The National Council of Churches is grateful to have been invited to join other faith leaders in the counter-protest in Charlottesville, VA this past weekend. The peaceful, loving witness offered by the organizers with Congregate C’ville and the clergy, who came from across the region, was powerful.
Rev. Dr. Joseph Crockett, Associate General Secretary, and Rev. Steven D. Martin, Director of Communications and Development, opened a Friday night worship service at St. Paul’s Memorial Episcopal Church with words from Martin Niemoeller: “Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out, for I was not a Jew. Then they came for me, and there was no one left to speak for me.”
Early in the morning of Saturday, August 12, people gathered at First Baptist Church to sing and pray. The clergy then formed into two groups: those who had been trained in nonviolent civil disobedience, and those who had not. Organizers issued stern warnings to those who were willing to participate in the civil disobedience action: With the presence of armed militia, the potential for violence was extremely high.
At 8:00 am, clergy and faith leaders joined arm-in-arm to walk toward Emancipation Park, the scene of the violence that would later unfold. The group lined the street in front of the park, just feet from armed militia. They prayed and sang while protesters, carrying shields, flags, banners, and weapons, marched by.
“I have wondered to myself, ‘If I were present in during the height of the civil rights movement, if I had held a pulpit during that time, would I have stood on the right/correct side of history?’” asked Rev. Annette Flynn, United Methodist clergy from Tennessee, who traveled to Charlottesville to be part of the counterprotest.
The crowd size grew as marchers came in formation along the street lined by clergy counter-protesters. From one side came Alt-Right, KKK, and neo-Nazi groups; from the other side came anti-Fascist protesters. The clergy were in the middle of a violent clash that was about to unfold.
Rev. Flynn continued: “I saw fear in the faces of the Alt-Right. I tried to look them in their eyes and they would not make eye contact. I saw and felt their fear. I felt sadness for them. I wish people who are quick to judge them would remember that what lies behind anger is often deep hurt. We are called to compassion and love. Always.”
As the two groups converged, the organizers of the clergy action signaled the group to leave the scene. Within seconds, the violence that has been played continuously on cable news unfolded.
After they safely left the scene, the faith leaders regrouped in a restaurant that had been designated a “safe space.” Time was spent praying about and reflecting on what had occurred. Upon receiving word that the crowd had been dispersed, local Charlottesville clergy returned to Emancipation Park.
Several of these clergy were on the scene when a Dodge Challenger, allegedly driven by a white supremacist, plowed into a crowd of peaceful protesters, killing 32-year-old Heather Heyer.
The presence of faith leaders in Charlottesville was appreciated by Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe, who thanked those who came to bring a peaceful witness.
Charlottesville native and clergy counterprotest organizer Rev. Seth Wispelwey remarked, “Our city is in shock and traumatized. I’m immensely proud of how clergy and faith leaders from all over the country came to stand on the front lines of with us – offering both pastoral and prophetic care on an unprecedented day for our community. This is not just a local moment, though, and it is not an aberration. White supremacy is woven into our country’s DNA, and that pastoral and prophetic work must continue to heal our trauma while pivoting into the deep, hard life-giving work ahead. The white church must help lead. We’ve been playing catch-up for 400 years.”
“This weekend in Charlottesville I saw the most extreme expressions of hate-fueled violence, and love-inspired witness, I have ever experienced,” said Rev. Michael Neuroth, Policy Advocate for the United Church of Christ. “I stood with and supported faith leaders from Charlottesville as they offered their bodies as “living sacrifices,” seeking to absorb the physical, emotional, and spiritual blows white supremacists and neo-Nazi groups came to wield against people of color. My hope is that Charlottesville is a wakeup call to our nation that we must urgently confront white supremacy and the white privilege that undergirds it in our own lives, families, and communities.”
“White supremacists attempted to take over our town,” clergy organizer Brittany (Smash) Caine-Conley reflected. “What happened instead: Charlottesville community members and our allies rallied to love and protect each other. We are heartbroken and horrified by the murder of our own Heather Heyer. We will mourn, we will grieve, and then we will get to work, doing everything in our power to dismantle white supremacy in all of its forms.”
“America is a wounded, divided nation. And yesterday, everyone was crying out loud in pain, each in their own ways,” said interfaith activist Sahar Alsalani, who stood with the clergy counterprotesters. “The sad things was, no one was listening to or hearing each other…..only reacting, without any supervision, like in a playground brawl when the teachers were away. There were no winners at the end of the day. Everyone lost something. And only God knows how we will all recover.”