo-Nazis, the Klu Klux Klan and finally the torch-bearing Unite the Right rally came to Charlottesville, the part of me that fought for civil rights struggled against the part of me that was trying to assimilate into white America.
The Charlottesville Clergy Collective ended up serving as a clearinghouse of information, resources and diverse educational and activism opportunities to counter the rally. I helped to facilitate and publicize various prayer vigils, meditation gatherings and worship services organized by different faith communities leading up to and on August 12.
One morning in July, I re-read Jesus’ first sermon preached in his hometown of Nazareth: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:18-19 ESV). And for that prophetic good news to fellow believers and to unbelievers and enemies, Jesus’ own people tried to lynch him.
This passage challenged me to do more, to join in the fulfillment of Jesus’ prophetic vision — to begin dismantling the captivity of my internalized racism against myself and others, to open my eyes to my complicity in systemic injustice, to contribute to the liberty of those who have been oppressed regardless of their faith and their race, and to realize that such action might invite trouble and rejection. As a result, I decided to participate in the direct action organized by another group of faith leaders.
Congregate Charlottesville was formed by Rev. Seth Wispelwey and Brittany Caine-Conley after the Ku Klux Klan rally in July 2017. They organized a militant, non-violent public action grounded in the Christian faith, and invited faith leaders from all over the country to join them in providing a prophetic public witness.
I participated in Congregate’s training the weeks leading up to Aug. 12 and signed up to provide communication support on that day. I worked alongside the Rev. Will Brown of University Baptist Church to monitor Facebook and Twitter accounts throughout the day to coordinate information about what was taking place on the streets as reported by legal observers, activists and faith leaders. We handled requests from reporters from all over the world asking to interview faith leaders about their perspectives and experiences.
Our “communication center” was housed in the library of First United Methodist Church (FUMC), which served as a sanctuary for those counter-protesting the far-right and white supremecist groups who marched that day. Under the leadership of Pastor Al Horton and Associate Pastor Phil Woodson, members of FUMC opened their doors and hearts to a diverse group of people who served as medics, counselors, legal observers, pray-ers, and “care bears” who brought water, snacks and first aid supplies to people in need.
On any other day, our differences and disagreements on a host of issues would have divided us and pitted us as enemies.
But not on that day.
While the media focused on the division and violence out in the streets on Aug. 12, inside the church I experienced a mosaic of people assembled toward a common goal. During those anxious hours, nobody debated the best strategies to make social progress. All we cared about was that we were human beings mobilizing our different gifts and strengths to take a stand against white nationalism.
As the day went on, I was moved to tears when some counter protesters returned seeking medical and psychological care after being pepper sprayed, tear gassed and bloodied.
I saw Rabbis Tom Gutherz and Rachel Schmelkin take to the streets after Shabbat service with members of Congregation Beth Israel to claim their right to exist in the face of neo-Nazi hate.
I heard FUMC leaders shouting for us to get inside because a shooter was seen approaching the church parking lot.
I saw young activists slumped on the floor comforting each other after witnessing the horrors of murder, when someone drove their car into a crowd, killing Heather Heyer and injuring dozens more.
Throughout that day, sister clergy members Apostle Sarah Kelly and Rev. Brenda Brown-Grooms, who were not physically mobile enough to march outside, prayed inside the sanctuary for the safety of all who were on the streets.
Prior to Aug. 12, I understood “sanctuary” as a safe space from the chaotic world where people gathered for worship. On Aug. 12, I experienced sanctuary as a brave place where diverse people of good will scattered into the world to work and witness for a more just society.
In this sanctuary, I can be who I am: a flawed person with internalized racial bias striving imperfectly toward healing and greater wholeness — in myself and in my community.