ThinkProgress

Meet the clergy who stared down white supremacists in Charlottesville

From left: Rev. Osagyefo Sekou, Lisa Sharon Harper, Rev. Carlton Smith, Cornel West, and others (including Seth Wispelwey wearing a white robe and red stole) protesting white supremacy in Charlottesville. CREDIT: Heather Wilson, @aNomadPhotog / Dust & Light Photo

Asked what it was like to march through the streets of Charlottesville, Virginia over the weekend, evangelical author and FreedomRoad.us founder Lisa Sharon Harper was blunt.

“It really felt like every step you take could be your last,” she said, later adding: “With each step, I just kept holding on to the call to love.”

Talk of love was hardly the dominant narrative in Charlottesville on Saturday, when white supremacists and Nazi sympathizers organized a “Unite the Right” rally to oppose the removal of a Robert E. Lee statue in the heart of city.

“It really felt like every step you take could be your last,” she said, later adding: “With each step, I just kept holding on to the call to love.”

Instead, media coverage has largely focused on the hateful vitriol spouted by white supremacists, as well as their violent clashes with anti-fascist protesters (often called “Antifa”). The street fights—which witnesses say occurred without adequate police intervention—left several hospitalized, and the whole event culminated in tragedy: An Ohio man who authorities say came to support the white supremacists has been charged with mowing down a group of counter-protesters with a car, wounding 19 and killing one woman.

But among the many untold stories of the harrowing day is the account of hundreds of religious leaders like Harper who descended on Charlottesville to resist white supremacy. While images of prayerful resistance are often less eye-catching than bloody fists, spiritual protesters were still a crucial part of both the counter-protests and relief efforts. Many stood arm-in-arm while staring down white supremacists—and plan to do it again.

Trapped in a church

The work of faith groups in Charlottesville began weeks ago. Rev. Seth Wispelwey, a United Church of Christ (UCC) minister based in the city, said local clergy started mobilizing earlier this year after the college town endured two other demonstrations by white supremacists. The result was Congregate CVille—a group formed only five weeks ago—that called for 1,000 clergy to come and resist racism at the Unite the Right rally.

By the time racists descended on the town late last week, Wispelwey and his group had already trained dozens of clergy in the art of nonviolent protest.

“It felt like Selma after Bloody Sunday.”

“We invited in national faith leaders who were able to equip others on how to be disciplined and present in situations of volatility and violence and potential for harm,” Wispelwey said.

The plan, organizers said, was to counter white nationalists with events and actions that symbolized religious resistance to their hateful ideology. The tactics mirrored those used by leaders of the African American Civil Rights in the 1960s, a parallel that wasn’t lost on attendees.

“When I arrived, it was the first time I ever verbally said, ‘Now I understand how the clergy felt when they arrived for Dr. Martin Luther King,’” Harper, who is currently pursuing ordination with the Evangelical Covenant Church, told ThinkProgress. “It felt like Selma after Bloody Sunday.”

The first of these events was a prayer service on Friday night, the evening before the rally, when attendees say as many as 1,000 people packed the pews of St. Paul’s Memorial Church. Leaders such as Harvard Divinity School professor Cornel West and UCC minister Rev. Traci Blackmon stood before the gathered crowd to condemn racism in spiritual terms.

Harper delivered the final charge of the service, noting how ancient Hebrews found solace in the first pages of Genesis when exiled.

“They proclaimed to the powers that be—yes we are somebody, yes we are made in the image of God,” she said, referencing scripture. “We need to remember our ancestors, and how they struggled with the recognition of their rights.”

Protesters stand behind camo-clad militia members in Charlottesville. CREDIT: Heather Wilson, @aNomadPhotog / Dust & Light Photo

Harper said the worshippers—a group that included people of faith who traveled from far away to attend—were “fired up” by the end of the event. But as they filed out of the church, the evening took a dark turn.

A group of torch-bearing white supremacists unexpectedly stormed onto the University of Virginia campus directly across the street, shouting slogans such as “white lives matter” and “you will not replace us!” As the white-shirted hordes surrounded and harassed a small band of counter-protesters standing in front of a Thomas Jefferson statute, faith leaders quickly shut the doors of the church, instructing people to stay inside.

The religious leaders weren’t sure what spurred the surprise demonstration outside the church, but the message was clear: Hate had arrived.

“We got word that the church as being surrounded by white nationalists,” Harper said. “We ended up being held a lot longer because it wasn’t safe to leave.”

Another pastor, Rev. Osagyefo Sekou, lead the group in hymns as they waited out the racists. Harper said one woman who tried to exit the church was promptly maced by white supremacists, and several observers—including ThinkProgress reporters—noted an unsettling lack of police presence.

“These were hundreds of people — elderly, children — and many of the adults from the community were untrained and unprepared,” Wispelwey said. “So we held steady with them and got them out side entrances. We helped get some water to activists who were pepper sprayed.”

Despite the intimidation tactics, the group remained resolute. By the time it was deemed safe to leave, attendees say their resolve had only grown stronger—as had their faith.

“I don’t think there was deathly fear at that point,” she said. “We knew we were in God’s hands, and that God is stronger than anything that could come against us.”

Resisting hate and violence with love

The next day began with a 6:00 a.m. sunrise service at the town’s First Baptist Church, a historically African American congregation. Though McLaren and Harper themselves are both progressive evangelicals, witnesses say most of those gathered at First Baptist were either liberal mainline Christians—those belonging to denominations such as the UCC and the Episcopal Church, among others—or clergy from other religious traditions such as Judaism or Unitarian Universalism.

“You had Unitarian Universalists who were martyrs in the Selma marches,” Rev. Carlton Elliott Smith, a protester in Charlottesville and Congregational Life Consultant for the southern region of the UUA, told ThinkProgress. “So we have a longstanding commitment to standing for justice and against white supremacy.”

McLaren noted that many protesters over the weekend were also elderly, “a lot of clergy in their 70s and beyond.”

After the service, the faith-based protesters split into two groups. One subset — up to 80 clergy who had been trained in nonviolent resistance, according to several estimates from participants — would march directly into the heart of the demonstration. The second group — which included McLaren, who had missed this training due to a delayed flight — would attend a rally in a park a block away from the action, whose boundaries would serve as a safe space and emergency medical care center.

“It was made clear to us that if we walk on the street, we could die.”

“It was made clear to us that if we walk on the street, we could die,” Harper, who joined the second group along with Wispelwey and Smith, said. “And we could definitely be arrested…because there are too many unknown factors here.”

Harper and others pressed on in spite of the risks, eventually arriving at their predetermined location directly outside Emancipation Park where the rally was scheduled to convene later that day. As clergy lined up to face the field, a row of camp-clad militia members, draped in long guns, stared back at them.

After a while, the clergy kneeled and prayed, one by one. Then they sang together.

The white supremacists arrived slowly, and Harper says many seemed unsure of how to respond to the clergy presence. Some began to march between the faith leaders and the militia, calling them “weak” and shouting “you really believe that?” in their faces as they sang.

“We got a lot of vitriolic slurs,” Wispelwey said. “Most of them homophobic.”

As Black Lives Matter protesters amassed nearby, a gaggle of white nationalists congregated behind the line of armed men to sing their own white nationalist songs. In response, the clergy began chanting “love has already won.” The Black Lives Matter protesters quickly joined in.

“We sang, ‘Love has, love has, love has already won’…even in the face of those [guns],” Wispelway said.

“A group of white supremacists broke through our line with shields…Some of them were screaming and spitting slurs [as they] physically shoved clergy aside with their shields.”

Down the street, McLaren and others worked to aid protesters struck by mace or tear gas who were in “incredible pain” (the pastor said he even caught some himself). Groups such as progressive Christian advocacy group Sojourners live-streamed the bedlam, as did Rev. Traci Blackmon, who at one point had to flee from a dangerous area while speaking on national television. Meanwhile, the situation continued to escalate.

“My dominant impression was the incredible courage of the Black Lives Matter people who set up right near where the clergy set up—so in the very center of the gathering crowd,” McLaren said. “I watched bottles and sticks flying, and then canisters of smoke. And I don’t know what was pepper spray, what was mace, what was smoke bombs…I saw Black Lives Matter signs being taken from protestors. They would pick those signs up and stand their ground.”

White nationalist demonstrators storm past faith leaders that tried to block their path. CREDIT: Heather Wilson, @aNomadPhotog / Dust & Light Photo

Religious protesters who spoke to ThinkProgress were mostly spiritually devoted to nonviolence, and some expressed ambivalence about the tactics of other demonstrators, such as the black-clad Antifa, whose members often challenge racism with their fists. There appeared to be little coordination between the two groups over the weekend: At one point, Whispelwey said, Antifa protesters mistakenly thought clergy were trying to protect the white supremacists (who had no known faith presence). It took a rapid-fire conversation to set things right.

But the groups found a way to work together eventually. As tensions mounted on Saturday morning, some clergy broke away to stage an even more dramatic—and far more dangerous—protest. A faction that included professor West, Smith, and Wispelwey formed a line across the entrance of the park and linked arms, blocking white supremacists from entering.

They took their positions knowing there was little guarantee police help would be there if they needed it.

“I think the hope was there would be some police intervention that would have us removed [in the event of violence],” Smith said. “But in terms of being a presence at the park, at the rally, they were not there. There wasn’t a possibility that the police were going to come to our defense if the white supremacists turned on the clergy.”

It wasn’t long before the white nationalists made their move.

“A group of white supremacists broke through our line with shields,” Wispelwey said. “Some of them were screaming and spitting slurs [as they] physically shoved clergy aside with their shields.”

Clergy rearranged their positions to try and hold off another wave of white nationalists. But when the “the alt-right instigated their violence” down the street against counter-protesters, a group of Antifa intervened. The clergy took moment as a chance to disperse.

“That’s when Antifa saved our lives,” he said.

Spiritual first responders

Police finally began to shut down the protest shortly after the clergy disbanded, but the day’s violence was far from over. Scuffles and skirmishes between roving gangs of white nationalists and counter-protesters continued to rage in the streets, leaving many demonstrators beaten and bloodied.

Unwilling to leave, some faith leaders began to act as peacemakers to help deescalate conflicts, doing their best to stop fights.

CREDIT: Joshua Eaton/ThinkProgress

“Sometimes our presence, just by a bunch of clergy showing up…people who were angry or looking for a fight would calm down,” McLaren said, noting they often arrived before police. “This is where clergy vestments were a big deal. [Sometimes] clergy were the only people there saying ‘let’s calm down.’”

“A group of people ran up to us and said, ‘You guys are needed. Somebody killed some people,’”

Then tragedy struck. As McLaren, Wispelwey, and others convened at the top of a hill, a car down the street—which authorities say was driven by white supremacist James Alex Fields Jr.—barreled through a group of counter-protesters, wounding 19 and killing Heather D. Heyer.

Within minutes, the faith leaders were called on to respond.

“A group of people ran up to us and said, ‘You guys are needed. Somebody killed some people,’” McLaren said.

Clergy sprinted into the chaos, entering the mass before police or ambulances arrived. Some helped a woman find her niece who had been struck. Others aided the wounded themselves.

“There were a lot of people that were hurt who probably won’t be counted [among the wounded],” McLaren said. “I helped one young woman who had been hit, flew into the air, dislocated her shoulder, had a huge bruise. She just wanted to get away. So I helped her get some water and ice. Her hand was bleeding badly.”

When police showed up minutes later, some clergy helped direct traffic.

“Clergy know something about going into an emergency and bering a calming presence,” he said.

“This is not going away.”

Despite the weekend of horror, none of the religious activists ThinkProgress interviewed seemed ready to throw in the towel. With more white supremacist protests planned across the country in the coming months, many religious demonstrators believe their work is just beginning.

“This is not going away,” McLaren, a veteran protester, said.

Smith said their experience could inform other attempts to resist white nationalists.

“Now we can say there is a group of white men who are committed to violence and brutality, and that raises the stakes—and makes the possible outcomes of any action or civil disobedience that much more unpredictable,” Smith said. “But hopefully we can take lessons from Charlottesville and use them to be be better equipped to face white supremacy as it raises its head all over the country.”

Wispelwey and Congregate CVille plan to continue training clergy for these kinds of protests. He’s already readying a “preparation kit” for faith-based protesters that can serve as a template for future demonstrations.

“It’s about doing the long, deep work of justice, of being in right relationship with those God hears and holds most closely.”

But the real work, he said, will be transforming the hearts of racists.

“We are not just preparing faith leaders in emergency situations,” he said. “It’s about doing the long, deep work of justice, of being in right relationship with those God hears and holds most closely.”

Harper says she did a tiny bit of that work on Saturday. As she stood for hours in front of a line of militia members—who were reportedly instructed not to speak to press or protesters—she says she began to wear him down. When she turned to leave to avoid increasing violence, she addressed the man one last time.

“I just want you to know, we love you,” she said.

Harper said the man’s face, grizzled and tired from the day, suddenly softened. After a moment, he replied: “I love you, too.”

Several photos in this story used with permission from Heather Wilson. You can find more of her work at Dust & Light Photo.