Charlottesville faith community looks ahead after uniting against white supremacist march

Charlottesville memorial service

Mourners and clergy, including the Rev. Elaine Thomas, second from right, pray outside the memorial service for Heather Heyer on Aug. 16, 2017 in Charlottesville, Virginia. Photo: Evan Vucci/Associated Press

[Episcopal News Service] Episcopal clergy and other Charlottesville, Virginia, religious leaders joined hundreds of mourners Aug. 16 in remembering the woman killed amid the weekend’s violent clashes between white supremacists and counter-protesters, as the city’s interfaith community takes stock and begins looking ahead.

“They tried to kill my child to shut her up,” Susan Bro, mother of Heather Heyer, said at a memorial service held in Charlottesville’s Paramount Theater. “Well guess what? You just magnified her.”

Heyer, 32, was part of a crowd of counter-protesters that was rammed by a car Aug. 12, killing her and injuring 19 others. A 20-year-old Nazi sympathizer from Ohio has been charged with her murder.

The Rev. Elaine Thomas, associate rector at St. Paul’s Memorial Church, was among the Episcopal clergy who turned out for Heyer’s memorial service, part of a larger group of interfaith clergy that gathered earlier in the morning for their first weekly meeting since the weekend melee. Members of the group, known as the Charlottesville Clergy Collective, were prepared to stand outside the theater as a peaceful, protective barrier if necessary – “We want to make sure we are there in prayerful presence,” Thomas said – but no major disruptions were reported at the service.

The collective began meeting nearly every Wednesday this summer to coordinate its response as Charlottesville braced for hundreds of neo-Nazis, Ku Klux Klan members and other white supremacists to descend on the city for what they billed as a “Unite the Right” rally. The city became a magnet for leaders of the self-described “alt-right” movement after the City Council voted to take down a statue of Confederate Civil War General Robert E. Lee, a decision now being disputed in court.

The rally Aug. 12, however, was canceled just before it was to start. The city deemed it an unlawful assembly after club-wielding and gun-toting white supremacists began clashing with counter-protesters, some of whom also carried weapons. Heyer, a Charlottesville paralegal, was killed later in the afternoon.

Several dozen clergy members regularly participate in the Charlottesville Clergy Collective meetings, and Thomas said much of the Wednesday breakfast gathering was spent discussing the weekend’s events and preparing for Heyer’s memorial service.

Charlottesville has become a flashpoint in the national debate over removal of Confederate statues and memorials, said the Rev. Cass Bailey, vicar of Trinity Episcopal Church in Charlottesville, but the collective’s mission remains focused on local outreach.

“The underlying tone has been kind of, how do we define the narrative ourselves, in the sense of here is what Charlottesville is all about,” Bailey said, “as opposed to letting others, who for the most part were outsiders, come into Charlottesville and define that.”

Bailey was traveling on Aug. 16 and wasn’t able to attend the collective’s meeting or the memorial service, but he was part of the group of clergy members who stood in solidarity against racial hatred in the Aug. 12 counter-protests. Bishops from the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia and Episcopal clergy from across the country also linked arms on the streets of Charlottesville.

For Bailey, the importance of participating in such action is written into the mission of his church, a historically black congregation that describes itself today as “an intentional multiracial community of reconciliation, transformation and love.”

“We take our mission statement very seriously and think of that as our work in Charlottesville,” Bailey said. “And the events of Aug. 12 kind of show us that our work is not done and there is much to be accomplished. And we have a role to play as people of God in saying there is some reconciliation that needs to happen and can happen with the power of God.”

Charlottesville isn’t alone in such work. The removal of Confederate statues and monuments has inflamed tensions in other cities, including New Orleans, Louisiana, and St. Louis, Missouri. Efforts to promote racial reconciliation face resistance from those who see it as an attack on local culture and history.

When Baltimore, Maryland, removed its statues of Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson overnight Aug. 15, it did so without fanfare and under cover of darkness in the interest of public safety after the unrest in Charlottesville.

And in New York City on Aug. 16, Episcopal Diocese of Long Island Bishop Lawrence Provenzano removed two plaques honoring Lee at an Episcopal church where the Confederate general once attended while he was stationed at the nearby Fort Hamilton army base. The army base recently drew both support and criticism for its decision not to rename two streets on the base that bear the names of Lee and Jackson.

The Episcopal Church’s General Convention also has weighed into the debate, passing a resolution in 2015 condemning the Confederate battle flag as “at odds with a faithful witness to the reconciling love of Jesus Christ.”

Episcopal clergy protest with nonviolent prayer

Bailey, the Trinity Episcopal vicar, noted that Charlottesville residents chose different ways to show their opposition to the white supremacists who came to town. Some preferred to ignore the racist demonstration altogether, so as not to validate the supremacists. Others, like the Episcopal clergy members, felt it was important to present alternative views peacefully and publicly.

And some counter-protesters chose to be more confrontational.

For the Episcopalians who joined with the Charlottesville Clergy Collective in the counter-protest, “our role was to show that there is a nonviolent way to stand up against the ideas of the so-called alt-right … a way to do that with integrity, without violence.”

When asked about the subset of counter-protesters who chose to bring rifles, clubs and chemical spray, Bailey said, “I think when you show up with a weapon, it’s pretty hard not to use it when you are threatened or when the situation escalates.”

Bailey thinks tensions will subside with the removal of the Lee statue. The City Council voted in February in favor of removal, but that has been on hold while opponents of the decision pursue a lawsuit seeking to stop it.

“It would be a release valve,” Bailey said, while acknowledging that it is impossible to say whether supremacist groups would focus more or less attention on Charlottesville if the statue were removed.

For many in this city, life goes on – possibly with a greater sense of purpose.

Heyer’s family and others who knew her described her at the Aug. 16 memorial service as someone with a passion for fighting injustice, a passion they hoped the community would carry on.

“Make my child’s death worthwhile,” Heyer’s mother said at the memorial service. “I’d rather have my child, but by golly, if I’ve got to give her up, we’re going to make it count.”

The events of the weekend have influenced and in some ways strengthened ongoing efforts to improve the local community, said Maria Niechwiadowicz, the parish administrator at Trinity Episcopal who runs the church’s Bread and Roses nutritional outreach program.

All the social injustices that Charlottesville faced before last weekend are still present – food insecurity, lack of affordable housing, racial inequality – but “there’s momentum in the community right now,” Niechwiadowicz said.

She wasn’t on the front lines of the counter-protests, playing more of a support role back at the church and at the memorial service for Heyer. After an intense several days, some socially active city residents are “on the verge of burnout,” but it is important to return to the work of improving Charlottesville for all, she said.

The church garden will host its Thursday work gathering, as it does every week, she said. The Bread and Roses mobile kitchen demonstration will continue as scheduled this weekend at a city farmers’ market.

Niechwiadowicz and others also attended a previously scheduled Charlottesville Food Justice Network roundtable discussion on Aug. 15. Organizers said canceling would send the wrong message, that it’s time to remain active.

Thomas and other clergy members chose not to go inside for the memorial service for Heyer, remaining outside the theater and filling that space with prayer. They are planning a candlelight vigil and additional prayer services, but they also need to balance their public activism with ministering to their congregations.

“The work of the church has to continue, because that’s our job, to be priests and pastors to our people,” Thomas said. Sunday school classes will resume soon, she said. The St. Paul’s congregation also is closely tied to the student community at the University of Virginia, which the church overlooks, and the fall semester is about to start.

“At some point we’re going to need to step back and take care of each other,” Thomas said, before deciding what the faith community will do next in response to the threat of a return of racist hate groups.

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

Comments

  1. nathan baxter says:

    As it was with Abolitionist movement, the Civil Rights movement, Black Lives Matter and now, the informal anti-racism collaboration it is when white Americans stand up, speak up and risk their lives and privilege that institutional and cultural racism is changed. It is not that people of color are impotent or un-engaged….protest, articulating Gospel and moral truth, and the exhausting work of survival is/has been a life style for each generations. However, when William Lloyd Garrison, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, et. al stood with Harriet Tubman, Fredrick Douglas and Sojourner Truth white media and social moral momentum toward political abolition. Same can be said about the martyrdom of white civil rights heroes Viola Liuzzo, and Rev. James Reeb, and denominational leaders such as PB John Hines stood with Dr. King, John Lewis and Ella Baker and the movement white America and a President began to pay attention adding legislative momentum. Of course, after these historical bumps there have and is always a vitriolic backlash and good white people and weary blacks take a needed but dangerous nap. Thank God for the growing contemporary partnership ignited by the powerful message and witness of Black Lives Matter (black, white, brown, gay straight, gender diverse); and now the clergy of Charlottesville. They give me hope. I note the “on-the-line” white ministers in report above, the Rev. Elaine Thomas (St. Paul’s Church, whom I ordained, and the Rev. Susan Minasian (Sojourner UCC, Charlottesville) one of my divinity students. White Christians/Episcopalians, we need your voice and partnership if this reincarnation of “racist-boldness” is overcome by “Holy Boldness”.
    Bishop Nathan Baxter, Honorary Board Chair, Union of Black Episcopaliand

  2. Tony Oberdorfer says:

    Your writer, David Paulsen, has once again written an account permeated with the left-wing bias that has become standard among the Episcopal hierarchy. Might the possibility not have occurred to him that many of the people targeted by the so-called “counter-protesters” were in no way “white supremacists” but simple ordinary decent folks disgusted by the abusive way genuine American heroes like General Lee are being treated?

    As for Bishop Provenzano, is it unreasonable for me to assume that his pathetic action was motivated primarily by his desire to remain competitive among his fellow bishops in the race to accumulate brownie points by being as nasty as possible to the memory of General Lee and other admirable historic figures?

    • David Paulsen says:

      Tony Oberdorfer, I am certainly open to the possibility that ordinary folks who see Confederate war generals as heroes joined the white supremacists who organized the “Unite the Right” march. There are reasonable people in the South and elsewhere who are making the sincere argument that statues of such generals should not be taken down. Other reasonable people would sincerely disagree with you that Lee was a hero or admirable enough to deserve a statue, given what his military service now represents. Entering that reasoned debate, however, does not by most accounts appear to be the ultimate purpose of Saturday’s white supremacist demonstration, and I’m not sure what point you are trying to make in portraying a white supremacist demonstration as more moderate than it was.

    • The Rev. William P. Peyton says:

      Tony Obendorfer-
      I appreciate your interest in defending the decency of peace-seeking, neighbor-loving people who see value in honoring and remembering Lee. I know and respect many such people, and they have been well-represented in the civic discourse here in Charlottesville about our Confederate momuments. Had any of those folks mistakenly believed there was room for their perspective at the Unite the Right rally, they would have been quickly disabused of that notion when they saw what I saw as an eyewitness: the park surrounding the statue brimming with heavily-armed men chanting racist slogans and waving the flags of known hate groups; gangs of young men with helmets, clubs, and shields giving Nazi salutes as they marched through our streets; guns pointed at a group of local clergy and people, including many elderly, in a church parking lot adjacent to the park; unarmed counter-protesters being kicked and beaten with sticks. These were not thoughtful white Southerners or Civil War buffs; they were terrorists. Again, I speak as an eyewitness: There is just no way that anyone who wasn’t interested in violence would have had anything to do with the fury and hatred and weapons in that park, regardless of one’s perspective on Confederate monuments.

  3. Tony Oberdorfer says:

    To the Reverend Peyton:
    To the extent that there undoubtedly were crude rabble-rousers among the marchers at the “Unite the Right” rally, I believe that was even more true of the so-called counter-protesters. Had the original authorized march been allowed to proceed as planned, it would presumably have ended without great incident and everyone would have gone home. The real problem in Charlottesville was the collective determination of forces on the left to rid the town of a statue that for many years had honored a man whose heroic deeds were not motivated by a desire to protect slavery. They were not going to take no for an answer even though the predominant public sentiment was probably to keep the statue in place.

  4. Pjcabbiness says:

    Thank you Tony Oberdorfer.

  5. Dr. William A. Flint, MDiv, PhD says:

    As an Christian Theologian who grew up in the 1950s and 1960s I think I can speak to racism, bias, bigotry, sexism and every other label society uses to classify God’s creatures. I am not the only Theologian qualified to address these labels, but I am willing to step forward and take a chance of being misunderstood. I can remember Joe McCarthy, who lead a national witch hunt for Communist subversion in American society during in the 1950s. Many Americans were touched by his far reaching probe whether they were Communist subversives or not. He destroyed many lives. I remember too, he turned his attentions toward The Methodist Church. He claimed The Methodist Church was a Communist front organization and began to investigate the Council of Bishops. The Reader’s Digest published an article titled: “The Pink Fringe of Methodism”. On April 19, 1950, the Council of Bishops met to consider methods to refute charges that there was a “pink fringe” in American Methodism. Bishop Charles Wesley Flint (elected to the Episcopacy in 1936) was a senior Bishop by the 1950s and was appointed by the Council to respond to The Reader’s Digest on the subject of “The Pink Fringe”. Bishop Flint had his secretary order new Episcopal stationary with a pink fringe edging. He wrote a letter to the editor of The Reader’s Digest, as well as Sen. McCarthy, using his new stationary. The Bishop had a very dry sense of humor and it was evident in the text of his letter: “There has been much debate as to the truth of whether or not American Methodism has a ‘pink fringe’. After careful examination, it is my professional and theological determination that the only ‘pink fringe’ in this Church is that edging on this stationary.”

    Why would I share this story with you. Maybe it is that American society has come full circle and there is a new McCarthyism taking root. The progressives have embraced this new McCarthyism and have set out to define everyone, including institutions, as Communists (or Nazis) based on nothing more than a difference of opinion, interpretation and affiliation or association from their standards and/or beliefs. In order words, anyone who is in disagreement with the progressive left is a Communist or Nazi. The only real historic distinction is that Joe McCarthy was a Republican (1944-1957) and the new Progressive Left are Democrats.

    History is an amazing thing, why would anyone want to destroy it?

  6. Terry Francis says:

    Well said Dr. Flint.

  7. Jawaharlal Prasad says:

    Thank you Dr. Flint for your comment. When I was on a work assignment outside US, I used to attend a Wesley (Methodist) Church, a predominantly white church with many non-white parishioners. The church was wealthy but was well engaged in many social programs. Many of the hymns sung during the worship services were to do with Jesus providing for the daily needs of the people such as food, housing and medicine. I was a bit surprised when a Communist leader from India gave a talk at the church. I don’t recall anyone including the wealthy parishioners accusing the church hierarchy of being Marxist or Communist or having a leftist agenda.

    Statues or no statues, the society has to confront not only the ugly issue of racism but also of economic disparity. Perhaps, one ought to write about the daily struggles of the poor whites also. Much resentment and anger are created when people are deprived of their proper livelihood. I have seen this in US and a few other countries that I have traveled. I have seen this in India where the society continues to grapple with the complex and ugly issue of casteism.

    At one time, Joe McCarthy had his day, today the Progressive Left and next time who? Many years ago, an Episcopalian mentor would tell me that there is a need for each one of us to practice radical forgiveness. I know I need to work on this.

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