Episcopalians rally against hate as white supremacists bring violence to Charlottesville

By David Paulsen
Posted Aug 14, 2017
Charlottesville march

Clergy from all faith traditions link arms on Aug. 13 as protestors marched through Charlottesville. White supremacists marched on the sidewalk behind the clergy line while men wearing camouflage and carrying long guns came down the street, claiming they were there to “protect free speech.” Photo: Steven D. Martin/National Council of Churches

[Episcopal News Service] When white supremacists descended on Charlottesville, Virginia, over the weekend, sparking violence that left a counter-protester dead and dozens more injured, Episcopalians and other people of faith were among the most visible groups standing in solidarity against hate and bigotry.

St. Paul’s Memorial Church overlooking the University of Virginia campus hosted a prayer service on Aug. 11, the evening before the clashes. The next morning, members of St. Paul’s, Trinity Episcopal and Christ Episcopal joined an interfaith prayer service and then participated in a march to Emancipation Park to rally against the supremacists’ event planned there. The outbreak of violence prompted authorities to shut that event down before it even got started.

The three Episcopal churches in the city also have been active in the Charlottesville Clergy Collective, which now is helping the faith community regroup in the aftermath of the riot.

“I think that it’s incumbent upon us as people of faith to claim that ground, that we’re all created in God’s image, and those who are targets of this hate need people of faith, people of privilege, to show up,” said the Rev. Elaine Thomas, associate rector at St. Paul’s and the co-leader of the Charlottesville Clergy Collective.

The Charlottesville faith community drew support, both in person and verbally, from Episcopal congregations across the country, from Trinity Wall Street in New York City to All Saints Pasadena in California, and several Episcopal bishops and deans released statements condemning the violence.

“In the days and weeks to come, there will be much to discuss as the Jesus Movement responds to the violence and inequality in our world,” Presiding Bishop Michael Curry in a post Aug. 14 on Facebook that added this was a time “remember in prayer those who died and were injured in the violent clashes in Charlottesville.”

Curry, though not in Charlottesville, was deeply engaged with the Episcopal clergy and lay people participating in the rally against hatred, said the Rev. Melanie Mullen, the Episcopal Church’s director of reconciliation, justice and creation care. Curry conveyed his support through social media and text messages.

Mullen was among the Episcopal clergy who responded to a call to travel to Charlottesville in a show of unity, though local clergy were the driving force behind the action. “It was us responding to their needs and encircling this community in prayer.”

The Rev. Gay Jennings, president of the Episcopal Church’s House of Deputies, also released a statement Aug. 14, saying she was “sickened” by the racist violence.

“Even though we sometimes fall short, we Episcopalians strive to be Christians who follow Jesus’ command to love our neighbors as ourselves and who have promised to respect the dignity of every human being,” Jennings said. “And so, we bear a special responsibility to recognize and atone for the perversions of Christianity espoused by white racists and to work for a more just vision of the church and the world.”

Confederate statue has been lightning rod

Seemingly overnight, Charlottesville has become a flashpoint in the ongoing national debate over an increasingly visible strain of racial hatred, promoted by neo-Nazis, Ku Klux Klan members and white nationalists who describe themselves as part of an “alt-right” movement. But religious leaders in Charlottesville know the tension has been building for months, over the city’s plan to remove a statue of Robert E. Lee, the Confederate war general.

Support for that decision was not unanimous, even in a college town seen as more liberal than much of the rest of Virginia. Yet, “people of conscience from a variety of perspectives have made a good-faith effort to strive for understanding and reconciliation in seeking a resolution to the painful local question of our statues,” said the Rev. Will Peyton, the rector at St. Paul’s.

“And it’s very clear that that good-faith effort has made us a lightning rod, because people came from far and wide to express their white supremacist views,” he said. “It’s not about Robert E. Lee.”

The push to remove Confederate monuments has fueled tensions in other cities as well, including New Orleans and St. Louis. The Charlottesville Clergy Collective dates back further, to 2015 when it formed in response to another outbreak of violence fueled by racial hatred – the killing of nine black worshippers at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, by Dylann Roof.

The collective began meeting once a month for breakfast to build relationships. “So that we trust each other, we know each other,” Thomas said. “So that when things like this come up we are able to address them quickly.” The gatherings now draw representatives from 50 to 60 congregations, including all three city Episcopal churches, Thomas said.

In June, they started meeting nearly every week, on Wednesdays, to discuss how the congregations would respond when hate groups come to town.

The increased sense of urgency followed a May 13 rally in which prominent white nationalist Richard Spencer led torch-bearing demonstrators, chanting “you will not replace us.”

The City Council had voted, 3-2, in February to remove the Lee statue. Opponents of the removal sued. Then in June, the city renamed Lee Park, home of the statute, as Emancipation Park.

On July 8, when a small group of Ku Klux Klan demonstrators from North Carolina marched in Charlottesville, the faith community was ready for them. The Charlottesville Clergy Collective organized a unified, peaceful counter-demonstrations and events in which an estimated 2,000 people participated.

But the July 8 rally was nothing like what the city would experience on Aug. 12. The earlier rally drew barely 30 participants who “looked like clownish misfits,” Peyton said. “Everybody in town knew that [Aug. 12] would be bigger.”

‘Truly horrifying’

Billed as a “Unite the Right” rally, it drew white supremacists from far beyond Virginia. Peyton said he saw one car with a license plate from Ontario, Canada, and an Ohio man was charged with driving a car into a crowd of counter-demonstrators, killing one and wounding 19.

“It’s just become so perfectly clear that these people are using our small city here to promote their national and even global agendas or white nationalism and white supremacy,” Peyton said. “We wish they would just leave us in peace.”

On the eve of the supremacists’ rally, as anxiety grew in Charlottesville, St. Paul’s hosted a prayer service organized by a group called Congregate Charlottesville that featured guest speaker Cornell West, a philosopher and political activist who teaches at Harvard, and the Rev. Traci Blackmon, executive minister of justice and witness ministries of the United Church of Christ. About 700 people packed the church to capacity that evening. But toward the end of the service, Peyton learned they had company nearby on the University of Virginia campus.

Charlottesville vigil

Clergy and laity pack St. Paul’s Memorial Church, an Episcopal church across the street from the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, for a prayer service on the evening of Aug. 11. The service was planned in anticipation of the “United the Right” demonstration the next morning and was a call for a peaceful presence. Photo: Steven D. Martin/National Council of Churches

A group of torch-carrying white supremacists had marched to the iconic rotunda across from St. Paul’s and had gathered at the statue of Thomas Jefferson. Peyton went outside to analyze the scene.

“I could see the line of torches coming down the steps of the rotunda,” he said. “I could see the torches and I could hear the chants of ‘white lives matter.’”

The demonstrators, however, did not seem to be aware of the prayer service that was underway. When the service concluded, rather than draw attention to themselves by all leaving out the front, Peyton and other local religious leaders coordinated a more inconspicuous exit from the church in smaller groups that dispersed quickly.

The next morning, the kickoff interfaith prayer service was held at 6 a.m. at the First Baptist Church. Then one procession made its way to Emancipation Park while another group stopped first for an event at a black heritage center before moving on to the First United Methodist Church, across the street from Emancipation Park.

Soon, chaos broke loose.

“It was truly horrifying,” Thomas said, describing bands of white supremacists roaming the streets hours before their rally at noon, in some cases picking fights with counter-protesters on their way to the park. “They came to town to cause violence, there’s no question about.”

“Menacing” was the word Peyton used. They carried shields, clubs, Nazi flags. Some were dressed professionally while others wore black helmets and black sunglasses. “When I watched all these people on Saturday unloading from these vans, they were all clearly eager for violence.”

Less than a half hour before the “Unite the Right” was scheduled to begin, city police declared it an unlawful assembly. Minutes later, Gov. Terry McAuliffe declared a state of emergency.

Boston vigil

Episcopalians around the United States came together in the wake of the violence in Charlottesville to pray for peace and witness to their baptismal promise to work for justice and
respect the dignity of every human being. Vigils took place from All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena, California, to the steps of the Cathedral Church of St. Paul in Boston shown
here. Photo: Bill Parnell/Diocese of Massachusetts

The Episcopal Diocese of Virginia announced at noon on Facebook that none of its clergy or parishioners had been injured. The deadly afternoon crash targeting counter-protesters was followed by an eerie quiet that raised concerns that the supremacists were planning more violence in the evening, Peyton said. The interfaith gathering concluded with a prayer vigil around 5 p.m. at the Methodist church, and everyone went home safely in groups before sundown.

Charlottesville leaders don’t think this is the last they’ve seen of the hate groups, but the faith community has time to regroup.

“We’re just catching our breath right now. Everyone here is exhausted,” Peyton said. “We just need to continue to build bonds between our congregations.”

That mission picks up again on Wednesday, when the Charlottesville Clergy Collective holds its next meeting over breakfast.

– David Paulsen is an editor and reporter for the Episcopal News Service. He can be reached at dpaulsen@episcopalchurch.org.


Comments (25)

  1. Pjcabbiness says:

    Both the left and the right are responsible for the violence that occurred. The Marxist left camouflaged in progressive, liberal, misguided theology and the fascist right cloaked in nationalistic fervor are equally to blame. Each side is led by impassioned demogouges whose aim is political power. The Episcopal Church must resist these movements, influences and infiltrations regardless of where they fall on the political spectrum. The far left and the far right both lead to totalitarianism if unchecked.

    1. The Rev. William P. Peyton says:

      As an eyewitness, I can assure you that there was only one side that intended violence in Charlottesville on Saturday. It was the nazis, white nationalists, and white supremacists. That is not a defense of any real or theoretical violent eft-wing groups; it is a statement of fact about what happened here.

      1. Jim Newman says:

        Rev Peyton:

        What about Anifa who attacked the peaceful demonstrators Friday night on the UVA campus?
        What about Anifa who attacked the Ultra-Right protestors as they walked to the protest site where they had a permit to stage a protest? What about Anifa who attacked the Ultra-Right in the park where they had a permit to protest? The Episcopal Church is aligning itself with the “Ultra-Left” in an attempt to engage in identity politics. It is so sad. No wonder attendence is falling.

        1. The Rev. William P. Peyton says:

          If you believe that the demonstration Friday night was peaceful, you have bad information. Armed torch-wielding men shouting Nazi slogans literally surrounded and attacked a group of unarmed students yards away from the door of my church.
          “Identity politics” strikes me as a much more apt description for the views of the Unite the Right organizers, who are proudly on record as favoring the establishment by violent means of a “white ethnostate” than for the diverse political views of the thousands of local citizens and countless millions of Christians and patriotic Americans who oppose them.

    2. Daniel Berry, NYC says:

      I’d be interested to read specifics on how you see the Left as Marxist.

  2. Vicki Gray says:

    I’d been at a loss for words since Charlottesville…blessed that I didn’t have to, but cursed that I didn’t have the chance to preach yesterday. In a mix of pain and frustration, I ignored the usual dismissal at our morning service at my walled church, Christ the Lord, and shouted instead “Get out of the boat! Get in the water!”

    I knew I couldn’t – didn’t have to – shout that at Open Cathedral that afternoon…too many of us there in danger of drowning in the waves around us, clinging to the saving hand of Jesus.
    Then came prayer time, Valerie leading us in with a Gospel rendition of “It’s me, O Lord.” And the words came. I prayed:

    “It’s me, it’s me, O Lord, standing in the need of prayer. I am white. I am Christian. I speak English. I pray for forgiveness from my brothers and my sisters who are black and brown and not white. I pray for forgiveness from my brothers and sisters who are Jewish, Muslim, and not Christian. I pray for forgiveness from my brothers and my sisters who are still struggling to learn English, struggling to become the privileged American that I am. I pray for forgiveness from you, O Lord.”

    1. Alice Nelson says:

      Vicki, what have you personally done wrong to ask forgiveness from all these groups? Are you guilty only because you are white, Christian and speak English? Are you prejudiced, bigoted, and a racist? You don’t seem to be any of those.

  3. Martha Richards says:

    Some day, hopefully people will realize that its the color of your heart not your skin that is important. To be a caring, loving, compassionate, nurturing soul is what is important and necessary. May our blessed Lord give us the wisdom to understand this before there is more violence and killing.

  4. Susan Salisbury says:

    I have looked at a lot of video online and read several reports, including one from New York Times reporter. To lay all of the blame for violence at the feet of the neomNazis, horrible as they are, is tonexcuse Antifa. Antifa is a loosely, or secretly organized group which has physically assaulted people who invite conservative speakers to college campuses and Trumpmsuppirting rallies all over the country. In fact, they did it again, yesterday in Seattle. They brought things like concrete filled soda cans to Charlottesville and initiated attacks against the Nazis. By refusing to acknowledge this you are condoning it and it makes your condemnation of Nazi violence ring hollow. We cannot defeat Nazi racists by condoning people who, though calling themselves anti fascist, use violent fascist tactics to silence others.

  5. The Rev. Elaine Ellis Thomas says:

    It was actually that antifa that protected clergy from white supremacists as they were gathered with locked arms and prayerful posture at the entrance of the park. Many of my colleagues credit the antifa with saving their lives on Saturday. It is not as one-sided as it might seem.

  6. BG Poole says:

    Virginia the state has long been a conservative place with archaic laws, divided on beliefs and culture. The mountain area full of old southern traditions while the coast is modern, Northern Virginia is a totally different place because of it’s close proximity to D.C. The center of Va. in the Lynchburg area is like a jump back in time, Liberty University tries to run the city and does most of the time. Men still rule in that culture and women are second rate no matter what they profess. This is a state that boasts diversity but yet is hung up on the old ways. Usually when people don’t honor women and people of color you will find radical groups such as KKK and white supremacist they want the old ways back when white men where boldly in power, they could beat their wives and dogs openly, most likely they still do. How about we stop people from forming protests and if they have one then we charge a lot of money for the license and they pay for crowd control. Any violence they go to jail! Haters gonna hate and they do. Love does conquer when it is allowed to be shown and accepted, you gotta first have people who want peace and love, these people don’t want that, most of them most likely don’t know theirselves what they do want but it ain’t love.

  7. Doug Desper says:

    Let me be clear that I am not defending the white supremacists who rallied in Charlottesville under the guise of “Unite the Right”. They are deplorable people – but they must be heard to know them for who they are and as a measure for who we do not wish to be. The 1st Amendment protects that, not just as a comfort for those with ideas to be heard but also to allow warnings of incivility to be understood.

    Episcopal News Service has left out a lot of facts in this tragedy. ENS tells it from the viewpoint of pockets of noble people in the crowd. That is partial truth. Here is more.
    From all accounts the Unite the Right rally was an approved, permitted activity. The Charlottesville leadership attempted to deny the right to public speech and – of all people – the ACLU and the Rutherford Institute (ideological opposites indeed) intervened and succeeded in reversing the City Council’s decision declining an assembly permit. Left out of the ENS story is that Wes Bellamy, Charlottesville Vice-Mayor, has a documented history of very incendiary language that he has used publicly on Twitter and elsewhere. His racial intolerance and affinity for the violent tactics of the Black Panthers and Black Lives Matter is a matter for public viewing.

    The permitted rally was ended as Antifa, Black Lives Matter, Communists, and a multitude of depraved people showed up and a confrontation began. That’s where ENS leaves out a crucial detail. Antifa and others were beating the Unite the Right group as the police were trying to escort them out. The long list of depraved individuals and groups – aside from Unite the Right – were the ones who brought the violence. These so-called “counter-protesters” were not meek, nor were they mainly made up of people attending a church rally. From the side streets and alleys people poured into the rally area with weapons. The police were overwhelmed, and peaceful people – frankly – were in the way, making a police counter response nearly impossible.
    Lesson: Churches….have your counter rally. Speak your peace somewhere away from the bullseye of the storm. Stay out of the way. You made it worse to keep order. The hundreds of armed (and some paid) agitators that showed up to confront the hate speech of Unite the Right used you as shields while they wielded their own brand of hatred. You had better understand that there is a war on between the extreme left and right hate elements of our society. For churches to “mix in” with banners and vestments flying will deter the police from keeping the streets under control.

    There is talk by the Justice Department that the RICO statutes apply to this carnage in Charlottesville. By that, they mean to prosecute people who travelled across state lines to create violence. They will go after George Soros’ paid rent-a-mobs who get trucked in to attack others.
    So, folks, this wasn’t the scene of white supremacists” met by “counter-protesters”. This was a battlefield in the new war where ideas and tongues are being silenced by the weight of a weapon.

    Perhaps we should look back to Sir Thomas More who said that he would give even the Devil (and his hate speech) the benefit of the law…”for my own safety’s sake”.

    1. Pamela Payne says:

      I chuckle every time I read the “George Soros” claims. This guy must really be made of unlimited money, since he apparently single-handedly finances every progressive, liberal or minority group by whom those on the right are currently exorcised. Rather than concentrate on billionaires (like Koch, Mercer, etc), why don’t we Christians ask our Lord for the strength and grace to do what is right and face up to the bigotry engendered by the very real inequalities in our society. Bless the Charlottesville Clergy and their congregations who stand up for the values of Jesus, and not the values of hate and violence.

    2. Blessing John Chelliah says:

      Clergy have always been in the forefront of social justice. They have participated in civil rights marches, anti-apartheid protests to name a few. If they stayed in safe spaces, how would the world hear their voices? The biblical parallel might be our Lord’s cleansing of the Temple which in some ways posed a risk to His life. Jesus nevertheless called out the religious leaders who made the House of the Lord a ‘den of thieves.’ The apostles walking in his footsteps faced martyrdom and persecution as they preached the Gospel to a world, that was often hostile to their message.

  8. Tony Oberdorfer says:

    Once again I find myself in complete agreement with Doug Desper though I would have preferred his not using the tendentious term “white supremacist” which has been thrown around quite recklessly. One might as well refer to everybody else as “black supremacists” which in fact they often are. Indeed TEC seems well on the way to quite deliberately turning itself into a black church.
    There still must be a few Episcopalians left (including some blacks) who bitterly resent the way so many higher-ups in the Church are recklessly using Charlottesville to burnish their own image, ignoring the deadly combination of largely left-wing academic institutions, perniciously one-sided news organizations and so-called social media which makes it easy to spread lies and to distort the truth. All the more reprehensible because those individuals (and they include not a few bishops!) will never be held accountable for encouraging forces whose depraved views are gradually tearing our country apart perhaps beyond repair. It is very sad that so few are willing to speak out in protest.

    1. Doug Desper says:

      The Church should give a silent and compassionate witness in these situations. To join in melees and shout others down with righteous chants is dangerous ground as we live on this side of heaven. Until the Kingdom comes on earth the 1st Amendment allows hate speech – and the Supreme Court has affirmed that it is protected. The 1st Amendment does not protect us from being offended. We had better be glad. Today’s “Veto Heckler” silencing another’s voice can become tomorrow’s arbitrary law-maker if we judge the worthiness of speech based on whether or not it sickens us. The ACLU and the Rutherford Institute (ideological opposites!) advocated for the Unite the Right organizers after the Charlottesville City Council denied them a permit to speak. That lawful assembly (while not admirable) was met by segments of people that the media ennobled and called “counter protesters” who wanted to silence them by force of violence. Both extremes are terrible people but no one has the right to silence another because they are sickening people with unpopular thoughts. To allow such will mean that force and popularity alone will determine who and what is lawful. Those who deny others the benefit of law today will be the ones that are later denied when the winds of popularity shift. So, hold your nose and allow the Devil the benefit of the law….for your own sake.

  9. Pjcabbiness says:

    The clergy did not stand up against hate or violence. They did not act as independent peacemakers. They instead assumed their all to common modern role as leftist political activists and supported violent Marxists.

    1. John Michael Applin says:

      It is my experience that when there are two warring parties, those two parties must sit down together for there to be peace. If this protest’s organizer and counter demonstration organizer (if there was one) could take a brisk walk up shrine mont’s North Mountain and then sit down together up there or in the shrine and actively listen to each other, would there be peace then?

    2. Pamela Payne says:

      Right. We all know that Jesus was a leftist political activist and violent Marxist. All that talk about loving God and loving your neighbor as yourself was just a smoke screen. I pray that we all take a careful examination of just where Jesus would have us stand.

  10. Kenneth Knapp says:

    The mayor of Charlottesville had asked people not to take the bait from the KKK rally in July but they ignored him and showed up in disproportionate numbers to the 30 or so KKK members who went to C’ville. From there the situation escalated and eventually ended up in violence and loss of life. I don’t think anyone has anything to be proud about. Love did not win in Charlottesville. Love never made an appearance.

    1. MR Scullary says:

      Love was there in the form of resistance to ever-present and increasingly emboldened white supremacist/Neo-Nazi movements. In the 21st Century, it’s safe to say that most common sense-orientated people have had enough of these types of ideologies, and the circumstances from this weekend have sadly lead to the continuing quagmire of serious remedy on the part of the United States. Obviously, posts attempting to defend or water-down the white supremacist/Neo-Nazi movements (especially from Kenneth Knapp, pjcabbiness as usual, and Doug Desper) makes me wonder what posts would look like here in the 1950-1960s….I’m sure the unfortunate answer would be: well, there’s two sides (to hating/killing other human beings), and THEY started it/should have known “their place”/etc……

      1. Kenneth Knapp says:

        If you only condemn the hatred of your enemies, you are not really condemning hatred at all. You are only condemning your enemies. Perhaps you are in a position to judge, but Christians are not.

  11. Pjcabbiness says:

    Our Christian faith absolutely rejects hateful ideologies of any and every kind including but not limited to white supremacists, the KKK, Neo Nazis, BLM, Antifa, PICO and the communists (regardless of the latest “movement” or cause that they may have infiltrated, corrupted or appropriated for their purposes). Creating a leftist mythology of Jesus for progressive propaganda dissemination is no better or different than the destructive mythology of Jesus created and promoted by the radical right. They are both inaccurate, twisted creations that were contrived by men for the purpose of promoting political power.

  12. Mr. President, you are right both sides failed God’s word. —-Matthew 5
    43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor[a] and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. 46 If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? 47 And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? 48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

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