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Photo: Vigils in solidarity with counter protests in Charlottesville, Virginia, took place in cities across the country, including Washington D.C. Photo by Ted Eytan/Creative Commons.
“As people of color in the church, sometimes we have felt crazy trying to describe how dangerous our lived reality can feel. Now that the majority of people can see this type of terror, we ask you not to look away. Recognize that this is not just a southern problem but that white supremacy infuses almost everything we do and has captured our theology and our moral imagination. We need to be willing to address how it’s cropping up in many ways; otherwise, these marches of intimidation and violence will continue to pop up everywhere,” said Sarah Thompson.
In an Aug. 13 phone interview, Thompson, executive director of Christian Peacemaker Teams, talked about her role in preparation for the events of Aug. 11-12 in in Charlottesville, Virginia. Thompson was contacted on June 30 and invited to come to Charlottesville as part of the Deep Abiding Love Project’s work to prepare and train members of the Charlottesville community in militant nonviolent direct action. She arrived on Aug. 2 and led six trainings and also participated in what she calls a “ministry of encouragement” for local activists who have been planning and actively resisting racist demonstrations in their city.
Since the spring, Charlottesville has been the site for white supremacist gatherings protesting the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee from Emancipation (formerly Lee) Park in the city’s downtown. Beginning Aug. 11, hundreds of white supremacists, some of them carrying shields, semiautomatic weapons and torches, and chanting racist and neo-Nazi slogans, gathered in the city. Officials declared a state of emergency in Charlottesville on Saturday*, following violent clashes.
In preparation for what the Southern Poverty Law Center referred to as something that “could be the largest hate-gathering of its kind in decades in the United States,” activists in Charlottesville began offering regular trainings in confrontational nonviolent direct action.
“Local leaders realized that most of the nonviolent direct action training that is offered currently for public demonstrations in the U.S. assumes that the state (police, national guard, etc.) will be the only armed actor,” wrote Thompson in an Aug. 11 blog post. “Since Virginia is an open-carry state where one is permitted to have weapons, in Charlottesville at least four different groups may come armed with guns/knives/tear gas. I shared from the confrontational nonviolence work that Christian Peacemaker Teams does, walking alongside those who are creatively resisting oppression and lethal violence.”
“I’d say get comfortable with being uncomfortable and get comfortable with making white supremacists uncomfortable,” said Dr. Jalane Schmidt, associate professor of religious studies at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville and one of the leaders of the Charlottesville Black Lives Matter movement who has helped plan counterprotests throughout 2017. Schmidt, now a Roman Catholic, grew up attending New Creation Fellowship Church in Newton, Kansas. “You have to disrupt stuff. This won’t be a nice forming of a book club and reading Ta-Nehisi Coates in the basement of our church. It’s about disrupting this and questioning the police.”
Because of her organizing work, Schmidt has been targeted by Neo-Nazi trolls online and has been named and targeted by Jason Kessler, one of the organizers of this weekend’s “Unite the Right” rally. Schmidt was accompanied by security support throughout the protest, and only hours before our phone interview on Aug. 13, Schmidt had to take shelter in a local comic book shop to avoid a group led by Kessler.
Schmidt also has worked with a coalition to create the website White Accomplices, which provides information and resources for white people seeking to resist white supremacy.
“We don’t want an ally, we want an accomplice,” she said. “We want to undo this thing. An ally is a nice person who gives you some tea after the fact, but we need an accomplice—someone who’s got skin in the game and is willing to go the distance. The word accomplice has more bite to it than ally. If you are really confronting this stuff, all the systems that facilitate your comfort are going to come down. You’ll need to give up on comfort. People of color aren’t comfortable, so if you want to join this struggle it means being uncomfortable.”
Schmidt helped plan for an Aug. 11 worship and prayer service at St. Paul’s Memorial Church. The service featured speakers Dr. Cornel West, professor of the practice of public philosophy at Harvard University and prominent social just activist, and Rev. Traci Blackmon, executive director of Justice & Witness Ministries for the United Church of Christ.
“The worship services were so inspiring and called on the heart,” said Cynthia Lapp, pastor of Hyattsville (Maryland) Mennonite Church, who traveled to Charlottesville on Friday to be part of demonstrations. “The spirit was in each of us. Afterward, I just felt like I could step out and be part of it [the demonstrations], even though it was really stepping out into something totally unknown.”
Art Stoltzfus, a community organizer with Faith in Action and a member of Community Mennonite Church in Harrisonburg, Virginia, also attended the August 11 service. Near the end of the service, attendees were made aware that alt-right demonstrators, many of them carrying lit torches, were gathering across the street from the church. Attendees were instructed to exit the church by side doors, and some were accompanied to their cars with extra reinforcement and security.
“It was sobering walking out the door and then looking back and seeing all those torches and hearing the chanting,” said Stoltzfus in an Aug. 13 phone interview. “And then seeing the pictures from that and the next day [and realizing] how young these people, mostly white men, were. These are the images that will stay with me.”
While watching the news coverage and images of alt-right members in Charlottesville, Regina Shands Stoltzfus, assistant professor of peace, justice and conflict studies at Goshen (Indiana) College and one of the founders of the Damascus Road antiracism training program (now Roots of Justice, an independent anti-oppression training organization), wrote: “If you look at the photos from the events of last night and today, you will see the faces of young people. People the ages of my children and my students. For all those who have said (all my life) that ‘this generation’ (whatever generation it happens to be) will be better/are accustomed to diversity/don’t see color/etc.,’ [based] on the theory that racism (and other oppressions) will die out when the oppressors die out, don’t forget [that] they [have] raised/taught/baptized more.”
Saturday, August 12
On Saturday, the day when the original white supremacist march was planned, Mennonites were among thousands who organized a variety of counterprotests and acts of resistance across the city.
On Aug. 12, after attending a 6 a.m. worship service at First Baptist Church in downtown Charlottesville, Lapp joined the line of roughly 30 clergy members who peacefully marched to resist white supremacist demonstrators trying to enter Emancipation Park. Lapp planned to travel to Charlottesville after receiving an invitation sent to clergy by Congregate CVille.
“I feel very compelled to find ways to combat racism. It feels huge and nebulous, and I don’t always know how to do that very well. I’m taking steps in my personal life to build more relationships with African-Americans and enlarge my world,” she said. “This [being in Charlottesville] felt like a really concrete way to say that I as a white person bear some responsibility for the racism of the church, of the society and of the economy, and so I need to put myself out there. How many times have African-Americans put their bodies on the line because they wanted freedom? I think white people have to also take some risks if we are serious about trying to get rid of racism.”
Janie and Luke Beck Kreider have also been involved in activism this spring and were present at events this weekend. On Saturday, the Beck Kreiders attended the 6 a.m. prayer service and joined another nonviolent march that walked first to the Jefferson School African-American Heritage Center and on to McGuffey Park in the downtown Charlottesville area.
Janie serves as director of communications for the Mennonite Church USA Executive Board staff and had a previously scheduled conference call on Aug. 12 with members of the Future Church Summit design team that she is a part of, so the Beck Kreiders headed home after this first march.
“But as soon as we walked in the door, I felt bad and thought I should not be here,” said Janie. “I got on the call and said I needed to go back.”
The Beck Kreiders returned to a local café that was serving as a hub and safe space for counterprotesters to gather. They helped pick up and provide vegetarian food from local businesses for counterprotesters and were onsite to greet members of the clergy line when they returned from holding the line during demonstrations at Emancipation Park.
While they were gathered at the café, word reached the group that a car (driven by James Alex Fields Jr., a man shown marching with Neo-Nazi groups earlier in the day) had rammed a lineup of cars, pushing them into a line of counterprotesters. The crash killed one woman, Heather Heyer, and injured 19 others. The Beck Kreiders were among those who ran from the café to the scene of the accident to try to provide support, helping provide transportation and ice for one injured woman who did not want to be transported to a hospital in Charlottesville.
The Beck Kreiders say that joining in resistance movements this spring and Aug. 11-12 have helped them feel a renewed sense of responsibility for what happens in Charlottesville, and they hope other Mennonite individuals, churches and the denomination will see these events as another wakeup call to get involved.
“Speak out. Do your own work around white supremacy and whiteness and racism,” said Janie. “Get connected to your community before these things happen, because I think relationships and love are the things that are helping Charlottesville be resilient in facing this and recovering from it and continuing to work at it. And do it now. It’s urgent, and this is happening. It could be anywhere.”
Luke Beck Kreider harkened back to a call made by Dr. Drew Hart during his speech on July 8 at the Mennonite Church USA convention in Orlando, Florida, and the reminder that the white Christian church has not been leaders in the movement for racial justice. “Drew Hart suggested that we need to make antiracism a priority in church institutions. And the work of the Future Church Summit said that as well,” said Luke. “Anyone who was blind to the real necessity of doing that work in this country and in our churches should have had those scales removed from their eyes this weekend, if not before.”
“We need to look to our black and brown brothers and sisters who have taken this religion and made it a powerful force for love that sustains us all,” said Janie. “That is where we should be looking for Christlike discipleship and leadership in this movement right now.”
Several members of Charlottesville Mennonite Church were also involved in nonviolent direct actions during the day. (Update Aug. 15) Pastor Maren Tyedmers Hange regularly attends a multi-racial gathering of women clergy and participated in the Saturday morning walk from the Jefferson School to McGuffey Park. An Aug. 12 e-mail sent to members of the congregation noted several individuals involvement throughout the day, and noted that the church’s efforts grew out of Article 22 from the Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective, which says, “Led by the Holy Spirit, we follow Christ in the way of peace, doing justice, bringing reconciliation, and practicing nonresistance, even in the face of violence and warfare.”
Church members Andy Orban and Becky Scott have been participating in gatherings with their local chapter of Showing up for Racial Justice (SURJ) and other local activist group demonstrations this spring and they joined one of the counter protest marches through the city.
“I feel like all of us have a lot to learn about someone else’s experience and being open to understanding that and seeing how each of us has a role to play,” said Scott. “We want to do the right thing and support each other and do what God calls us to do.”
“Don’t be afraid to stand up,” said Orban.
Jalane Schmidt also continues to remind people that the struggle is not over, citing upcoming legal decisions in a lawsuit suing the city over the removal of Lee’s statue.
“It’s good to have this support [from across the country],” Schmidt said. “This isn’t going to end. Whether it’s [the legal decision] yay or nay, these people are going to be back. It’s great when people come to support us when we have these big actions.”
In an Aug. 11 blog post, Sarah Thompson encouraged people across the country to find ways to “encircle them [counterprotesters in Charlottesville] with energetic encouragement” and to do individual work to resist white supremacy locally.
“If your church hasn’t done a training, now more than ever, start grappling with this,” said Thompson. “We saw coming out of the Future Church Summit that to pay attention to this stuff is faithful Christian discipleship. I felt really alive as a Mennonite out there on the front lines. This is why we are in this church. We are here because our faith calls us to the front lines, and the front lines are everywhere.”
*Correction: An earlier version of said that a state of emergency was declared on Friday night. This did not happen until Saturday August 12.
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