A few times a day, I group text with two of my closest friends, Brandy and Jen. It was a normal day on Thursday, August 3 when we were texting about our typical subjects: academia, politics, our writing (or lack thereof!), dating, and hanging out with each other again. None of us live near each other so this is the best way to keep in touch. Shortly prior to this particular group text message, Brandy moved to Charlottesville, Virginia for a post-doctoral fellowship in the Religious Studies department at the University of Virginia. I live fairly close to Virginia so I asked Brandy when she wanted me to come visit her during the month of August. She joked at one point in the group text that I could come down and join the clergy counter protest for this alt-right rally entitled “Unite the Right”, which was supposed to take place on Saturday, August 11. If you watch the news for any decent amount of time, you know who the alt-right are and what they believe. I did not think it would be a particularly memorable event, and without much thought, I agreed to attend so I could protest with my friend. I then signed up for the Clergy Call organized and led by phenomenal leaders Seth Wispelwey and Smash Patty in local congregations in Charlottesville. Little did I know what was coming for us.
A few days later, I received an email from the Clergy Call organizers warning about the dangers of attending the counter protest against the Neo-Nazis at the Unite the Right rally. I read the email with some concern, but I still had no idea what was coming for us. I told Brandy that due to personal reasons, I could not risk getting arrested right now. She told me I could still attend the protest and be the designated person to bail her out of jail. I quickly agreed.
The few days leading up to the Unite the Right rally on August 12 were very consuming for me. I led a conference for my job, and I also faced some personal issues that were unfolding at the same time. On Friday, August 11, I planned to drive down to Charlottesville after my work conference wrapped up in the late afternoon. By the time I actually made progress driving towards Charlottesville, it was the early evening, and I was completely exhausted. At one point during my drive, I called Brandy with the intention of telling her I was going to skip the rally and drive home instead. I remember calling her, and she talked about her preparations for the clergy counter protest. In that moment, I did not have the heart to tell her I was too tired to visit. I wanted to be there with her more than I wanted to go home and sleep, so I kept driving. Brandy texted me late that evening while I was still driving to let me know that she was stuck in the church where the clergy gathered that evening to worship in order to prepare themselves spiritually for the counter protest on Saturday. I did not know this at the time, but my friend was trapped inside that church, because Neo-Nazis were outside the front doors blocking in the congregants with tiki torches in hand. I am thankful she never told me all these details at that time. I do not think I could have handled the truth in my state of exhaustion.
I finally arrived at Brandy’s apartment in Charlottesville shortly before midnight. She told me that we were going to attend a sunrise service the next morning to spiritually prepare for the counter protest. She said we had to be there by 6 AM. I was not happy about the early wake-up call given my exhaustion. But she said Cornel West was preaching so I knew it would be worth attending.
We woke up early and arrived to First Baptist Church on West Main Street where hundreds of people gathered for an interfaith worship service. The church was energized as we sang many African American spirituals sung during the civil rights era. It was a moving worship time. At this point, I still had no idea what was in store for the day. I had no framework for what to expect, and I was not expecting much beyond a peaceful protest and a few fascists showing up to this rally. This was my first time in Charlottesville, after all. How bad could it possibly get?
Once the interfaith service ended, the leaders asked the clergy who were planning to be on the front lines of the counter protest to meet in the front of the church. Only 40 or 50 clergy members and other individuals stayed. It was disheartening to see how many people left the church when the organizers of the counter protest hoped that we would have huge numbers for the event. One of the leaders of the Clergy Call, Rev. Sekou Osagyefo, began to speak to the individuals who stayed to counter protest in Emancipation Park. After kicking out media and government employees from the sanctuary, Sekou spoke some harsh warnings to those in the room. He told us that if we were not prepared to die that day, we should not attend this protest. He told us that if we were not prepared to be beaten that day, we should not attend this protest. At this point, I look over to my friend Brandy with my eyes wide open with fear and panic and ask her what he is talking about. Brandy assures me that we will not die, and we will not be injured. She tells me Sekou is trying to prepare us for the absolute worst, but that death and injury properly will not happen. But Sekou keeps repeating these warnings, and suddenly, I realize that I am entering a real battle zone.
I did not prepare for any of this in any way – spiritually, emotionally, or mentally – and I also did not receive the weeks of non-violent training that Brandy underwent. At this point, I am convinced that I should stay as far behind as possible to protect myself. When we finally formed a line to leave the church and march towards Emancipation Park by foot, I stayed in the very back of the line with the non-profit volunteer lawyers. I figured that if I stick with the lawyers, I would be safe (probably not the best logic!). There was an eerie, almost deafening silence in the town as we walked through the streets. It felt like a ghost town as very few people could be seen anywhere in the streets. Right before we made it to Emancipation Park, we had to make a left turn up a small hill. I was still marching in the back at this point when I saw over a dozen armed male militia at the top of the hill with AK-47s in hand. Fear engulfed my entire body, and I quickly locked arms with other clergy members for fear of being on the outside of the group. We finally made it to Emancipation Park when we lined up along the one side of the park, arms interlocked with each other. I believe the original goal was to have enough clergy to circle the entire park, but there were only enough clergy present to line the one side.
|Jill Harms Photography|
It was around 9 AM when we made it to Emancipation Park. The first song we sang was “This Little Light of Mine.” Never have the words to this song felt so vulnerable and almost foolish. We sang this song as armed militia and a few Neo-Nazis began to pass us on the sidewalk. As time went on, more and more Neo-Nazis began to trickle into the park along the sidewalk. The clergy line kept singing songs of freedom, praying, kneeling, and standing peacefully to be a counter witness to the hate and violence of the Neo-Nazis in that space. At one point, we kneeled on the ground to pray one by one while a member of the armed militia stood directly across from me with his AK-47 in hand. I was overwhelmed with seeing a weapon like that so close to my body as I kneeled on the pavement, weaponless and full of fear. I have never felt so vulnerable before the powers of the world before. I kept wondering, “is this what Jesus is calling me to do?” All my theology of resistance became real in those moments alongside Emancipation Park. We were fighting against the powers of darkness that engulfed this park.
|Photo by Albin Lohr-Jones/Pacific Press/Sipa USA via AP|
As more Neo-Nazis passed the clergy line, they verbally abused us one by one over the course of a few hours. One man screamed that Jesus hates us. Another screamed that we hate the white race and are contributing to white genocide. Another man boldly came up to the clergy line and asked us if we have ever read Ephesians 5 and 6, because then we would know the Bible does not allow women to be clergy. He said we should be submitting to men. Another man taunted us for a good while asking us where we went to seminary, and tried to get us to answer questions about theology and the Bible to prove we were legitimate clergy. I can not fully remember everything that was said to me that day on the clergy line. Online trolls are one thing. We all know not to feed the trolls on the internet. But it is another thing to have the trolls right before your face yelling vile truths that contradict everything you believe. It took the sheer grace of God for me to stay silent in the midst of the verbal abuse.
One man came up to the clergy line with a t-shirt of Adolf Hitler’s face right above a large swastika. He was very eager and adamant to inform us that he worshipped the same Jesus we do. It was in that moment that I realized how far darkness can take a person into complete falsehood. I wanted to look that man in the eye and tell him that his Jesus is not the one who hung from the cross for those he despises. But I could not say a word. It nearly took my breath away when they chanted "Black Lives Don't Matter" and "Fuck You Faggots" over and over again. It felt like they just kept coming one by one. They showed up by the dozens along the sidewalk before my eyes with their weapons, shields, sticks, helmets, and zealous hatred. There were so many of them and so few of us. They looked nothing like I expected. They were young boys who looked strikingly similar to my nephew, my cousin, my neighbor, or any average white kid you would see on a daily basis. This was not the hooded Nazi's of my parents generation. No, this was far more covert and dangerous.
A few hours after the clergy arrived, the anti-fascists (or “Antifa”) showed up with their banners denouncing white supremacy. They were small in number compared to the Neo-Nazis, but I was so thankful when they finally arrived with their message that Black Lives Matter, that LGBTQ+ lives matter, and that hatred will not win this fight. They offered members of the clergy line water and food. Some put their hand on my shoulder and gave me a smile. I finally breathed a sigh of relief. I felt less alone in this fight against darkness.
|Photo by Heather Wilson|
While I stood on the corner, I also tried to dodge the many bottles full of feces that were thrown in the air from the Neo-Nazis. I tried to not breathe in the tear gas and the pepper spray clouds that kept coming my way. At one point, the clergy line dispersed, and I was reunited with Brandy. We did not know what to do next so we tried to stay on the outskirts of the scene. The Neo-Nazis just kept coming in groups over and over. We were far outnumbered, but I watched countless Antifa youth risk their lives, one by one, to fight back. Many of them were eventually carried away covered in blood from being beaten. Some screamed in the middle of the street as their eyes burned from the pepper spray. It was the most horrific scene I have ever seen in my life. I coughed so hard at one point from breathing in pepper spray that I wet myself. I could not stop coughing. It was terrifying.
This violence and chaos ensued for over an hour. The police did nothing. I looked over at the police many times in the midst of the chaos only to find some laughing at certain points. I was not surprised, but I was still disillusioned by their lack of response.
As I looked on to see the crowds of people fighting and could hear the deafening sound of fists hitting flesh, I began to wonder if this is God’s judgment upon America for our original sin of racism and slavery. This nation was founded upon the kidnap, rape, and enslavement of African and Caribbean bodies for our profit. While the concentration of pure and unadulterated hatred in Emancipation Park might be novel for this time period, the seeds and roots of that hatred are as old as the United States. This country has never confronted and repented for the devastating and continual violence done against black and brown flesh. From slavery to lynching to segregation to imprisonment, we continue to oppress, enslave, and kill all that does not fit into the toxic mold of white supremacy.
In the early afternoon (the actual time escapes me), the Governor of Virginia declared a state of emergency. The National Guard came out with a water tank, and told everyone through a loud speaker to leave the area, or we would be arrested. Brandy and I made our way to the safe house at the café I mentioned earlier. We rested there for a bit, and the owners of the café kindly gave us free food and beer. At one point in the afternoon, my friend Gregory messaged me on Facebook to tell me that counter protestors were forming again and headed towards Water Street. Word on the street was that the Neo-Nazis were headed to a public housing area, and organizers in the area asked for counter protestors to come help stop them. I wanted to join him and the other protestors, but I did not know where Water Street was in relation to this café. I figured I would join up with them later at some point.
A few minutes later, someone came into the café and told us we had to come out immediately as something happened. A bunch of us from the cafe began running down the block to Water Street where we were met with bodies spewed all across the street. I would later learn that a Neo-Nazi terrorist drove his car into this crowd of counter protestors and killed one protestor named Heather Heyer. It felt like a war zone. Chaos and confusion filled those streets as we stood helplessly on the sidewalks wondering how this could happen.
Eventually, Brandy and I left downtown Charlottesville and went back to her house to sleep. It is hard to know how to recover from the horror we witnessed that day. Do you drink? Do you sleep? Do you talk to others who were there? Do you watch the news? Do you pray? What can you do to cope with such violence? How do you make sense of it? Where do you go from there?
I left Charlottesville the next day to return home. I drove home with an endless amount of questions swimming through my head, not knowing if I will ever receive answers. My theology was deeply challenged that day as I stood on that clergy line. I realized how deeply I am already part of the violence of white supremacy even if I committed to a nonviolent protest and even if I denounce the Neo-Nazis. I wondered what it means to witness against white supremacy today as a white Christian in light of the rise of the alt-right. I wondered if this rise in Nazism requires a different response than what I would normally advocate.
I wrote this post, because since Saturday, I have been having great difficulty sleeping. I wake up in the middle of the night, and I can not get those rage-filled faces out of my mind as they play over and over again in my head. The heaviness of the future bears down on me, and I begin to realize how much work there is to do to fight against this darkness that is coming back over this nation afresh. I remember that blanket of fear that I felt as I watched my friend stand on those stairs as Nazis charged towards her. I begin worrying about war, violence against vulnerable communities, more hatred against those who are already oppressed, and what the future of Trump's presidency will mean not only for this nation, but for the world.
I was told that writing my story could help with the trauma and the confusion. I hope at some point to share some theological reflections. But for now, I wanted to document my story from the front lines of Charlottesville and encourage you, dear reader, to resist the power of white supremacy on all fronts.-->