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In Charlottesville’s ‘Summer of Hate,’ a Chinese-American pastor found his footing in the fight for civil rights

On August 12, 2017, I spent the day at First United Methodist Church, helping counter-protesters and religious leaders communicate as white supremacists, neo-Nazis and racists marched through the streets of Charlottesville, my hometown. . The church was a sanctuary for counter-protesters, where I saw people seeking care after being bloodied and bruised by the violence that day.

Although I have been a pastor for over 20 years, the experience has changed my understanding of sanctuary.

In the weeks and days leading up to August 11-12, 2017, I did not expect to respond directly to the Unite the Right rally.

I am a founding member and secretary of the Charlottesville Clergy Collective, an interfaith group formed to fight racial justice after a white supremacist killed nine people at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston in 2015. When the Ku Klux Klan planned to demonstrate against the removal of the Robert E. Lee statue in Charlottesville in July 2017, we heard local police were recommending residents stay away from downtown. Some members of our collective were receptive to this suggestion, but others vehemently disagreed because they believed religious leaders should come out publicly to confront white supremacy.

Then came the news of a much larger demonstration by white nationalists in August – we in the Collective continued to struggle against our response.

For most of Charlottesville’s “Summer of Hate,” I also didn’t know what my answer should be.

As an Asian, I was “out of place” in this conflict which seemed to unfold in black and white. My ancestors were not part of the history of slavery in the United States.

Michael Cheuk, the child in this photo, remembers his “Gohn Gohn”, grandfather in Cantonese, who was harassed in China during the Cultural Revolution. In the early 1970s, Cheuk’s grandfather was living in Hong Kong with his family. Courtesy of Michael Cheuk

My family immigrated from Hong Kong in 1973 when I was 7 years old, in anticipation of returning from Hong Kong to China in 1997. Growing up, I was raised to respect my elders and authority figures. I was taught to stay out of trouble. I’ve spent much of my life assimilating into white culture by becoming a “model minority” who doesn’t rock the boat, a myth often used to pit minorities against each other. My sister and two cousins ​​were the only Asians in my elementary school in Shreveport, Louisiana, and my classmates would chant at me, “Chinese, Japanese, dirty knees, look at this…”

I wanted to be accepted by my peers, so I smiled and walked away instead of responding. These experiences informed my initial inclination to stay away from both rallies.

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However, I remembered that during the Communist Cultural Revolution in China, some of my ancestors were sent to re-education camps, and my grandfather was harassed for owning a business. I remembered that Asian Americans were not immune to discrimination by the US government and that Japanese Americans were forced to be incarcerated in camps during World War II.

On the morning of August 12, I heard the chants of the tiki torch walkers who had gathered at the University of Virginia the night before: “The Jews will not replace us. YOU will not replace us. I wondered if I, and other members of the non-white community like me, were also included in this derisory “you”. Whether I like it or not, the struggle for civil rights is part of my past and part of my present.

To complicate matters further, in conversations with members of the Collective in 2016, I also realized that I had internalized racial bias against black Americans even from a young age.

I remember one night when I was 12, a black man knocked on the door of our house in an integrated neighborhood in Shreveport, Louisiana. Looking through the curtains, I saw his car parked outside with the hood up. Instead of helping, my family and I didn’t open the door and remained silent until the man finally went to another house. Looking back, I think I would have helped if that stranger was white.

I was a new immigrant, but I had already internalized a racist fear of black men.

In 2017, when neo-Nazis, the Klu Klux Klan and finally the torchbearer rally Unite the Right came to Charlottesville, the part of me that was fighting for civil rights was fighting against the part of me that was trying to assimilate into the civil rights. white America.

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The Charlottesville Clergy Collective ended up serving as a clearinghouse for information, resources, and various education and activism opportunities to counter the rally. I helped facilitate and publicize various prayer vigils, meditation gatherings, and worship services held by different faith communities before and on August 12.

One morning in July, I re-read Jesus’ first sermon delivered in his hometown of Nazareth: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom to the captives and the recovery of sight to the blind, to set free the oppressed, to proclaim the Lord’s year of grace” (Luke 4:18-19). And for this prophetic good news to other believers and to unbelievers and enemies, Jesus’ own people tried to lynch him.

This passage challenged me to do more, to join in the fulfillment of Jesus’ prophetic vision – to begin to dismantle the captivity of my internalized racism against myself and others, to open my eyes to my complicity in systemic injustice, to contribute to the freedom of those who have been oppressed, regardless of their faith and race, and to realize that such action could lead to trouble and rejection. As a result, I decided to participate in the direct action organized by another group of religious leaders.

The Charlottesville Congregation was formed by Reverend Seth Wispelwey and Brittany Caine-Conley after the Ku Klux Klan rally in July 2017. They organized militant, nonviolent public action based on the Christian faith and invited religious leaders from all over the country to join them in providing prophetic public witness.

I attended Congregate training in the weeks leading up to August 12 and signed up to provide communications support that day. I worked alongside Reverend Will Brown of the University Baptist Church to monitor Facebook and Twitter accounts throughout the day to coordinate information about what was happening on the streets as reported by legal observers , activists and religious leaders. We have handled requests from journalists around the world asking to interview religious leaders about their views and experiences.

Our “communication center” was housed in the library of the First United Methodist Church (FUMC), which served as a sanctuary for those counter-protesting the far-right and white Supremeist groups marching that day. Under the leadership of Pastor Al Horton and Associate Pastor Phil Woodson, FUMC members have opened their doors and hearts to a diverse group of people who have served as physicians, counselors, legal observers, prayers, and ” health care” which brought water, snacks and first aid supplies to people in need.

On any other day, our differences and disagreements on a host of issues would have divided us and made us enemies.

But not that day.

As the media focused on the division and violence in the streets on August 12, inside the church I experienced a mosaic of people gathered around a common goal. During those anxious hours, no one debated the best strategies for making social progress. All we cared about was being human beings mobilizing our different gifts and strengths to take a stand against white nationalism.

As the day progressed, I was moved to tears as some counter-protesters returned to seek medical and psychological care after being pepper sprayed, tear gassed and bloodied.

I saw Rabbis Tom Gutherz and Rachel Schmelkin take to the streets after Shabbat services with members of Congregation Beth Israel to demand their right to exist in the face of neo-Nazi hatred.

I heard FUMC leaders shouting for us to enter because a gunman was seen approaching the church parking lot.

I saw young activists slumped on the ground comforting themselves after witnessing the horrors of a murder, when someone drove their car into a crowd, killing Heather Heyer and injuring dozens of others.

Throughout the day, Clergy Sisters Apostle Sarah Kelly and Reverend Brenda Brown-Grooms, who were not physically mobile enough to walk outside, prayed inside the sanctuary for the safety of everyone on the streets.

Prior to August 12, I understood “sanctuary” as a safe space from the chaotic world where people gathered for worship. On August 12, I experienced the sanctuary as a courageous place where diverse people of goodwill scattered around the world to work and witness for a more just society.

In this sanctuary, I can be who I am: an imperfect person with internalized racial bias, imperfectly striving toward healing and greater wholeness – in myself and in my community.

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