Experiencing Charlottesville as a counselor was humbling. It was humbling to have been given the opportunity, through the Green Cross, to walk into a grieving city of strangers and try to serve them with an unconditional agape love; to help them bear the weight of the trauma they’d experienced, with the hope that in some way this could contribute to their healing.
Experiencing Charlottesville as a black woman though was conflicting. I felt fearful, frustrated, angry, disappointed, disillusioned, disheartened, and so many other feelings that I am still struggling to figure out. I felt off-kilter for the majority of the time I was there. In actuality, I still, in this moment, feel off-kilter when I think back on the experiences of the weekend. I felt afraid when I entered the city and saw the statue of Robert E. Lee completely covered in black tarp and guarded by police officers and wondered whether I would come face-to-face with hatred directed toward me. I did – as I saw it in the eyes and on the face of a white man who walked toward me, watching me as I stood at on a corner waiting for my partner to finish talking with a woman she had encountered. At first, I thought I was imagining it, but I wasn’t. Even though I knew where I was, and had considered the fact that I might personally experience hatred, it still caught me very much off guard. I was angry as I listened to the experience of a black man who had been in the midst of the conflict, and had been assaulted on that day, and then twice more in that same mall, in the days immediately following. I felt grief as he smiled at me and I realized that I was observing him hiding in plain sight. He had completely shut down his feelings about the incidents, and I understood that it was the only way he could cope. In doing so, he could avoid what he likely felt would be pointless expressions of his own frustration and disillusionment that in 2017, this blatant hatred and racism was his experience. In recognizing him, I recognized myself.
Emotionally there was so much more, not just for me, but for our team. However even beneath the grief-filled press of emotions and the struggle to control them in order to be present for those we had come to serve, that inner turmoil was worth fighting through in order to get to the joy of knowing that there were some who gained a little relief. Someone was there for them who wanted to listen. At the end of the day, when all is said and done, I (and I would venture to say “we”) would go again if it would be of help. This is at the heart of the sacrificial service to which we are all called, and for which we must be ready. If you are reading this, my prayer is that you, too, will look for and find your moments of sacrificial service, and experience the joy that will inevitably come alongside, no matter how difficult that sacrificial service might prove to be.
Dr. Sonja Sutherland