Once in a lifetime, hope and history rhyme. Seamus Heaney
Last month I got a call from Terry McAuliffe. That sounds like the first line of a joke, but it’s not. The former governor of Virginia, Terry McAuliffe, and I have a mutual friend. That mutual friend knows that I was in downtown Charlottesville in 2017. You know, when the White Supremacists marched in the city, and when and where Heather Heyer was murdered? Terry wanted to get some some eye-witness stories he could thread into the narrative of a book he is writing on the debacle.
So he called me and we talked. Mostly I shared with him what I have already shared with you--the most memorable for you, maybe—the slightly off color true story of one of the White Supremacists. I shared it with you in Sunday worship the day after. For those of you who didn’t hear it-- Saturday, after I left the rally, and before any of us learned that Heather Heyer had been murdered, I was in my car on the way to officiate at a wedding. But I was stuck in traffic. A truck was stalled directly in front of my car, at a busy intersection. The truck belonged to a White Supremacist. How do I know that? I know that because when the young man got out of his truck he was wearing camouflage shorts—all the White Supremacists were wearing camouflage—AND he had a confederate flag decal stuck on his windshield. The young man got out of his truck and began pushing the truck out of the way of traffic. However, as he pushed, his camouflage shorts, which were saggy and baggy in the extreme, crept southward, until finally he lost them completely. I wish I had had my camera handy to take a picture of that ignoble sight. A White Supremacist’s white backside! That story sounds book worthy-don’t you think?
During our conversation, Terry asked why I had participated in the event. I told him I was a pastor. My participation had been an act of faith, then. Indeed, fifteen Presbyterian pastors gathered at Westminster Presbyterian in Charlottesville for a prayer vigil on the Thursday evening before the rally. A lot of clergy of various faith traditions took part in the early morning pre-rally at McGuffy Park, too. We were hoping for a turn-out of 2,000 clergy, wearing identifying clergy garb. I wore my collar. We may have actually reached that number.
Before Terry and I hung up, Terry said he would appreciate photos. I sent him several. In one, I am standing with my fourteen fellow clergy colleagues on the steps of Westminster. And we are all smiling. If you were to guess why we were there, you might say we had just come from an ordination service for a friend, or that we were en-masse officiating at a wedding. That is, we look happy. I also sent Terry several photos of my clergy friends at the Unite the Right pre-rally that early Saturday morning. They are holding placards. One reads, “Who is my Neighbor?” And under that, “Foreigner, Poor, Oppressed, Prisoner, Widow, Blind, and at the very bottom, Jesus Christ.” All of THESE clergy friends are smiling broadly. They are happy. Finally, there is the picture taken of me by my friend, Tina. When this photo was taken, the pre-rally had ended, and Tina and I had decided to take a stroll in downtown Charlottesville. It was evident to me at that point that the storm clouds were gathering. I could feel the very air on my skin vibrating, like it must feel right before a tornado touches down. I am posing in the middle of a deserted Market Street—blocked off by barricades and a police car. I am standing under a banner that reads, “Diversity Makes Us Stronger.” I am smiling. I look happy. I felt happy, too. Worried, but happy. After I sent the photos to Terry, I thought to myself, “Will he think we are crazed religious people, living in la-land?” If that was his thinking, he may have been right. Surely we should have realized the potential consequences. Those White Supremacists were begging for a fight. They had come armed with weapons of intimidation—AR 15s, brass knuckles, handguns. Believe me, it is etched in my memory and in my heart, Heather Heyer died at that rally, and a handful of others were seriously injured. Two police officers, died, too, when their helicopter crashed. They had been radioing information about the rally to the police ground crew.
Something similar is afoot in Jerusalem in today’s Bible reading. Jesus is riding on a donkey from the gates of the city, to the temple. As were we at the rally, his followers, and others, came with good intentions—they wanted to cheer on the great one, the one some were calling the Messiah.
They cut down palm branches and waved them, singing their Hosannas, like you do for a king. If there had been cameras back then, the pictures would have depicted a smiling, happy public.
But also like us that day at the Unite the Right Rally, they too should have realized that dark clouds were forming and a tornado was about to touch down. The likely consequence of their own rally? If the powers that be saw Jesus being celebrated as a king, he and maybe his closest allies, would be extinguished. Herod Antipas was paranoid. He locked up or had killed, any people he perceived as a potential threat. The Jewish religious elite were paranoid, too. Jesus seemed to have more of a following than they had, and he was openly questioning long-held Jewish beliefs.
If the people waving palm branches had just stayed home that day. If they hadn’t sung their hallelujahs, Jesus could have entered Jerusalem unnoticed by the powers that be. And maybe Jesus would not have been crucified. What do you think?
Likewise, if we hadn’t had our vigil, if we hadn’t stoked passion at that pre-rally, if everyone had decided to ignore the Unite the Right marchers, maybe the whole mess that followed could have been averted. Heather Heyer and those police officers might still be alive. Best, then, to stay silent. Best, then, to be a passive on-looker while the world goes mad. Hold on to that thought.
As I have shared with a few of you, there’s a developer buying up property in my neighborhood so that he can build 30 new homes. One of his hurdles to building, has to do with how to handle sewer waste.
I’m giving you the Cliff notes version of a complicated issue. Enough to know that the developer wants to have a sewer pump installed on the land he has purchased, to handle the waste from the new development he intends to build. It’s cheaper than laying pipe and he doesn’t have to get permission from other homeowners to put it in, like you do, when you lay pipe. All he has to do is get permission from the City Council to install the sewer pump. The city has never had a sewer pump before, nor does it have the staff to maintain it. This would be a new thing. The City’s property advisory board determined to hold a hearing to learn about the pump’s operation and maintenance requirements, and to hear comments from the neighbors.
What do neighbors say? We don’t want it! So, we banded together and did our research. It turns out sewer pumps are smelly and noisy. We found lots of on-line information and we talked to some experts. Sewer pumps are ok if they are installed in a field away from noses and ears, but the one being proposed would be in someone’s backyard. Would you want a sewer pump in YOUR backyard? Maybe you could plant rosebushes around it —something to block the view and help mitigate the smell, at least in the summer months. Other homes would be in close proximity, of course. “What’s that noise, honey? Is it a low flying airplane, or just the sewer pump?” Really.
One of us composed a five-page letter stating our objections. It was beautifully written. I can say that because I didn’t write it. Then several of us, including me, went door to door in our neighborhood asking for signatures. After several evenings of door knocking, a fellow organizer and I compared notes. Yes, we had gotten LOTS of signatures—many pages of signatures! But, as you might guess if you have ever done this sort of thing, as we went door to door, we also got negative responses from a few people. Responses like, “It won’t help. The City Council has already made up its mind.” Or, “The city just wants more money. More homes means more taxpaying citizens.” These folks wouldn’t waste energy, even putting pen to paper. They seemed soured on life in general. They WEREN’T SMILING. We sent in our letter—with our 110 Signatures--that was two weeks ago. The advisory board met this past week. I was there, as were close to forty of my neighbors. The sewer pump’s representative spoke. Several people from the community spoke. Then a surprise speaker, a brother of someone who lives in our neighborhood, came to the microphone and addressed the board. “I have maintained sewer pumps as part of my job, for over 30 years.” He said. “Those pumps are loud and smelly and they sometimes breakdown.”
The advisory board suggested to the City that they deny the pump application. And my neighbors and I left the meeting, smiling.
Friends-hope is a powerful, emotion. And it is at the base of what it means be happy, at least it is for me. You’ll have to speak for yourself. Hope drives us to do the seemingly impossible, and with a smile on our faces, too. For those of us who are clergy, who participated in the vigil and the pre-rally, our hope was, “By protesting the Unite the Right rally, we will make the counter claim, that what they are about is contrary to the will of God. We will let the White Supremacists know unequivocally that their message of hate is not welcome in our city Those people waving palm branches that day, also had hope. They had hope that a life without oppression was possible for them. That Jesus would conquer, yes, even Rome. We knew as they knew, as we know: Once in a life time, justice CAN rise up and hope and history rhyme. And that is why we smile. Amen