As Charlottesville (Va.) Meeting ended our meeting for business in worshipful silence last week, there was the sense that the meeting had accomplished something of lasting importance. In that gathering we committed to participate in the Sanctuary Movement, agreeing that our meeting should take part in the effort to shelter and protect people in need regardless of their citizenship status. We also passed a minute in support of a vigil in front of the White House to keep the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program (DACA). That first Sunday in September was the first meeting for business at Charlottesville Friends since August 12, when the rally of white nationalists converged on our city carrying torches and shouting slogans taken straight from the Nazi party. On that day Charlottesville resident Heather Heyer was killed by a white nationalist plowing his car into a crowd of anti-racist protesters (the U.S. Justice Department has opened a civil rights investigation into the attack and the FBI has said it meets the definition of domestic terrorism). Our meeting tried to deliver the most powerful rebuke we could to the purveyors of hate who descended on Charlottesville. Faced with their calls to eliminate Jews, Muslims, and people of color, we redoubled our efforts to love our neighbors. Quakers’ only possible response to an onslaught of hate can be to affirm our commitment to peace and justice.
I have been a part of Charlottesville Meeting since starting graduate school at the University of Virginia in 2014. A little over a year ago my wife, Aida, and I were married under its care. It’s relatively large for a Quaker meeting, with enough people to hold two meetings for worship each week. I’ve been on the Peace and Social Concerns Committee almost as long as I’ve been with the meeting. After the presidential election last November unleashed a wave of racial and religious hostility, the justice work of our meeting took on a fiercer urgency. The Charlottesville Meetinghouse is now adorned with new signs of support for Black Lives Matter, the LGBTQ community, and refugees, while our budgets for outreach have increased.
For the past eight months we’ve contemplated what it would mean to become a sanctuary congregation like Mountain View Meeting in Denver, Colorado, and to support an undocumented person who requested our help. We collaborated with several regional organizations working on immigration issues and ultimately joined a local network of other congregations committed to assisting immigrants. Yet concerns remained among us that this step should only be taken with due seasoning. The events of August 12 led the Charlottesville Friends to commit fully to the idea of sanctuary and immigrant rights.
During that weekend, opposing the forces and threats that were on display was no minor feat, and it would be understandable that some would respond by trying to move on to more comfortable issues. The night the white nationalist demonstrators arrived, my wife and I were at a community prayer service intended to denounce white supremacy. They gathered across the street from the church, carrying torches and yelling “Hail Victory!,” the English translation of the German Nazis party’s Sieg Heil. We could not see them, but as we sang with the assembled people of Charlottesville, I was sure I could hear them through the walls of the church sanctuary chanting “White Lives Matter.”
The next day Aida and I went with many members of our meeting to a worship vigil in Justice Park, about a five-minute walk from the so-called alt-right rally in Charlottesville’s Emancipation Park (the “alt-right” is an offshoot of conservatism mixing racism, white nationalism, anti-Semitism, and populism). We hoped our vigil would give public expression to the nonviolence that our peace testimony demands and provide a witness against intolerance. The meeting had made signs that declared “Quakers for Peace and Justice” and “Quakers think Black Lives Matter.” We settled down to worship as overhead police helicopters made noise that filled our silence (later that day one of them would crash outside town, killing the two officers aboard). Various counter-protest groups passed by, one with musical instruments and another with a banner and a smattering of shields that made it look like a ramshackle medieval army. Some people in the park took photos of us, and a few stopped to join our worship. After about 45 minutes, we ended worship. When Aida and I left, carrying signs back to the meetinghouse, we barely avoided an approaching fascist mob waving Confederate flags and shields emblazoned with Crusaders’ crosses.
I felt afraid the entire time, afraid in the same streets where I go shopping with friends or walk with my wife after a satisfying dinner. As a Quaker of Jewish descent, I found the anti-Semitism of the new white nationalism particularly threatening. Their shouts demanded Jews leave the country; they threatened to burn down the synagogue in town and derided one of my friends who happened to walk nearby for having a Jewish appearance. Aida is Latina, and as we walked past gaggles of white nationalists armed with clubs, I was concerned for her safety as well.
I still don’t know what to think about the events of August 12. Did we do enough? Could we have done more? As a Quaker, I know we try to conduct ourselves in peace even as we condemn hatred. Still, the events remain too wrapped in apprehensiveness and anxiety for me to disentangle.
I am sure that the need for Quakers to speak on issues of justice became clearer to me than ever before. Seeing the white nationalists here, arrayed in battle gear as if they were going to fight a war and venting unrepeatable hatred at almost every imaginable group of people, showed that we face those who discount the very basis of our beliefs. Often the differences Quakers have with others are issues of methods; we assume a more peaceful and equal world is a goal for everyone and hence we are used to arguing about how, and not whether, to achieve it. As a consequence, it is easy to be lulled into slow or no action because of the complexities of the issues we face. Those who identify themselves as part of the alt-right unarguably do not agree with our principles. Their goal is white supremacy, and they have no qualms about provoking or using violence. They remind us that our convictions are not banal, and that to search for “that of God in everyone” has never ceased to be a provocative message since George Fox delivered it to the seekers gathered around Firbank Fell.
In that spirit, the Charlottesville Meeting passed a minute supporting DACA and the planned vigil at the White House. We expressed our approval for DACA by invoking the words of John Woolman: “To consider mankind otherwise than brethren, to think favors are peculiar to one nation and exclude others, plainly supposes a darkness in the understanding.” We also took steps to become a sanctuary congregation, committing to stand with immigrants and those in need. Churches participating in the New Sanctuary Movement across the nation have offered shelter to undocumented immigrants because Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) currently does not raid houses of worship.
I do not pretend that passing minutes in a Quaker meeting for business is revolutionary or that it offers a solution to the threat of the resurgent white nationalism. I do believe that there is hope in the fact that events as horrific as August 12 can be a rallying cry for Quakers to do more, to be braver and more outspoken. Lucretia Mott once asked an audience of abolitionists, “if our principles be right, why should we be cowards?” It’s a sentiment that Quakers today are still trying to live out.