“It was extremely grim and sobering to be face-to-face with such hatred and racism--and more so because of what seemed almost an inevitability about the clash between white supremacists and others,” said Kim McDowell, pastor of University Park Brethren and Baptist Church in Hyattsville, Md. She was one of the clergy who provided a presence in Charlottesville, Va., during the white supremacist rally on Saturday. She was not aware of other Church of the Brethren clergy who may have been present.
“I haven’t been a big activist, I’ve just tried to be responsive when things have arisen. There is an urgency about the need for response to this,” she said in a telephone interview today.
Clergy had been invited by local organizers to come to Charlottesville to provide an alternative presence in the face of a planned white supremacist rally. As it became clear that the rally and counter protests held the potential for violence, prayerful nonviolence from people of faith seemed more important. The clergy who gathered were an interfaith group, and included Christian, Muslim, Jewish, and other faith leaders.
The clergy received nonviolence training and held a worship service on Friday, to prepare to be present at the rally Saturday. About 400 to 500 clergy and members of local community groups attended the service at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church on the edge of the University of Virginia campus. McDowell said the service was filled with “very powerful, engaging, hopeful, and passionate worship.”
However, right after the service ended, the congregation was asked to stay inside the church because white supremacists carrying torches were gathering outside. While a crowd was chanting outside the church, McDowell said the congregation inside was invited to sing loudly.
Early the next morning the clergy met at First Baptist Church of Charlottesville, and then split into two groups. One larger group marched to a park elsewhere in the city as a symbolic counter to the white supremacist rally. McDowell was among the group of some 50 to 60 clergy who marched to Emancipation Park where the rally was scheduled to take place. The clergy placed themselves along the street just outside the park, between the entrances--the other three sides of the park were cordoned off by police--in order to stand between the white supremacists and the counter protesters.
The clergy spent the time singing, praying, chanting, and sometimes standing in silence. McDowell watched the white supremacists gather in the center of the park, and also observed the militia who lined up just a few feet away. The militia were dressed in military style camouflage, carrying “all sorts of weapons,” she said, ranging from handguns to assault rifles to hatchets. They almost seemed to be assisting the police and at first, she mistakenly thought they were National Guard.
The large number of militia “was amazing to me because they had a primary presence there,” she said. “Could they have been commissioned by the police? We never knew.”
The white supremacists were “dressed in all the regalia...yelling disturbing things much of the time, derogatory things,” she said. “I was standing right next to a rabbi and there were hateful things said to him.” The white supremacists were mostly young men, she said, with a great number in their twenties and thirties and some teenagers. One of the most sobering experiences was “to see the vitriol in the faces of these young men...twisted faces.”
When a smaller number among the clergy group decided to do an act of civil disobedience and tried to block an entrance to the park, in order to block the entry of more white supremacists, she saw violence begin to break out. Large numbers of counter-protesters were flooding in and confrontations were starting. “Fighting had begun already, but not in earnest before then,” McDowell said. The leaders of the remaining clergy group called them out of the park just as a band of arriving white supremacists charged the clergy members who were blocking the entrance.
The “Antifa” or anti-fascists, one of the counter protest groups who were present, “were also really aggressive and clearly ready to be very confrontational,” she added.
McDowell felt that the larger number of clergy were called away just when their presence was potentially most important. However, their leaders had committed to protecting their safety. “So we were out of the worst of the violent confrontations,” she said.
The clergy retreated to a restaurant that had been opened for their use, a few blocks away. They spent time there in prayer, until those among their number who had been assaulted re-joined them. McDowell described them as “shaken.” Some local clergy from Charlottesville went back out to the streets in order to be available to people who needed them.
The police called off the rally and broke up the crowds, but violence continued on the streets as white supremacists, militia, and counter protesters mingled moving away from the park. When the car attack happened, in which a counter protestor was killed and many others were injured, McDowell was several blocks away.
One striking impression that McDowell took away from the experience is the contrast between the messages of the prayer service and the white supremacist rally. The service with clergy and community members trying to show another way “was hopeful and powerful. There was a counter experience in spite of what was happening around us.”
However, that such a white supremacist gathering “could emerge unhindered is really appalling and a sign of what’s present in our country,” she said. “We’re struggling against an evil that’s deeply systemic.”
What can Brethren do in response? Each person’s answer is going to be different, McDowell said. “I believe in local and faith communities speaking strongly and acting together...to create a climate where this is unacceptable.”
-- A photo of McDowell among other clergy providing a presence at the rally in Charlottesville has been published by TheTrace.org with a report on the role of the militias. See www.thetrace.org/2017/08/charlottesville-may-change-debate-armed-militias-open-carry .