By Rev. Dr. Liz Emrey
On two sweltering days of August last year, our community in Charlottesville experienced firsthand how the poison of racism can infect, divide and kill us.
The death of Heather Heyer and the injury of dozens more when a white nationalist willfully rammed his automobile into a crowd of anti-racist protestors left us traumatized. And though many of the Neo-Nazis and Alt-Right marchers were strangers to our community, the racial prejudice that fomented those two days of bloody conflict were not a new phenomenon to us.
Our city and county have a long history of racism.
We understand “racism” in America as prejudice sanctioned by institutional power that upholds a white supremacist value system. This racism first decimated the indigenous American Indians and then enslaved people of African and Caribbean descent. As people of faith, we know that we cannot move forward as a healed community without first telling the truth about our past, acknowledging our long history of racism, and turning from it.
We also know that until we have healed these wounds we cannot reconcile or build life-giving relationships that reflect and honor the magnificent diversity of creation. Without reconciliation and repair, we cannot begin to re-envision together what is possible for our country.
It is with this in mind — and with the endorsement of the inter-racial, interfaith, 50-member Charlottesville Clergy Collective — that New Beginnings Christian Community and Mt. Zion First African Baptist Church, brought into covenant relationship by New Baptist Covenant, have come together to plan a pilgrimage from Charlottesville to Jamestown and then to Fort Monroe, the site of the arrival in North America of the first ship carrying enslaved Africans 400 years ago.
Open to anyone who wishes to participate, the pilgrimage, set for Oct. 6-13, will offer opportunities for education, reflection, prayer and community building, as we learn a more complete history of our nation’s founding, hear stories of suffering and discrimination, celebrate strength and resiliency, and begin to knit together communities of hope and justice.
Dr. Alvin Edwards, president of the Charlottesville Clergy Collective and pastor of Mt. Zion First African Baptist Church, sums up our vision in his belief that we need “remembering so as not to make the same mistakes.”
The pilgrimage will begin Saturday, Oct. 6, in Charlottesville at the Jefferson School, a formerly all-black school, followed by a walk to Monticello, where we will visit the burial grounds of the 400 persons who were enslaved there, hear stories from their descendants and receive their names.
The walk through Charlottesville will include the sites of last summer’s confrontation between resurgent white supremacists and our community of inclusion, a marker remembering the lynching of John Henry James in 1898 and the site where enslaved persons were auctioned.
The week following will be framed by cultural and educational events held in and around Charlottesville to celebrate our African American and indigenous peoples’ heritage:
- On Monday, Oct. 8, what is traditionally known as “Columbus Day,” we will have a presentation by Monacan Tribal members, complete with dancers and storytellers, who will share their tribes’ struggle for freedom in a white-dominated world.
- On Tuesday, Oct. 9, will be a dinner meeting with a discussion of how religion has both affirmed and challenged racism. This event will be co-sponsored by the University of Virginia’s “University and Community Action for Racial Equity.” The university was the site of last year’s neo-Nazi torch light rally, where over 100 people marched through the grounds yelling, “Jews will not replace us.” At this meeting, several local congregations will acknowledge their history of segregated worship services and their participation establishing private white schools during the 1960’s time of “Massive Resistance” to integration. Other communities of faith, including the local synagogue, will focus on their work to end racism in our community.
- On Saturday, Oct. 13, we will take buses to Richmond, where we will walk the trail taken by enslaved people who were transported from ships to a holding jail and then to the auction block.
- We will end our journey of transformation with a tour of Jamestown National Park and then a sunset service at Fort Monroe, the original site of the first slave ship.
During the bus rides to Richmond and the Jamestown area, participants will be able to discuss what they have learned about racism and the betrayal of indigenous people from the beginnings of our nation to the present time, and also form groups to work on solutions to the problems caused by our longstanding prejudices.
The shortage of affordable housing, the school to prison pipeline, the wage gap and the unemployment disparities between our majority population (white) and our minority populations (black and brown) are all issues that perpetuate racism.
New Baptist Covenant exists to help churches combat that racism. NBC helps to create vibrant, inclusive Baptist communities, building bridges in places previously marked by division. Called by God to champion the weak and oppressed, honor the diverse workings of the Holy Spirit and to share the love of Christ, NBC’s work is rooted in the words of Jesus found in Luke 4:18-19.
New Baptist Covenant helped to build bridges between our two Baptist congregations — New Beginnings Christian Community and Mt Zion First African Baptist Church — through their Covenant of Action program, and our working together has been a model for our larger religious community.
The congregations represented by the Charlottesville Clergy Collective, which will sponsor the pilgrimage, span the racial and religious divisions between African-American and white congregations, wealthy and poor members, and Jewish, Bahai, Sufi, Buddhist and Christian believers. We are truly becoming a community of faith and reconciliation through our work together on the Pilgrimage of Transformation, from Charlottesville to Jamestown.
As Rev. Brenda Brown-Grooms, co-pastor of New Beginnings Christian Community, said, “We are no longer in the John Wayne era, if in fact we ever were. Those who want to work for change must recognize that it is time to work together, or nothing of real significance can be accomplished.”
Our Covenant of Action Pilgrimage of Transformation is supported financially by local churches and a grant from the Dave Matthew’s Band BAMA grants. The Baptist Center for Ethics will produce a mini-documentary on the pilgrimage, which will include interviews of participants reflecting on their growing understanding of racism and prejudice in our country and their plans to dismantle white supremacy. This film will be shown locally on Charlottesville Public Access TV and posted on the www.ethicsdaily.com website so it is accessible to everyone.
Anyone who wants to join us in working together for unity and the end to racism is welcome to join us. To find out more information, check our website at www.cville2jtown.com or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org
— Rev. Dr. Liz Emrey is co-pastor of New Beginnings Christian Community Church in Charlottesville, Va.