Dr. Lawrence Ressler has spent nearly four decades as a social work professor and academic administrator in Christian higher education including time at Eastern Mennonite […]
Cynthia Lapp is Pastor of Hyattsville (Maryland) Mennonite Church.
I went to Charlottesville because clergy were called. I don’t always go when I am called but my pastor’s heart was compelled this time, even though I am a homebody and would rather stay home and even though it sounded dangerous. Kim McDowell, a pastoral colleague from the Church of the Brethren, and I went together. Entering into the unknown, it was important to have a partner in prayer and protest.
Arriving at St Paul’s Memorial Church, on the edge of the campus of the University of Virginia, it was clear that though Congregate Charlottesville called for 1000 clergy to attend, we would fall short of those numbers. It was closer to 200 people that gathered on Friday afternoon to receive “militant nonviolent training.” We practiced songs and chants. We wrote statements of commitment, as a record of our participation in case something happened to us. We recited back the rules:
1. Preserve life.
2. Live to fight another day.
We were reminded that we were confronting evil structures, not evil individuals. We were instructed on the importance of discipline in the face of chaos, on the best way to lock arms, and on how to roll to the right to preserve the liver if kicked. We practiced lowering our heads and shouting “medic” in the case of tear gas. We were told that we could be arrested, wounded or killed. We were told there is no shame in deciding to help the movement through being a “church kitchen lady” if we were not prepared to hold the line.
Friday evening and Saturday morning contained more warnings of the dangers we faced. By 8:30 a.m. on Satuday, the clergy and faith leaders willing to walk into the unknown at Emancipation Park numbered 60-70. The permit for the “Unite the right” rally was for a gathering starting at 10 a.m. We arrived about 9 a.m., in silence, joined arm-in-arm.
We were “greeted” by citizen militia. As we lined up to face the park, we also faced the militia with their long guns, extra ammo, pistols at the hip, hatchets hanging from belt loops and dressed head to toe in camouflage. The only way I could directly face this much firepower for two hours was to imagine a back story for the 40-something man in front of me: the kids he must have at home that he cares about, the people that depend on him, the job he has.
As clergy and people of faith, our only power was liturgical garb and love. The men in camouflage had guns to display their power, though remarkably they didn’t fire them. In my mind the question remains: if this had been a gathering of black and brown people, if the clergy had been more predominantly Jewish, Black, and Muslim, would the militia have been so disciplined? Would the police have intervened sooner?
First up were a few hecklers, taunting us with words like: “What does Philippians 3:16 say?” “Where did you go to seminary?” “Is every lesbian in the world here today?” “You aren’t real Christians,” “The Bible says wives are to submit to their husbands,” as well as anti-Semitic slurs and other nonsense.
Right on time, the white supremacists began arriving, dressed in white polos and khakis, parading down the sidewalk between the citizen militia and the clergy. Many carried homemade shields, wore makeshift helmets and carried large flags, which one determined man delighted in wafting in our faces. These “alt-right” protestors were mostly young men, many of whom looked bewildered by what they had signed up for. As a mother of young men, I couldn’t help but have some sympathy for these boys. What neglect, pain or trauma had they experienced that would turn them toward such hatred? What must happen to a body and mind to be so angry and violent? I couldn’t help but think of the toys that boys make as they play and the video games that must be a significant part of their lives. Had they gotten their realities mixed up? Why were these young men still playing with shields and using them with such intense hatred?
The clergy line continued to sing “This little light of mine” and “Over my head, I hear freedom in the air” and chant “Love has already won.” Wave upon wave of white nationalists and Nazis kept arriving, in groups of 15-20, almost always male but with a few girlfriends in attendance. The youngest looked like they were still growing into their shoes while the older ones dared to look in the eyes of the clergy and mock us.
On the other side of the clergy line, there were the bystanders and local counter-protestors who came with a friend or two. Some carried signs along with their morning coffee; one woman handed out homemade bread and homegrown tomatoes as she walked up and down the clergy line.
Soon enough, the anti-fascists arrived without a common uniform, but with chants and flags. The antifa were, in contrast to the Nazis, men and women and queer folks. They were loud and angry and determined. The tension started to rise: clergy, unaffiliated counter-protestors and media in the middle of the street, Nazis on one side and anti-fa on the other.
As pre-arranged, some of the clergy left the larger group to block the entrance to Emancipation Park so that the next waves of white nationalists could not enter. The rest of us moved closer to the entrance and knelt in prayer. As we prayed down the line, listening to each other, the chaos seemed to dim for a few moments. How many different thoughts and sounds can one hold in the mind at once?
Before we could finish praying, we were up on our feet, moving toward our clergy friends, not as additional obstacles, but to strengthen their resolve. The noise and chaos ratcheted up as a new wave of students and a Black Lives Matter group arrived adjacent to the anti-fa groups. As we looked down the street we could see a large group of marching, shouting white nationalists approach. Our clergy leaders, who had been to Ferguson, Missouri, and led Black Lives Matter gatherings across the country, saw the intensity rising.
“Evacuate!” A space opened in the crowd and we walked, no ran, through. Some of us, like Lot’s wife, looked back, unwilling to leave our colleagues to meet the Nazi ire. But we had been instructed to preserve life and live to fight another day. We had to pray that our colleagues held the same instructions in mind as they tried to hold the line at the park. We turned the corner and walked quickly to the designated safe space while the streets of Charlottesville began to fill with tear gas, violence and blood.
I don’t count myself as brave for being in Charlottesville or for holding the line for the time that I did. Everything in me, and outside of me, flashed danger signals. The unrestrained singing, preaching and blessing Friday night and Saturday morning, did help me understand in a small way the preparation that Civil Rights activists experienced decades ago.
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