Last weekend, the Ku Klux Klan converged upon Charlottesville, Va. I am not naïve about the existence of racism in the United States. As a Mexican-American woman with brown skin, I have often experienced instances of racism. Until recently, however, I had imagined the K.K.K. as a fossil calcified in our national history, not as a living, active organism still instilling fear, marshaling intimidation and potentially inciting violence.
The K.K.K.’s visit to my city is the latest in a series of reactions to the efforts by the City of Charlottesville to critically examine its history of racism and slavery and the legacy of memorials in its public spaces. In April, the City Council in Charlottesville voted (3-2) to remove a statue of the Confederate general Robert E. Lee and unanimously agreed to change the name of Lee Park to Emancipation Park. Jackson Park in Charlottesville (named after Stonewall Jackson, another Confederate general) was renamed Justice Park. Though greeted with applause among many sectors of the community, retaliation against the city’s efforts has also been swift and fierce. Since then, Charlottesville has become a flashpoint for a variety of contentious national debates: how cities will deal with their tormented racial legacies; the appropriateness of Confederate symbols in public; questions of identity, the safety of minority communities, free speech and public protest.
Until recently I had imagined the K.K.K. as a fossil calcified in our national history.
In April, the Virginia Flaggers, a group dedicated to defending Confederate monuments and memorials, hosted a rally called “Save Lee Park.” They waved Confederate flags and carried signs reading “Confederate heroes matter” and “Hands off our monument.” In May Richard Spencer, a white nationalist and University of Virginia alumnus, led an alt-right rally in Emancipation Park at the foot of Lee’s statue. Participants wielded torches and chanted, “You will not replace us.” Mr. Spencer will headline another alt-right rally, “Unite the Right,” planned in Charlottesville for Aug. 12. It is described on its Facebook page as supporting not only the presence of the statues but affirming “the right of Southerners and white people to organize for their interests, just like any other group is able to do, free of persecution.”
On July 8 about 50 members of the Loyal White Knights, a newer chapter of the Ku Klux Klan based in Pelham, N.C., held a rally in Justice Park. Their rally was met by an estimated 1,000-person counterprotest with representation from Black Lives Matter, Showing Up for Racial Justice, Solidarity CVille and the Charlottesville Clergy Collective. The Klan members carried Confederate flags and signs with anti-Semitic messages and engaged in a collective Nazi-style salute during the 45-minute rally. The chilling ritual concluded when they were escorted away by heavily armed police officers. A member of their group reported that they would retreat to private land for a cookout and a cross burning.
As we discern the signs of the times, the question of racial injustice confronts the Catholic Church in a forceful way.
As we discern the signs of the times, the question of racial injustice confronts the Catholic Church in a forceful way. Our church teaches that racism is a sin against the dignity of human life. Yet, fighting racism is seldom placed at the heart of our robust social justice advocacy. Christians of various denominations I spoke with suggested that the best response to the K.K.K. rally was to ignore it. The city and the University of Virginia urged people to attend alternative events, such as a unity concert. A community picnic was held at the local art park and an interfaith concert and prayer service took place several blocks from the rally.
On July 6 I received an email invitation from a local parish: “HOLY HOUR FOR PEACE AND THE END OF HATRED AND RACISM.” We would pray the rosary in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament in anticipation of the K.K.K.’s rally. Frankly, I was surprised to receive an invitation of this nature from this particular parish. Like many Catholic parishes in the United States, this one almost never discusses race or racism in explicit terms, even as the body count of unarmed black men and women killed at the hands of police officers continues to climb. I quickly rearranged my schedule to be present with others for this prayer.
Entering the silent sanctuary, I count one other non-white person in the gathering. I begin to worry about whether I came to the church at the wrong time or if I had misunderstood the evening’s intentions. I am reassured by the sound of rosaries jangling as they emerge from purses and pockets; we have all come to pray for peace with the Mother of God.
We have all come to pray for peace with the Mother of God.
The presider places the Blessed Sacrament into a gleaming monstrance. He offers a brief reflection on racial justice and theology, recounting the role of St. Thomas Aquinas’s theology in Martin Luther King Jr.’s thinking about law and justice. An unjust law is no law at all and is not to be obeyed. Justice, according to Aquinas, is to render unto each their due. The presider then calls on those gathered to repent for the sin of racism, the times that we have been guilty of this sin. This is not a rhetorical invitation; another priest sits in a corner of the sanctuary ready to hear our confessions. The presider asks us to pray for those who do harm to others through the sin of racism. The implication of the admonition is clear: I am being asked to pray for those who will persecute me at Justice Park.
It is Thursday, so we pray the Luminous mysteries of the rosary. We remember the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan. The wedding feast at Cana. The proclamation of the Kingdom of God. The Transfiguration. The institution of the Eucharist. In so doing, we invoke images of a flourishing human life: water, wine, food, light and community.
I am being asked to pray for those who will persecute me at Justice Park.
At first it seems odd to pray the mysteries of light; would not the Sorrowful mysteries be more appropriate tonight? But as we move deeper into the mystery, the light of the Gospel pierces the despair that has haunted me since white supremacist groups descended upon our town. It pierces the layer of despair that settles over me when I realize the extent of racial hatred that remains in our world. It illuminates the most injured part of my soul, the place where I carry wounds from the hatred and marginalization based on the color of my skin.
I focus my gaze on my rosary. It is adorned with images of Our Lady of Guadalupe and Juan Diego. Guadalupe’s image is the anti-Klan. Her presence is announced not with threats of violence or false notions of racial purity but with flor y canto—flowers and song. The brown-skinned Virgin, adorned with colorful symbols of both Aztec and Spanish splendor, testifies to the beauty that we can find in our differences. She appears to Juan Diego, the despised and denigrated person of colonial society, and empowers him to communicate her message to the church’s powerful bishops and clergy. She invites communion by making the powerless equal to the powerful. As Patroness of the Americas, she rejects all forms of hatred and racism as an affront to the Gospel of Jesus Christ who affirms the dignity of every human being, the beauty of justice and equality.
On this night, the church proclaims to me: Your life matters.
I leave the sanctuary in silence. When I reach the parking lot, I begin to weep. Like a healing salve applied to an open wound, to hear the church name the sin of racism at once soothes and stings. The joy of Jesus’ presence meets me in my dread, calming the visceral fear that has overwhelmed me since learning about the rally. On this night, admitting the presence of racial hatred is an act of mercy, one that binds wounds of being unseen and feeling unloved in the church as a non-white person. On this night, the church proclaims to me: Your life matters.
Still, I wonder why I have never heard racism denounced in such clarion terms from a parish before. Will I hear it denounced so clearly again? Does the Catholic Church in the United States have the courage to stand up to racism before the K.K.K. comes to town? Or after the K.K.K. leaves town? Will our parishes stand in solidarity with those involved in nonviolent direct action in response to racial hatred?
A holy hour against racial hatred is a profound way to begin this urgent mission of the church: rejecting racism in the clearest possible terms at all times and in all places. These prayers send us out to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with all people of good will against racial terror that assaults human life, inhibits human flourishing and demolishes the common good.