Charlottesville: A Horrible Flashback

My heart was broken and my eyes filled with tears as I saw images of hateful white men with torches. I was sickened when I heard that an angry young white man had plowed through a crowd with murderous intent. Young men at the prime of their lives, bearing torches of hatred.  My friend and former InterVarsity colleague Lisa Sharon Harper put it this way:

They looked like they could be in a classroom sitting next to you [or] on a bus and you wouldn't know...[wearing] polo shirts, baseball caps! All I could think of was he looked looks like someone who could be a CEO in a boardroom and I thought, ‘Really? Really?'

View Lisa's Facebook Live Video reflecting on her experience on the ground in Charlottesville.

These aren’t just painful memories from my youth. I’m not describing America in the segregated 50's and 60s: This occurred in a University town in 2017!

Every single day, my school bus passed by a billboard (see image above) which read: "You Are in the Heart of Klan Country: Help Fight Integration and Communism." 

By the time I was in middle school, the Klan had grown to its peak in North Carolina--- up to 10,000 members. North Carolina was a hotbed of activism for the Klan, and in the mid 60’s, there was a Klan rally every night of the year somewhere in the state.

My family and I saw images of those rallies regularly on the local news. Hooded, angry white men spewing racial slurs and hate-filled insults that I dare not repeat here. To make matters worse, an executive of the local TV station gave regular editorials that pushed back against integration and opposed the work of civil rights leaders. I can still remember his face as he snarled and sneered in disgust at the efforts being made for justice and equality! As a boy, I remember yelling at the TV in outrage! I could not understand why was his heart so hard against us? 

Despite all this, I still had hope that one day, these horrible words and images would be a thing of the far distant past. When I saw the events at Charlottesville! My heart cried, "Oh no, not again!" The hope I had for America as a child seemed crushed in that moment.

Can anything change such hard hearts? Is there any reason for hope?

I don't have much hope for America outside of the power of the lived out Gospel, demonstrated through transformed, reconciled, humbled, praying, loving community. God's vision for Christian community is not monocultural, but in heaven, we will see "every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb" in worship (Revelation 7).

As one who has served as an InterVarsity campus minister for 23 of the last 40 years, I have seen that hope come to life in North Carolina, South Carolina, and Virginia as we actually believed and embraced the power of the gospel to destroy the walls of hostility that divides Jews and Gentiles and blacks and whites! We challenged students and staff to pursue that vision by reaching every community on campus. This process was slow and painful and messy and loaded with struggle.

We challenged staff and students to face their own ethnocentrism, racism, pride, and open their hearts to the beauty of multiethnic fellowship! This value permeated all of our fellowship activities: it impacted how we did new student outreach, prayer, worship, recruitment, and summer campus.

I have seen young white men and women come into our fellowships from homogenous communities with no value for fellowship with anyone who did not look like them.

Over time, however, I have seen these same young white men and women grow in their cross-cultural sensitivity and desire to reach out to minority students on their campuses. These students are now advocates for justice and fair treatment on campus! These students graduated with a much deeper understanding of the gospel and the implication for racial reconciliation and justice!

What is our responsibility in all of this? What can we do?

To my white brothers and sisters:

Speak truth into your community. Your voice has power. Use your voice, not just in anger and impatience, but in love and humility and patience. Do not remain silent at this key, teachable moment! Don't gloss over it, ignore it, minimize it, or sanitize it. Speak to it. Show the lie and the deception of the white supremacist narrative. Pull up the paper-thin cover to reveal what lies beneath the nice sounding slogan, "Make America Great Again!" For many it represents a return of good paying jobs, respect around the world and wholesome values. White supremacist leaders see it as a rallying cry for a return to the days of the white dominance, oppression, and ethnocentrism. Please remind them that America's Great days were not so great for black people who had to survive on the scraps of America's prosperity because we were not allowed to feast at the table. Help them see ongoing instances of racial discrimination, like blatant efforts to suppress the black vote in North Carolina.

Share your story of transformation. If you been transformed by the gospel then people in your circle of influence can be transformed as well! In order for that to happen, they must see and hear a different narrative, a narrative buried deep in the gospel. Share your story of transformation and enlightenment in regard to the plight and the treatment of minorities in this country. Your words can open doors of understanding for those who are blind to injustice. Use your power to be an advocate when you see or hear injustice or bigotry! I know that the vast majority of the young white men in your world would never join the alt-right, but they will one day lead churches and governments and corporations and civic organizations with power and influence. Something you say may help someone deal more justly and compassionately with the abused minority and the disregarded poor and the despised stranger in their midst or just outside their door.

I have been comforted by my white friends who have expressed words of outrage and advocacy and solidarity and understanding and compassion! That gives me hope! It is one thing to have your sympathy and support, it is something else to have you use your voice to speak out about racism and injustice.

Your words will educate, challenge, offer hope, and change hearts. You have more power than you know to make a difference!


To my black brothers and sisters:

When I saw and heard about Charlottesville, the only "words "I had were tears. Your words have given voice to my deep frustration pain and temptation to lose hope. You have uttered words that I have been too frustrated or numb to articulate. You have reminded me of the hope that rests in the power of love. You have reminded me that there is someone who gets it--that I don't have to explain anything or bear this pain alone.

To my black friends who are tired or numb or hurting, cry out to your God, find rest and encouragement in community. Find rest for your soul. You were never meant to navigate this alone. I challenge all of us not to isolate ourselves behind the wall of  TV, or internet or social media. Connect with real flesh and blood community who can help keep you sane. Exalt the living Christ who is high above every principality and power!


For us all:

Hear this word from one of my Ministry Partners, Pastor Byron Benton as he talks to the young people in his church about Charlottesville: He encourages us to maintain our faith in Christ in the midst of pain and atrocities! Pastor Byron Benton's Open Letter to Children About Charlottesville

As believers in community, we are called to bear each other's burdens and speak truth to each other, even when it's difficult! Paul exhorts us to that, "If someone falls into sin, forgivingly restore him, saving your critical comments for yourself. You might be needing forgiveness before the day’s out. Stoop down and reach out to those who are oppressed. Share their burdens, and so complete Christ’s law" Galatians 6:1-3 (The Message).

Let's allow the hope of the Gospel to transform us into a reconciled, humbled, praying, loving community! That is my only hope for our country!



About the Author

Fred Williams is the Assistant Area Director for Graduate and Faculty Ministries in the Blue Ridge Region (NC, SC and VA).

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