Wendy Klesch, Special to The Catholic Virginian
In Virginia Beach, an empty platform stands beside the old brick Princess Anne County courthouse, surrounded by green netting and a chain-link fence.
Until Saturday, July 25, it was the site of a 27-foot-tall monument, installed in 1905, depicting a Confederate soldier holding a rifle.
Decades before that, it was the site of slave auctions, where people were whipped, separated from their families and sold.
On Tuesday, July 28, people of all faiths from across Hampton Roads gathered at the site as part of a Prayer Pilgrimage for Black Lives and Racial Equity.
During the course of the morning, participants traveled from Virginia Beach to Portsmouth to Norfolk to places where Confederate monuments either stand or once stood, for a day of reflection, remembrance and healing.
Tim McCarthy, a parishioner at Holy Family, Virginia Beach, explained that the idea for the pilgrimage came about during an informal Zoom meeting of volunteers active in social justice ministries who joined together to form the working group Catholics and Friends for Black Lives and Racial Equity.
“We wanted to convey the message that there are Catholics who stand with the Black Lives Matter movement,” he said. “We are called by our faith, as infused with Catholic Social Teachings — we are called by Christ — to stand with the marginalized, to stand up for justice where we can.”
‘Journey of transformation’
Father Kevin O’Brien, pastor of St. Therese, Chesapeake, began the pilgrimage with a prayer, addressing about 80 people who had gathered beneath the spreading oak trees in front of the old courthouse.
“We gather before this memorial to the victims of a war that tore our nation in two,” Father O’Brien said. “We stand here in memory of the peacemaker prophet we follow.”
He continued: “Wherever the dignity, safety, freedom and value of a human life is in danger, there we are called to take a stand. So we stand here, and in the shadow of this monument, we shine the light of love to open eyes once blind to the roots of slavery and racist violence that have long distorted our vision of this nation.”
Abby Causey, a parishioner at Holy Spirit, Virginia Beach, and one of the organizers of the event, also spoke, explaining how the idea of a pilgrimage is an important part of Catholic faith tradition, how — at heart — a pilgrimage is not just a journey from place to place, but a journey of transformation, a time to leave the comfortable and well-trodden path in order to learn to see things differently and to gain new perspectives on the world.
One of the goals of the pilgrimage, Causey said, was to give members of the Black community the opportunity to tell their own stories.
“We wanted it to be a day for listening,” she said. “Love listens. It’s often through stories that our hearts are changed.”
At times, guest speakers had to compete with the buzz of cicadas, the rumble of traffic or even the roar of an occasional jet, as each took a turn to be heard and to address issues critical to the Black community.
Dr. B. Theron Williams, CEO of the Center for Global Diplomacy and co-founder of Kingdom Reign Church in Virginia Beach, addressed the issue of policing, sharing an experience of how an incident in his church’s parking lot led him to be confronted by the police, he said, illustrating how quickly situations with law enforcement can go awry.
Although our faith teaches us to value every human life and that we are all made in God’s image, Williams said, all too often, “we believe there is a caste system, or a class system, and for some reason, people who look like me end up on the bottom.” The bottom when it comes to opportunity, he said, and when it comes to law enforcement, at the bottom “when police have to make the call.”
At Portsmouth, the next pilgrimage stop, Ray Smith, who worked for 41 years with Dominion Energy as an operations specialist and who has served nine years on the Portsmouth school board and five years on the city council, spoke of the importance of education, and how pursuit of education has played a pivotal role in his life.
Smith said that while growing up in Portsmouth in the late 1960s, he witnessed how racism was endemic in the school system. When it was time for schools to be outfitted with new books, for example, predominantly black schools were typically given the passed-down, used materials.
In the ninth grade, Smith said he attended Woodrow Wilson High School, a predominantly white school, because it offered an electronics class that he wanted to take, and during his time there, he was frequently harassed by the other students.
Smith credited his faith for helping him in times of struggle and said that the struggle motivated him to work harder for a more equitable system.
“I beseech you to continue to fight racial injustice,” he told those assembled. “We all can love one another and we all can live and get along with one another.”
From faith to action
Steve Baggerly of the Norfolk Catholic Worker explained that the pilgrimage is more than simply one day of reflection; it’s also about working to change policy long-term.
“Especially now, during the COVID pandemic,” he said, “which has uncovered so many fissures in our society — in housing, in education, in health care — issues that need our urgent attention.”
At the stop in Norfolk, across the street from the cordoned-off platform where a Confederate monument once stood on Commercial Place, Lavonne Pledger, a community advocate and member St. Paul’s Advisory Council, spoke about the St. Paul’s Redevelopment Project, a project in which the city plans to demolish a large section of public housing and to replace it with apartments, displacing 4,500 residents.
It’s vital, Pledger said, that the city have concrete plans in place for those residents before proceeding.
“I don’t live in the future,” he said. “I live in the here and now.”
Teresa Stanley, a parishioner at Holy Apostles, Virginia Beach, and one of the organizers of the event, agreed that it’s important to work to keep the momentum inspired by the pilgrimage going in order to effect real change.
She said that the group has set up a website, bit.ly/program728, where those who want to get involved can learn of ways to help.
“This is what it means to be Catholic,” Stanley said. “To be moved by our faith into action.”