As black and Jewish residents in the Boston area watched Saturday’s violent protests led by white nationalists unfold in Charlottesville, even from thousands of miles away, they felt a painful jolt — a reminder that they are sometimes unwelcome in their own country.
And so, on Sunday, disheartened and distressed, they turned to their faith.
But in churches and temples across the city, even religious leaders were grappling with how best to guide their communities through an environment of fear and uncertainty.
“At times like these, even the preacher feels angry,” said the Rev. Willie Bodrick II from the pulpit at Twelfth Baptist Church in Roxbury on Sunday morning. “Even the preacher feels the pain. Even the preacher feels the tension that makes it seem as if we are going backward faster than we are going forward.”
Hundreds of torch-wielding white supremacists, including Klansmen and neo-Nazis, marched through the University of Virginia Friday night and led violent protests Saturday that culminated in the death of one counterprotester after a car drove into a crowd of people.
Some faith leaders advised their congregations to mount active resistance to racism and white nationalism, while others urged their churches to pray for reconciliation. But many of the leaders, including Bodrick, found themselves contemplating how, over the past year, their eyes have been reopened to what Bodrick called “the country’s original sins.”
“This country was built on a foundation of racism and hatred and bigotry,” he said. “We told ourselves that we buried and did away with this thing called racism. We made ourselves believe that we lived in some post-racial reality that has done away with the things of the past.”
In Dorchester, at Pleasant Hill Missionary Baptist Church, the Rev. Miniard Culpepper prayed for an end to hatred. “I think 150 years after the Civil War, it’s sad to see that it’s still being fought,” Culpepper said.
“My prayer is that people of good will and people of justice and what’s right and love and peace will stand up and make clear to these who are still fighting that the Civil War is over and that we should come together as one nation, under God,” he said.
A similar tone was echoed by Rabbi Howard Jaffe, of Temple Isaiah in Lexington. “There’s certainly an awareness that the anti-Semitism we all wished to believe was dormant or essentially dead, wasn’t at all,” he said. “In fact, it’s now being given oxygen.”
Parents at Jaffe’s synagogue increasingly discuss taking measures to secure the temple, Jaffe said, a sign of the heightened awareness among members of the Jewish faith.
“We’re in a beautiful community, we’d keep our doors open to anyone, and now we have to worry about our children,” he said. “I don’t think we feel especially threatened right now, but we’re very aware — it’d be foolish not to be.”
Events in Charlottesville also shook Muslims, who have seen that groups espousing racism and anti-Semitism are almost certain to be anti-Islam as well, said Yusufi Vali, executive director of the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center.
“It’s deeply disheartening to see this,” Vali said. “This kind of rhetoric of hate and this act of violence have to be condemned in the strongest terms by all of our leaders. At the same time, it’s really important to recognize that the vast majority of white Americans are good and decent people. . . . Based on the actions of a small group, we should not jump to any conclusions. The Muslim community is well aware of that.”
Aware that a conservative rally is planned for next Saturday in Boston, church leaders on Sunday were split as to how to respond. Bodrick said he plans to counterprotest the rally, while Jaffe said he would encourage a silent protest.
Jaffe said he found silent protests effective when the Westboro Baptist Church, a religious group known for staging antigay protests at military funerals, came to Lexington High School. “People should gather and let it be known that those who stand for decency outnumber those who stand for hate,” he said. “But it would be unwise to engage with them.”
Meanwhile, Bishop John Borders III at Morning Star Baptist Church in Mattapan urged his congregation “not to provoke the alt-right movement, but to live out a spirit of reconciliation.”
“Any time you see a group of people who come out to protest with shields and helmets, they’re not coming out to protest; they’re coming out to instigate,” Borders said. “Do not be brought into that foolishness.”
His words provided comfort to Janice Allen, a member of his congregation who said she’s been unnerved by the events in Charlottesville. “I was raised during the civil rights movement, and years ago, I took my choir to sing for Nelson Mandela, and to sing for [former] president Barack Obama in the White House,” Allen said. “So it’s upsetting for me to see this in 2017.”
In an interview, Borders referenced Boston’s diversity — of religion, ethnicity, and history. Any attempt to destroy that, he said, will fail. “This is one area that’s known for its racist past,” Borders said. “But we are not a racist city, and we’re not going to let anyone turn us around.”