When Neo-Nazis Called Pastors “Heretics” in Charlottesville

Rev. Brittany Caine-Conley, organizer in Charlottesville

One of the primary ways I process information I don’t understand is to place it within the confines of a frame. That frame may be intellectual or visual.  I might not have been able to bear being an eyewitness to the events in Charlottesville this past Saturday if I had not had my camera to help organize, or protect me from, what I saw.

Several weeks ago we at the National Council of Churches (NCC) were contacted by a pastor in Charlottesville, Rev. Phil Woodson, Associate Pastor of First United Methodist Church. He wanted to alert us to what was expected on August 12th.  There had been a crescendo of activity by the alt-right in response to the Charlottesville City Council’s decision to remove a statue of Robert E. Lee and rename the park that frames it to Emancipation Park.  One rally turned violent.  The “Unite the Right” rally, Rev. Woodson remarked, would be much larger and would present a serious challenge to the city of Charlottesville.

A week later, I recorded an interview with Rev. Woodson for our weekly podcast.  He sounded concerned.  He spoke of the upcoming confrontation as a Tolkien-esque moment: “All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”  The reference seemed a bit too grand at the time, but it certainly got my attention.

When I arrived in Charlottesville Friday, St. Paul’s Memorial Episcopal Church was a scene of frantic preparation, yet the doors to the church were locked.  I was puzzled by this until I realized that Congregate C’ville, the group coordinating the activities that would form the clergy counter-protest I would join, was taking security very seriously.  I was soon allowed into the church where I took a seat in a side room among fellow communicators.  We briefly coordinated and agreed that my role would be to serve as one of three official photographers for the events that would follow.

Rev. Crockett and Martin bring greetings from the NCC to those gathered for worship.

Worship infused the weekend.  Rev. Traci Blackmon preached to a huge crowd Friday evening.  I thought about how lucky I am to get to hear Traci and other truly great preachers on a regular basis.  Saturday morning started with an early worship service that featured soulful music and the preaching of Dr. Cornel West.  While the service was an oasis in the midst of the desert, our faces surely betrayed the concern in our hearts.

The gathered group was divided in two: those who had been trained in nonviolent civil disobedience, and those who had not.  I was with those who had: We would be the ones to stand in the center of the action.  But what would we do?  Our numbers were disappointingly small.  Organizers had hoped that, with 1,000 clergy, we would effectively end the rally by blocking the entrance to Emancipation Park.  But with fewer than 100 of us, we would be quickly overcome.

Deliberation continued. Given our small numbers, what would our action be?  What was the purpose of our being there? But soon, the time came.  We prayed, then left through the doors of the church into the streets. I wore my clergy collar, two cameras, and my walking shoes.  I stuffed a bagel into my mouth and my water bottle into my backpack.  

I walked ahead as the clergy formed a series of lines.  They locked arms and walked slowly.  They sang.  They prayed.  “This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine.”  I went forward to try to get a look at what lay ahead, where we would be over the next few hours.

On the way, a young man with a camera passed by.  

“Hey, are you headed to Emancipation Park?” he asked.  

“Yes,” one female clergyperson answered.  

“You’ll get a lot of good footage there!” he replied.  She asked him if he was a person of faith.

“Oh yes! Calvinist,” he quickly snapped with an air of assurance and smugness.

I didn’t notice at the time that he was wearing a light blue polo shirt, the same as others who were marching with the KKK.

The group lined up along the edge of the sidewalk at Emancipation Park.  According to Cornel West, nine groups of neo-fascists — Klan, neo-Nazi, and alt-right groups — marched by, staring at the clergy as they walked.  It was pure intimidation.  The clergy kept on singing, never engaging with those who taunted them.

I saw the young man again, wearing his blue shirt.  He began taunting our clergy.  “Every lesbian clergyperson in America must be here right now!” he jeered. “Where did you go to seminary?  Do any of you know John 3:16?” he jeered.

Others on the hill shouted, “Heretics!” at us. The old Nazi slogan, “Blood and soil!” was heard being shouted at us from the other side.  It was deeply disturbing.  I had trouble taking it all in.  These were things I had avoided: Klan symbols, hate speech, and guns.  It was overwhelming.

I tried my best to organize all that I saw between the four edges of my camera’s frame.

Over the years I have understood the role my camera plays in my life in various ways.  Yes, the frame is a way to organize what I’m seeing, but it also serves to insulate me from it as well.  Somehow the camera stands between me and what I’m seeing.  It both prevents me from fully experiencing the beauty of what’s in front of me and protects my soul from being damaged by painful experiences as well. It is both a blessing and a curse.

As the fascists and the anti-fascists marched toward each other, we quickly realized that the violent confrontation we anticipated was about to happen.  We knew at that point our work was done, and that if we stayed, we would be arrested, injured, or perhaps even killed.  Within seconds of our exit, the violent scenes occurred that have been repeated continuously on cable news.  The organizers of the clergy counter-protest credit members of the anti-fascist groups for saving the lives of some in our group.

I don’t want to get into the hindsight blame-game that many are playing. I hold the organizers of “Unite the Right” responsible, the fascists and haters that came chanting, “You will not replace us!”, and those in places of power that give them sanction.  I hold them responsible for the deaths and injuries that occurred.  I hold them responsible for filling the heads of people like James Alex Fields, Jr. with murderous visions and desires.  I hold them responsible for feeding minds, young and old, with ideas and actions that are contrary to the ideals of patriotism and freedom, words they claim as their own.

My prayer is that Charlottesville will serve to help us put an end to racism, America’s original sin.  I pray we will let August 12th stand as a day when we begin to end 400 years of the mistreatment of black bodies.  And I pray that racism will no longer find safe harbor in the halls of Congress or in the White House.

Special thanks to Auburn Seminary for originally publishing this reflection.

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