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Charlottesville prayerfully tries to heal from racist violence

Gov. Terry McAuliffe of Virginia speaks at Sunday

Gov. Terry McAuliffe of Virginia speaks at Sunday service at First Baptist Church in Charlottesville, Va., on Aug. 13, 2017. Credit: EPA / Tasos Katopodis

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. -- It was quiet Sunday morning in the Charlottesville park that still hosts a contentious statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee. Depending on whom you ask, it is either still called Lee Park or now called Emancipation Park, as the city officially renamed it in June.

One’s preference is defined, presumably, by whether he or she thinks the life of Lee is more worthy of honor than the freeing of slaves. Or perhaps just by habit, an easy excuse for continuing both to incorrectly name the park and continuing to honor Lee. It was the decision by the city earlier this year to sell the enormous statue of Lee that made the college town a target of white pride ire and protest.

Saturday brought a Nazi, KKK, white pride and alt-right protest called Unite the Right, and a counterprotest. Violence ensued, and a 32-year-old woman opposing the racists was killed. Authorities accused a white supremacist of mowing her and several other people down. The helicopter-crash deaths of two state troopers monitoring the violence compounded the horror.

Sunday morning morning, police in the reeling city had closed off car access to a multi-block area around the park, though pedestrians came and went as they pleased. Media and law enforcement outnumbered the curious by a wide margin.

One crowd instead came together at a place of healing.

At the First Baptist Church of Charlottesville, Deacon Kitty Matthews began the 10:30 a.m. service by asking that everyone say to the next person, “Neighbor, thank you for joining me on the battlefield for the Lord.”

The church was formed by slaves in 1864. It has seen a series of battles, and a need for the Lord. Some strangers, many of them white, any of them potentially dangerous, came Sunday. They were cherished, hugged and comforted by worshipers beset by pain.

Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, taking the altar briefly, crushed the argument that the nation is losing its “white identity” with ease: “The first blacks landed at Fort Monroe in 1619,” McAuliffe said.

First Baptist has been entwined in a struggle with racism every day of its existence, said John Boyd, a church elder. “And we are not just winning, we are rejoicing in God as we do it,” Boyd said. “We have prayed for our enemies. And we continue to.”

Every white power movement wave in this nation has as its basis the same justification. That this time, liberalism has gone too far, has forced a change that white European Americans cannot allow to stand.

The first such outrage was the move to end the enslavement of humans. Since the Civil War, racists in the United States have been stirred to action by movements to give black people the vote, access to schools, universities, housing, jobs and justice. And along the way, there have been related outbursts of both pique and violence against Jews and Muslims and Hispanics — and whoever else doesn’t fit their “white” template.

In the end, the racists always lose. In the end, they always scamper back to their tiny, painful lives and warped passions, having wreaked some carnage, but won no real victory. And the First Baptist Church of Charlottesville and all the other places of peace survive and thrive and prosper and make joyous noises unto the Lord, even as members mourn.

Its members pray for the racists who despise them, that these hateful hearts might be healed and filled with love.

Lane Filler is a member of the Newsday editorial board