Hate has consumed the news cycle since Charlottesville happened. But you know what’s more affective? Stories of love. Yes, it sounds cliché, but it’s true. Love and positive change. How about a story about a man who went from a member to the KKK to a Catholic priest?
That’s what happened to Father William Aitcheson of the Catholic Dioceses of Arlington in Virginia. The events in Charlottesville affected him on a personal level and he decided to use his past as teaching tool.
Father Aitcheson revealed his past in an op-ed in The Arlington Catholic Herald yesterday:
What most people do not know about me is that as an impressionable young man, I was a member of the Ku Klux Klan. It’s public information but it rarely comes up. My actions were despicable. When I think back on burning crosses, a threatening letter, and so on, I feel as though I am speaking of somebody else. It’s hard to believe that was me.
As a young adult I was Catholic, but in no way practicing my faith. The irony that I left an anti-Catholic hate group to rejoin the Catholic Church is not lost on me. It is a reminder of the radical transformation possible through Jesus Christ in his mercy.
He apologizes for his former actions and asks for forgiveness. He also asks those affected by racism or bigotry to forgive him.
While the photos of Charlottesville haunted father Aitcheson, he wrote that no one should ever forget the past even if God has forgiven you. He believes God has forgiven him, but “forgetting what I did would be a mistake.” He continued:
The images from Charlottesville are embarrassing. They embarrass us as a country, but for those who have repented from a damaging and destructive past, the images should bring us to our knees in prayer. Racists have polluted minds, twisted by an ideology that reinforces the false belief that they are superior to others.
Christ teaches something different. He teaches us that we are all his creations and wonderfully made — no matter our skin color or ethnicity. Realizing this truth is incredibly liberating. When I left my former life, I did a lot of soul-searching. God humbled me, because I needed to be humbled. But abandoning thoughts of racism and superiority gave me the liberation I needed.
Father Aitcheson reminds us that everyone “must condemn, at every opportunity, the hatred and vile beliefs of the KKK and other white supremacist organizations” since those beliefs “directly contradicts what we believe as Americans and what we, as Catholics hold dear.” But he had a message for them:
If there are any white supremacists reading this, I have a message for you: you will find no fulfillment in this ideology. Your hate will never be satisfied and your anger will never subside. I encourage you to find peace and mercy in the only place where it is authentic and unending: Jesus Christ.
For those who have suffered racism and bigotry we must pray for them, but we must not forget those who spew their hatred:
Pray also for those who perpetuate racist beliefs and wrongly believe they are superior to others. God forgives everyone who truly repents. Nobody is outside of his loving grasp. With conversion in Christ, they can find new life in the truth.
Father Aitcheson has taken a leave of absence. From FOX5:
“While Fr. Aitcheson’s past with the Ku Klux Klan is sad and deeply troubling, I pray that in our current political and social climate his message will reach those who support hate and division, and inspire them to a conversion of heart,” read a statement from Bishop Burbidge of the Catholic Dioceses of Arlington.. “Our Lord is ready to help them begin a new journey, one where they will find peace, love, and mercy. The Catholic Church will walk with anyone to help bring them closer to God.”
FOX 5’s Melanie Alnwick reported that Aitcheson was the leader of a KKK group that participated in several cross burnings in 1977 in the College Park area of Prince George’s County. Alnwick reports that Aitcheson’s group considered bombing local facilities including Fort Meade and the Prince George’s County NAACP offices. Alnwick said the New York Times reported that Aitcheson was convicted on a criminal misdemeanor charge and spent 90 days in jail.
The Dioceses says there have been no accusations of racism or bigotry against Aitcheson throughout his time in the Diocese of Arlington. The Dioceses says he voluntarily asked to step away from public ministry, for the well-being of the Church and parish community.
I firmly believe the most powerful voices to fight hate are those who used to follow those beliefs. We must embrace those people and give them an outlet. It’s the same for abortion or drug addiction. Nothing can turn minds more than those who actually lived it like former abortion doctors or drug addicts.
I came across this story from PBS published in February about an African American musician who befriends white supremacists to change their ways. It’s worked. One of his closest friends is Scott Shepherd, a former Grand Dragon of the KKK:
Shepherd “made it his life’s mission to defeat the creed he once espoused, the people [he] once called friends have sent him death threats, yet still he carries on, desperate to atone for the sins of his past” [International Business Times]. At the Martin Luther King Center, Shepherd recently publicly apologized to the family of the slain Civil Rights leader for all the terrible things he once said about Dr. King. In a video of that discussion (below), with Daryl Davis alongside him, the Mississippi native revealed that he was raised by an African American woman, and blames having a broken home with an alcoholic father, along with self-loathing, for why he turned toward the Klan (which was basically in his backyard).
The key? This:
Like Scott Shepherd, other high profile white supremacists who’ve become reformed racists began their reconsideration when confronted with the humanity of individuals that contradicted their poisonous assumptions.
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