Charlottesville: Preparation and Liturgy

By: Tracy Howe Wispelwey

September 5, 2017

Firsthand Reflections on Charlottesville

Training and Preparation

In the aftermath of August 12, 2017, in Charlottesville, people are often shocked to learn we were preparing for weeks, organizing and training daily. For those of us who had joined resistance communities and actions around the country over these past several years, those of us who allied ourselves with activists around the world and who were not naive as to the racially biased and militarized policing in our “quaint southern town,” nor the devastating ability of its institutions, community leaders, and citizens to deny and ignore the volatile crisis of racism, we knew exactly what would happen on August 12. We lament being right. 

It was two months earlier that my husband and I gathered a small group of faith leaders in our home for a conversation and introduction to militant nonviolent civil disobedience. I had encountered Reverend Osagyefo Sekou in Ferguson. Like me he is an artist, activist, and minister. He had moved back to Ferguson when the uprising started and had trained thousands in militant nonviolent direct action. His commitment was clear and his theological perspective profound and important. I reached out to him when it was clear Charlottesville needed to prepare in serious and disciplined ways. Faith leaders in particular would need help in the process, recognizing our own colonial theology and how it often roots us more firmly in the systems and structures of the nation-state than it does in the liberating movement of the Gospel. We were facing the violence of white supremacy in a community where the majority of white churches had yet to engage in any kind of serious antiracism work and prominent black church leaders spoke about Black Lives Matter with dismissiveness and skepticism. 

We had already started gathering a list of religious leaders willing to train and show up after a number of calls came from local activists for help from the religious community. My husband, Rev. Seth Wispelwey, began working with our dear friend and soon-to-be-ordained United Church of Christ minister Brittany Caine-Conley to formalize a mechanism for training people in direct action, public witness, and rapid response, which they called Congregate Cville.

The Spiritual Work

The context of the living gospel is a movement of liberation, liberation being, as Paulo Freire puts it, the process of becoming more fully human. A path of Christian discipleship then, is coming to recognize and act out of our own humanity. A deepening spirituality is evidenced by learning to recognize and act out of our shared humanity and our radical interconnectedness with all people and creation. White supremacy is the opposite. It depends on us becoming less human and dehumanizing others, separating ourselves from others and reverting to tribalism. As the cornerstone of colonialism, white supremacy shapes our current globalized reality and its false spirituality of neoliberal capitalism. We understand our connections to one another not through humanity, but only through commerce, which spans the globe. Poor people are dehumanized because they literally have less economic value in the system. In this context, most white churches in the United States have taken root. Communities can learn and discourse about liberation and racism, but most “justice work” remains charity driven and colonial in form. Freeing white churches from this false spirituality will require upending them completely. I’m not sure any curriculum will accomplish it; rather, we need some radical conversion experiences. 

To prepare and frame our actions on August 12, we joined in a mass prayer service the night before, patterned after the mass prayer gatherings that occurred before civil disobedience during the Civil Rights Movement. Clergy and faith leaders from across the country responded to Congregate’s National Clergy Call to stand against white supremacy and give witness to the radical and present love of God. Hundreds more joined us from the community. Through the liturgy we connected with a legacy spanning generations, cultures, and religions. We remembered that our activism work is toward a sustained justice marked by beauty and community. I wrote a number of new songs and adapted a version of “Wade In the Water” to recount the story of Charlottesville from slavery until now. When we learned there was a torch-lit march heading towards the church, Rev. Sekou invited us to sing. We all sang. Only later would most of us learn that a small group of students had tried to stand against the white supremacists and was assaulted.

The Action

For the sake of our family, my spouse and I chose to place ourselves in different parts of the action on August 12. I planned to lead a liturgical line of resistance and had prepared hours of songs, prayers, and reflections with interfaith colleagues in the city. It was to be encouraging and sustaining as well as a direct action in itself. To be clear, there were no secure locations for anyone on August 12. I required anyone that wanted to join even the singing and prayers adjacent to the park to go through training. But two days before the event, the city barricaded the sidewalks and roads and effectively cut off the church steps from the park entirely. I considered joining the action in the park, but knowing the real threat of violence, my spouse and I could not both go out. I opened our home for rest and refreshment. I prayed silently on my own. I prayed with the people in my house when my husband texted me about the terrorist attack.

Despite hundreds of clergy and faith leaders joining us for trainings and prayer services before the action, the majority did not join the front line. Not everyone should be on the front line of a direct action, and the risk to everyone on August 12 cannot be understated. However, any church of the living gospel of Jesus must be on the front line against white supremacy in all its forms, and we need liturgical support and worship that connects us to the legacy and movements of liberation past and present. We need songs and prayers that encourage and sustain us in this work. And where our churches are rooted in dehumanizing economies, colonial theologies, and racist histories, they must be upended. 

The Struggle of This Hour © 2017 Tracy Howe

We are tired and weary
Building resistance all these years
Some of us chained by the system
Others addicted to privilege it bears
But together we are Holy
Calling on wisdom and power
Ready to be poured out
In the struggle of this hour

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