A Pastoral Response to Charlottesville

Our children will light our way through this eclipse

A letter to the congregation of Westminster Presbyterian Church, Auburn, NY,
from Rev. Patrick David Heery



Later today, while millions gather to watch the sun go black, my wife Jenna and I will stand in a cemetery with our sons Ezra and Leo, who died as stillbirths. We will place flowers and toys on their grave. We will hold each other, and we will cry. August 21, 2017, was the day they were supposed to be born. It was the day they were supposed to open their eyes and drink in the world. Instead, they lie in the ground, beneath heaps of dark dirt.

Today, millions will trust that, though the sky darkens, the light will return. Grief can be like that. The world grows cold and strange; you gasp. But you believe that this is not the end—that you will meet your children again, alive, in the arms of God. You believe, even when there’s no apparent reason to do so. Because, frankly, what else can you do? It’s that, or die.

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PHOTOGRAPH BY COLLEEN PINSKI, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC

Truth is I’ve been tired. Too tired with grief. Too tired sometimes to speak. But my children’s death compels me to speak now, in the wake of Charlottesville. To speak as your pastor, and as a father. Today, we—children and parents—will stand united, bound in grief and hope, staring up at the eclipsed heavens. There was nothing anyone could do to save our twin boys. But there are other parents who will today grieve children who could have been saved—and children who could yet still be saved.

I believe we stand upon the brink of one of the greatest threats to the gospel we’ve seen in decades. We must, as a church, stand now and speak out, or we risk forfeiting our souls to the all-consuming fire of hate—and the silence that condones it.

Today, Jenna and I will think of Heather Heyer, the 32-year-old woman killed in Charlottesville by a white supremacist in an act of terrorism. We will think of the approximately 275 other Americans killed in the last decade by right-wing extremists. We will think of the parents of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed child shot and denied justice because of the color of his skin. We will think of Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Jordan Edwards, and Philando Castile, killed by police. We will think of the five police officers shot in Dallas last year. We will think of the Charleston Nine, shot in a church. We will think of the 49 people killed in the Orlando nightclub shooting. We will think of the 14 people killed in Barcelona on Thursday, their deaths claimed by the terrorist organization the Islamic State. We will think of the hundreds of thousands of people in this country alone who have died, or will die, because of hunger, homelessness, violence, addiction, or lack of healthcare.

All of them children, fashioned in the grace of our Lord, filled with the dreams of their parents; all of them gone. An interminable eclipse.

Today, we will think of all their moms and dads, and the ocean of tears they’ve cried. We will think of Mary, the mother of Jesus, weeping at the base of a cross, cradling the crumpled body of her son, a brown Jewish boy executed by those who chose supremacy over love.

Two thousand years later, and it seems we are still making that choice.

These deaths are no more accidental than was Christ’s. They are the result of the deliberate dehumanization of entire classes of people, who have been deemed either expendable or vile. They are the result of hate, systemized in our economic, racial, and gender policies. They are the result of religious and secular fundamentalism—an idolatry that places our beliefs about God (or country, or race, or politics) above God; a pretense that we are God, with the right to deal out life and death, worth and un-worth. It is the twisting of truth into a possession, hoarded and defended—rather than a relationship, elevated by love.

Let us speak clearly. White supremacy is evil. Any ideology that claims one class of people is superior to another is evil and blasphemous. It is the sinful breakdown of the body of Christ, in which we all are interconnected and have worth. Any system that denies the image of God in another is evil. Nazism is evil. The denial of healthcare to those who need it is evil. The rollback of food services for the hungry is evil. The forced poverty of God’s children is evil. Homophobia and transphobia are evil. Sexism is evil. The degradation of God’s earth is evil.

I take great care in my words as your pastor. I am proud that Westminster Presbyterian Church is a diverse community. We are white and black, old and young, gay and straight, poor and rich. We are liberals and we are conservatives, and we talk together about ideas that matter, unafraid of disagreement. I believe there is strength and wisdom to be found in this diversity. We learn from each other. And through each other, we learn more about God.

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We all want to see the world a more loving and just place. We may disagree about what policies and actions will create such a world, but always we come back to the gospel of Jesus Christ, our center.

I believe that the church, at its best, is political but never partisan. It is “political” because we stand in the tradition of Jesus and the Hebrew prophets who sought the welfare of the city (polis, the root word for “political”; Jeremiah 29:7). It is political because we overturn tables of oppression and division, because we cry justice, because we proclaim the good news to the poor and freedom to the captives (Luke 4:18). We refuse, however, to be “partisan,” because Christ alone is our Lord—never a political party, nor nation, nor race, nor ideology. We are not Democrats or Republicans; we are followers of the Way.

In a time such as ours, when our world is thrown into upheaval, when our society grows more and more polarized, when hate becomes so tempting, I pray that we will fear God more than we fear losing our partisanship (and the privileges and security it affords).

We as a church must stand always for the love and wellbeing of all God’s children, and we must oppose all who threaten them.

We will not, however, become the monsters we behold. We will not, as hard as it is, allow hate into our hearts. We will not deny the image of God in others. We will offer forgiveness when there is repentance. We will pray that even our enemies have fullness of life. We will not work for their destruction; we will labor for their rescue. We will recognize our own complicity in, and the benefits we’ve been afforded by, these systems. We will name our own biases, and we will seek change in ourselves.

We will try to change white supremacists with our love. But hear this: we will not let them take one step. We will stand in their way. We will speak out. We will offer sanctuary to those they threaten. We will nonviolently protest and shame their words, actions, symbols, and policies. We will be like those beautiful people who donned angel wings and turned their winged backs to Fred Phelps and his hate-mongering at the funerals of LGBT persons and veterans. With our wings, we will shut out hate. We will answer with firm and defiant love.

We will not be the ones to make the crosses, but by God, we will be the ones to risk them, and to testify, in our living and dying, to the power of Christ’s redemption.

We will be living reminders of the light, when all is dark. That light was seen in Boston on Saturday when tens of thousands of counter protestors met white supremacists in an organized, nonviolent demonstration of love. Despite a few altercations with a few individuals, no one was hurt; no property was destroyed. Love simply made itself louder than hate.

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That light was seen even in the disarray of Charlottesville, as clergy walked arm-in-arm into the center of the chaos, singing and kneeling, even while spat upon, insulted, and attacked with tear gas.

St. Paul’s Memorial Episcopal Church in Charlottesville was so packed it ran out of pews. “My Charlottesville neighbors,” writes pastor Leah Wise, “and a smattering of out-of-towners—black, white, brown, young, old, Muslim, Christian, Unitarian, Jewish—stood side by side.”

In her article in Christianity Today (“Dispatches from Charlottesville: What Happens When Neo-Nazis Are Outside Your Church Doors”), she records how this vision of God’s beloved community sang “This Little Light of Mine” while violence erupted throughout the streets of Charlottesville. They sang loud—loud enough for the neo-Nazis to hear.

Through their song, God made that dark night a little brighter. We may not be able to make the sun rise, but we sure can help others see it when it does. We will make our love the evidence of our truth. And for those of us who still wander and scratch our way through this current eclipse, take comfort in this thought: our children, Ezra and Leo, Heather and Trayvon, Tamir and Jordan, they are the rays of light that cannot be quenched.

They are the stars that guide us, just as God’s pillar of fire once led the Israelites through the wilderness. We may not have been able to save them, but perhaps they (in the grace of God) will save us—as one Son did long ago. Holding each other tight, we will follow these luminaries, our children, into a world we do not know yet—the world that comes after the eclipse.

 

2 thoughts on “A Pastoral Response to Charlottesville

  1. Dear Patrick and Jenna, your light shines. You two, my favorite and most admired rebels, your light shines. That which burns brightest,Victor Frankl reminds us, must endure the flame. You shine, you burn, you live. God bless you both as you are cradled with fury,compassion, and love to live in these moments with couragous and lasting light.

    Like

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