Residents unite against racism in show of solidarity with Charlottesville

By: K. Michelle Moran | Grosse Pointe Times | Published August 22, 2017

 Attendees of the vigil sign cards showing their solidarity with the victims in Charlottesville.

Attendees of the vigil sign cards showing their solidarity with the victims in Charlottesville.

Photo by K. Michelle Moran

GROSSE POINTE FARMS — Hundreds of local residents presented a united front against white supremacy and in favor of peace, tolerance and justice as they gathered for a vigil Aug. 17 at The War Memorial to remember the victims in Charlottesville, Virginia.

The group We GP — also known as Welcoming Everyone Grosse Pointe — quickly assembled a vigil at The War Memorial that it billed as “a peaceful, nonpartisan, nondenominational Charlottesville-Grosse Pointe solidarity vigil.”

“We are delighted to have you here on this very important evening,” War Memorial President and CEO Charles Burke told attendees inside the Fries Auditorium. “This evening is about peace. This evening is about community. … This evening is about humility, and this evening is about grace.”

The auditorium seats roughly 425, and there were additional attendees standing along the back wall.

“The theater was filled to standing-room-only capacity,” War Memorial Assistant Director of Community Engagement Brooks Hoste said by email. “As soon as every seat was filled — which happened quickly — we had to begin turning people away. In addition to the 450-plus people participating live in the theater, 1,787 people viewed the event remotely via Facebook Live.”

On Aug. 12, white nationalists protesting the removal of a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee on a college campus clashed with counter-protesters. One of the participants in the white nationalist protest reportedly responded by plowing his car into a group of counter-protesters, killing one — Heather Heyer, 32 — and injuring more than a dozen others. Two police officers who were heading to the scene in a helicopter to help in the chaos also died after their helicopter crashed.

During the Grosse Pointe vigil, ministers from several local congregations offered blessings and prayers, and led attendees in responsorials and songs, including Roger Scully, the cantor for Isaac Agree Downtown Synagogue in Detroit.

“Give us the strength to reject any ideology that would divide us,” said the Rev. Alexander Riegel, of Grosse Pointe Unitarian Church.

The Rev. Areeta Bridgemohan, of Christ Church Grosse Pointe, recounted her own experience with prejudice as a girl growing up in Italy. A group of neo-Nazi boys surrounded her on the school bus one day, insulting her and asking “intrusive questions,” and the harassment continued after she got off the bus.

“They threw stones at me and hurled racial slurs at me,” Bridgemohan said.

As a result of that experience, “I spent much of my time grappling with (the feeling) that I didn’t belong,” she continued.

In the hallway outside the auditorium, representatives from Grosse Pointe Congregational Church in Grosse Pointe Farms invited attendees to sign cards sharing messages of support with the victims and the people of Charlottesville, and dozens gathered around the tables with brightly colored Sharpies in hand.

Attendees emerged feeling empowered.

“It’s time to get involved,” St. Clair Shores resident Ann Wegrzynowicz said. “We have to make this happen. We have to get rid of prejudice in our society. It starts with us.”

Laura Duffy, also of St. Clair Shores, agreed.

“It was very inspiring and very moving,” Duffy said of the vigil, which she learned about through Facebook.

A number of local officials were on hand for the vigil, including Grosse Pointe Farms Public Safety Director Daniel Jensen, Farms Detective Lt. Richard Rosati and Farms City Councilmen Peter Waldmeir and Louis Theros.

“This is a wonderful event for the community,” Waldmeir said afterward. “It’s important that all people show support for what’s right and that we stand together as a community. We’re really glad to be a part of this.”

District 1 Wayne County Commissioner Tim Killeen, D-Detroit, represents residents of the five Grosse Pointes and Harper Woods, as well as a section of Detroit’s east side. He praised the vigil for sending a message “about loving your neighbor.”

“I think we can’t be silent,” Harper Woods City Councilwoman Vivian Sawicki said after the event. “Every little bit that we can do just confirms our resolve.”

We GP President Shannon Byrne, of Grosse Pointe Farms, thanked co-host The War Memorial, religious leaders and attendees for coming together, but acknowledged more still needs to be done.

“Today is just one small step,” Byrne said. “Horrific racism … is with us every day. … Tonight, we take that first small step towards dismantling the divisions and building the bridges.”

We GP Board member Gabriela Boddy, of Grosse Pointe City, said they were awed by the turnout.

“I feel very excited, because the fear sometimes can take over, but in this community, love is stronger than fear,” she said afterward.

The service included the national anthem and a flag ceremony. At the end, attendees were urged to write their personal commitments to change on index cards that had been distributed as people arrived. Attendees were asked to keep the cards as a reminder to themselves.

“Everything we do at The War Memorial is to champion a spirit of patriotism,” Hoste said via email. “I can’t think of anything more patriotic than standing up for the rights of all people, regardless of race, creed, or any other segregator that could possibly exist.”

At the end, the auditorium lights were lowered and attendees held up glow sticks as they sang “This Little Light of Mine.”

A minister at the event seemed to sum up the attitude of attendees in the prayer she offered.

“We believe that love is stronger than hatred,” said the Rev. Susan Mozena, of Grosse Pointe Memorial Church. “We know that hope is greater than fear.”