When the events in Charlottesville happened this past weekend, I knew right away that I would want to write about it, but I wanted to wait a little while. I wanted to wait and take some time to gather my thoughts and figure out how to formulate the ‘right’ words to put out there for the world to see. Before tonight, whenever I would sit down to write, I could not for the life of me seem to find words that described to the fullest the heaviness and large affect that this weekend had on so many people and on our town. But I realized tonight that it’s not about having the ‘right’ words. There really are no ‘right’ words to say or write when something like this happens, so I’m going to try, to the best of my ability, to share my reflections on this past weekend’s horrific events, in my beloved hometown of Charlottesville, Virginia.
On Friday evening, when I saw all over social media what was happening down on the campus of UVA, it made me absolutely sick. Just 10 minutes from my house, I have walked the campus of UVA more times than I can count – it is absolutely beautiful, but all of a sudden, there were crowds of people with lit torches walking all over it – people who were clearly filled with so much hate, anger, and rage. The worst part about these people stomping around with torches is that it was only the beginning of what would end up being a horrific day that would impact our town for despicable reasons.
As this, “Unite the Right” rally approached, I knew that that Saturday was going to be ugly, I’m sure we all did, but none of us knew exactly how ugly it would become, or how quickly it would escalate. I certainly never thought that my hometown would become a nation wide topic of conversation, and for such an awful, awful reason. I never thought that I would open social media and see my town’s name all over the place with hashtags and on the news nation wide. Yet here we are, amid the aftermath of something that nobody native to Charlottesville ever thought would happen here. You see it happening in other places all the time, but you never expect it to be something that your own small town is in the news for.
On Saturday morning, my plan was to go downtown and be among those who were down there from various faith communities, but I couldn’t find anyone who was able to go with me, so I opted not to. Instead, I watched live videos on social media, I watched the news, and I read countless tweets and Facebook posts about what was going on down there. I saw videos of the violence that broke out in numerous areas of downtown – the fist fighting, the attacking one another…I saw so much hate and disunity – more than I had ever seen firsthand before in my life. It made me sick to watch and read about, but at the same time, I couldn’t stand to not keep myself updated about what was going on down there.
Saturday afternoon, I logged back onto Facebook and immediately saw the news about the car that had ran head on into a crowd of peaceful counter-protesters on the downtown mall, injuring about 20 people and killing one. A little while following this car incident, I heard about the helicopter that had crashed, killing two police officers who were on duty doing air control for all that was occurring in town. Like most people, I couldn’t help but be brought to tears watching as all of these events take place in my hometown – the hometown I love so incredibly much.
One thing that had these events on Saturday weighing especially heavy on my heart was the fact that I was scheduled to preach the next day. I would be filling in for my pastor that Sunday – the Sunday after all of these horrible events had taken place. Never had I ever been scheduled to serve in a church service, let alone lead one following an event as huge and close to home as this was.
The whole day as tragic event after tragic event occurred, I couldn’t even bring myself to begin brainstorming the words that I would say in church the next day about it all. When I saw videos of that car plowing into the group of innocent, peaceful protesters, I knew I should say something. When I heard about and then saw on the local news about the helicopter crash, and that two more innocent lives had been lost, there was no question that something needed to be said about this in church. Being politically correct was not a concern of mine as it (to be completely honest) has been in the past. To me, this was no political issue – to me, if you are human, these events made your stomach twist. So while I knew that I needed to say something, I was a nervous wreck. I found myself in a puddle of tears trying to think of how in the world I would come up with the ‘right words’ to say following something so terrible. I contemplated calling my pastor and seeing what he would say in the service if he were preaching, but I refrained, and thought, “Na, I got this, don’t bother him.” I had an event to go to in the evening on Saturday, so I left my sermon editing for when I got home, acknowledging that I really needed to sit down and think, reflect, and pray hard about what all I would say come Sunday morning. While I was at this event, my pastor ended up calling me. He informed me that despite him originally having that Sunday off, he would be in church – due to everything that had taken place, he felt he needed to be there. I hung up that phone call and took one big sigh of relief. I would still be preaching and leading various aspects of the worship services, but having the presence of a pastor there to guide the services on that day was what this aspiring pastor needed.
I have never in my life preached with as heavy of a heart as I did this past Sunday. I must say that I am so immensely thankful for the Holy Spirit’s ability to give us words when we seem to have none.
I got home from the event I was at late Saturday night, knowing that the sermon I had prepared for that Sunday was not the exact sermon I should or could preach anymore. I knew that I needed to tweak it, so that I could acknowledge everything that had happened – the loss of innocent lives, the pain our town is in, how we move forward, what can the Church do, etc. I woke up around 5:00 a.m Sunday morning with new words to put into my sermon. New words that I prayed would bring more insight, peace, and comfort to a hurting congregation (and to a hurting me as well). I am so thankful for God’s ability to show up and make his peaceful presence known when we need it most – this past Sunday morning was undoubtedly the most nervous I had been before preaching in a long, long time. But by the grace of God, he led myself and my pastor through those services so that we could lead the congregation, and I was so aware of and confident of his presence there with us – it was a beautiful and gut wrenching Sunday morning all at the same time.
Looking back, I’m so glad none of us walked into that church and acted as though it did not happen, especially because what happened, happened right in our backyard. What happened in town on Friday evening and on Saturday – that was not Jesus. Our churches, communities, towns, and world needs to be reminded of who Jesus was and is. That is why I am so grateful that the sermon that just so happened to go along with the sermon series we’re currently in, was about Jesus’ identity, and in turn, our identity which lies in Jesus. On Sunday, we talked about who Jesus is. We talked about the fact that our identity lies in him which means we’re called to be like him. We talked about how much power there is in his name. We talked about how loving he is, and how love is what we need to show in this world if we want to be more like Jesus.
The hate, darkness, and loss that occurred this past weekend has left our town with a sense of brokenness that I cannot quite articulate to you all. Driving through downtown feels eerie and different right now. Last night I attended an impromptu prayer vigil led by a local United Methodist Church, and the large group of people who came together there to pray, sing hymns, and talk in the very park where so much hate was being spewed on Saturday, gave me a sense of peace, of comfort, and of hope. Following this prayer vigil, I walked with my sister and friend over to where the car came through – the memorial for Heather, where there were countless beautiful flowers, candles, letters, and pictures. Witnessing all of this with my own eyes for the first time was gut wrenching. But I have an incredible amount of hope – I am so convinced that, because of the way that our community has come together following these events, and because of the God we have, there is hope for reconciliation and healing, and that this community has the potential, through prayer and loving one another more than hating, to our come together even closer instead of divide further, despite any of our differences.
The Church plays a very important role in this – when events such as these take place, The Church has work to do. It needs to act. It needs to act because in times of darkness and pain like these, talking about it isn’t enough. There can be prayer vigils, safe places where people can go and process their feelings, thoughts, and emotions following the events, we each individually need to practice communicating with people who have opposing views than us, acknowledging that at the end of the day, our differences only matter so much. But our differences do matter when our differences keep us from loving one another, because that’s when our differences stop us from being like Jesus as we’re called to do. I have never in my life believed so much in the power of these words, that:
Love overcomes hate. Prayer overcomes hate. God overcomes hate.
I know those words may seem like the most cliche in the world, and they will be, unless we ACT as though we know they’re true. We need to love and not hate – we must love those we disagree with. We must pray for these situations. We need to pray for the people involved in these situations – we must pray for the people who have hate in their hearts just as much as we pray for the people who have love in their hearts. We need to carry ourselves as though God has the power to overcome hate. It’s not enough to say it, we have to act, pray, and love as though we believe it.
I pray for the people whose hearts and minds are filled with such hate, anger, and bitterness. I pray that God would work in their hearts in a powerful way, acknowledging that nobody is beyond the grace of God. Nobody is too far out of reach for God to grab onto and change their hearts from hate to love. I pray for these people who may not know any other thing but hate, because they have never been shown the love of God.
I pray for the families of Heather Heyer, who lost her life on the downtown mall when that car struck. I pray for all those who were injured in this car incident as well – I pray for their healing from both their physical wounds and what I can only imagine will be some emotional wounds as well. I pray for the families of the two police officers who died in the helicopter crash. I pray for comfort during this time, and that they would feel God’s loving arms wrapped around each person affected by all of this.
My heart is broken for this beloved town of ours as it grieves and recovers from the hate that plagued us this past weekend, as well as from the pain that resulted from all of this. But as I wrote above, I have hope, and I’ve got that hope for more reasons than one.
To my fellow brothers and sisters here in Charlottesville, we will overcome all of this evil, and we will rise, if we choose love over hate, always.