Letter: How would each of us handle a Charlottesville?

Letter: How would each of us handle a Charlottesville?


The events of this past weekend in Virginia are deeply disturbing, as well as the fallout still unfolding. How is it possible, we wonder, that this kind of hatred and overt intimidation of one group by another is happening in this country we love? How is the death of a young woman just because she was standing up for justice possible in this country I have been so proud of all my life? There is no denying what happened this past weekend in Charlottesville. Television cameras and countless cell phone videos captured those moments for all the world to see. Hatred, bigotry and violence were literally on parade through the peaceful streets of a backwater small southern city, illuminated by blazing tiki torches held high by a sea of average looking white faces, decked out with Nazi symbols and all kinds of weapons.

The details and stories of what happened in Charlottesville will be coming out for a long time, I imagine. “I was in Charlottesville,” will be the precursor of many a conversation as college students return to campus in a few weeks and clergy climb back into their pulpits. Activists on both sides will continue their efforts with renewed vigor, each claiming to be on the right side of history. That’s to be expected. That’s what we do as citizens of this amazing country. We give people the benefit of the doubt. We want to believe that folks may take actions others consider repugnant but that they must have a good reason for it. We want to believe the aggressors were provoked into acting out their self-professed affinity for violence because they had to. We want to believe that this kind of senseless hatred and violence can’t be what it appears to be so we try to make excuses for it. At least some of us do. But not very many of us. Not this time. Because there is no excuse for this kind of hatred heard in chants of “blood and soil,” and “You will not replace us” and “Jews will not replace us.” Because there is no excuse for driving a car into a crowd of peaceful protesters. Because there is no excuse for walking down city streets in full military gear, including assault rifles, unless you are in fact in the military in a recognized combat zone. Charlottesville is not a combat zone. At least it wasn’t until last weekend. Now, I’m not so sure. And I wonder what city, what town, what community will be next in this battle for the soul of our country.

Like you, I worry about what could happen right here in Westerly or Pawcatuck or Stonington, in Charlestown or Mystic. We don’t have any statues of Confederate heroes around here that I know of, although it’s worth noting the Wilcox Library was built as a memorial to veterans of the Civil War. The library website has a really cool photo of those veterans gathered on the steps of the library at some point. A library as a Civil War memorial! Now that I like! A building dedicated to accumulating knowledge, to understanding history, to savoring a good read on the beach or story time with a child. Now that’s what a war memorial should be! A testament to new life always possible, even and especially after the unthinkable has happened.

We do have one statue of note in Westerly, playfully captured in a perpetual hop through Wilcox Park — the Runaway Bunny. This statue is dedicated to, of all things, a beloved children’s book, The Runaway Bunny by Margaret Wise Brown. Published in 1942 the book is the story of a young bunny who tells his mother he wants to run away so he can be anything but a little bunny only to hear his mother tell him, “if you run away, I will run after you.” This statue in Wilcox Part is a tangible reminder not only of this delightful and beloved story, but also a commemoration of the joy of dreams imagined and love recognized. Did you know that this beloved statue was vandalized, and not that long ago? In July, 2013 it was discovered that the statue had been marked with graffiti and “KKK” had been emblazoned on it. Right here in the heart of Westerly. Imagine that. Happily the restored bunny statue still gleefully hops in perpetual motion through the meadow of Wilcox Park. But will it stay that way? You have to wonder these days, unfortunately.

True, the violence and hatred of this past weekend’s events in Charlottesville seem far distant from our beautiful, resurgent community. But is it really?

I don’t think so, much as we want to believe it is. Then what? That’s up to each one of us, really. I know I can’t pretend Charlottesville didn’t happen. I know I have to admit that evil is real and revealing itself in all its hideous glory in the torchlit faces of white men and women who believe that no one else matters but them. I pray that God will show me how God needs me to respond if and when the time comes that this violence is no longer far away but right in my face. I pray that evil named is evil exposed and destroyed. I pray that someday hatred becomes a word we have to look up in a dictionary because we have no idea what it means anymore. Good thing we have such a great library in town.

The Rev. Ruth Shilling Hainsworth is the Pastor of the United Congregational Church of Westerly, United Church of Christ located in Pawcatuck. She is also the current President of the Westerly-Pawcatuck Clergy Association.

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