By Chris Hughes
Outside the brick walls of the historic First United Methodist Church in Charlottesville, Va., chaos was rising to a fever pitch. White nationalists and white supremacists by the hundreds were rallying throughout the quaint college town to protest the removal of a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee. They proudly brandished symbols of their ideology—Nazi and neo-Nazi symbols, Confederate battle flags and Deus vult crosses—as they chanted antisemitic slogans and racial slurs. Many donned Army fatigues, body armor and carried semi-automatic weapons. The air was filled with the sounds of large truck engines rumbling and people yelling.
Just inside the walls of the church, the Rev. Michael Cheuk worked alongside a group of interfaith and interracial clergy who were doing everything in their power to create a space of respite, rest and peace—in a word, sanctuary.
First United Methodist Church sits directly across the park from where the Lee statue stood, the epicenter of the racial strife threatening to rend the town apart. Throughout the day, Cheuk served as a communications liaison for a group of clergy organized by Congregate Charlottesville, an interfaith group that led non-violent direct action trainings and mobilized volunteers to respond to the “Unite the Right Rally” that took place on August 12, 2017. Cheuk kept tabs on social media to track developments in the protests, communicated with group members, responded to media requests and, when needed, called for help.
“We would get a call if someone needed help, and we would dispatch what we called ‘Care Bears’—people with little red wagons with things like Band-Aids, water, sunscreen, snacks, whatever was needed to take care of people,” Cheuk explained. “It was a stifling hot day that day,” he recalled.
Members of the clergy group were spread across the city, with some participating in direct action, some providing aid to anyone in need of water or medical attention and some staying in the church to offer prayer, counseling or just a place to rest. “Later in the day, we had people coming in, and their faces were just in shock. Some of them actually had blood on their jeans. Some would come in and just slump down against the walls in the hallways of the church,” Cheuk said.
“I remember distinctly when we got a message saying, ‘There is a car that just drove through the crowd at 40 mph.’” Cheuk frantically reached out to the nearest hospital to get emergency medical attention. The car, driven by James Fields, was the one that fatally struck Heather Heyer, who later died at University Hospital, and injured 35 others.
The ill-fated protest was a boiling point for racial tensions in America, emblematic of a renewed boldness for white supremacist groups that had been percolating since at least the mass shooting at Mother Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston, S.C., in 2015.
Cheuk is no stranger to racial justice work. In fact, it is one of the threads stretching across his work as a pastor and now with the Charlottesville Clergy Collective. His first pastorate was at Farmville Baptist Church in Farmville, Va., a church known in the community for a racist history. Between 1959 and 1964, members of the church had supported closing public schools and diverting tax money to establish an all-white academy rather than desegregating their schools. The church even had an informal policy of not allowing Black individuals to be on church property, a policy members employed to arrest civil rights protestors on the front steps of the church in 1969. The group of protesters included the Rev. J. Samuel Williams, Jr., an activist and pastor in Farmville.
When Cheuk unearthed the disturbing history, he worked to find ways to make amends, first by befriending Williams. Later, he extended a public apology on behalf of the church to Williams at a public symposium on the public school closures between 1959 and 1964. “I felt that a public apology was decades overdue,” he said.
For Cheuk, the role of pastor includes a powerful, symbolic and historical role. His hope was that such a public act would do some healing work for Williams, for the church and for the whole community. “For the pastor to acknowledge publicly what was a part of the church’s history might actually strip the power of the guilt and shame for the congregation of Farmville Baptist. I credit church members who supported me in reckoning with our past,” he added.
In his next pastorate at University Baptist Church in Charlottesville, Cheuk found a calling that took him beyond the walls of his own church with the Charlottesville Clergy Collective. The group was formed in 2015 at the initiative of the Rev. Dr. Alvin Edwards, pastor of Mt. Zion First African Baptist Church, as a response to the shooting at Mother Emanuel AME. Edwards had served as pastor for nearly 30 years in Charlottesville, and even served a stint as the city’s mayor. But in the wake of the terrible shooting, he realized a pressing need for a space for clergy to come together to confront the harmful effects of racism that still lingered in their town and across the nation.
This kind of organic and relational work laid an important foundation for the horrifying events that took place in Charlottesville that fateful August day. The entire summer was filled with demonstrations from white supremacist groups after Vice Mayor Wes Bellamy called for the removal of the Lee statue. These demonstrations led to an increasing interest in groups like the Charlottesville Clergy Collective, which began drawing attention from faith leaders beyond just the Christian faith. Buddhist, Sufi and Jewish faith leaders started showing up as well, all looking for ways to counter the virulent racial hatred.
It’s through that work that Cheuk sensed a shift in his calling. He left the pastorate of University Baptist in January of 2016 to focus entirely on racial justice work with the Charlottesville Clergy Collective. He serves as the secretary for the group, where he manages communications, coordinates its organizing strategies and helps facilitate groups and events in order to promote racial justice. This work includes organizing forums, planning interfaith worship services, showcasing films and promoting book groups, and leading spiritual pilgrimages. In the summer of 2022, for example, he served as a chaplain for a community-wide civil rights tour to important sites in Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi and Tennessee. The tour included a visit to the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, a haunting memorial honoring the lives of those who were lynched in America.
In this new calling, Cheuk considers himself a “minister to ministers,” helping to coach and counsel pastors as they grapple with difficult conversations. It is a way for him to be more directly involved in repairing the injustices he sees in the world. “For years, I preached about the importance of God’s spirit calling us beyond the walls of the church. And then an opportunity came along and I sensed a calling, almost as if God were asking, ‘Yes, and what about you, Michael?’ What are you doing beyond the walls?’”
For his work, Cheuk received the Emmanuel McCall Racial Justice Trailblazer Award at the 2022 Cooperative Baptist Fellowship General Assembly in Dallas. Presented by the Pan African Koinonia, the award recognizes CBF individuals and ministries who charter through unequal and unjust areas of life, initiating proactive resolutions for communities in the form of policies or practices that result in greater equity, opportunity, impact and outcomes for all.
“I am so humbled to receive this award; but this is not an individual thing,” Cheuk said when he accepted the award in June. “I don’t do this alone, and I am grateful for you all who are a part of this movement that sees the need for and prioritizes efforts toward racial justice.”
For Cheuk, of course, the work is ongoing and requires shifts in mindset, as individuals, as institutions and as a nation. “I think for real and tangible progress to take place, there has to be a frank recognition of what Philippians talks about as kenosis,” he posited. “What would it mean for the church, which has for so long been the pinnacle of respect and power, to make the kenotic move and pour themselves out more and more, just as Jesus did?”
This article first appeared in the Fall 2022 issue of fellowship! magazine. Check out the issue and subscribe for free at www.cbf.net/fellowship.