Telling the lion’s story: Charlottesville’s faith community employs activism to unite against supremacy

Telling the lion’s story: Charlottesville’s faith community employs activism to unite against supremacy

Photography by Eze Amos

Sunlight had just begun to illuminate the candy-colored stained glass windows of First Baptist Church as people filed through the door and slid into the wooden pews.

“This little light of mine, I’m going to let it shine,” the crowd sang louder as it grew larger. When the pews were full, people stood arm to arm against the back walls and in the balcony. “Let it shine, let it shine, let it shine,” they sang in Charlottesville’s oldest black church, asking the lyrics and melody that were sung at sit-ins and marches of the American civil rights movement of the 1960s to carry them through the day ahead. It was August 12, 2017.

A few minutes after 6am, First Baptist Church deacon Don Gathers addressed the now-quiet congregation that included First Baptist parishioners, Charlottesville community members, and dozens of clergy and people of many faiths. “Thank you for coming out early in the morning. It is truly early in the morning,” he said.

He asked everyone present to pray for an end to oppression, tyranny, and “400 years of misdeeds.” The mood was energetic but reverent as each speaker addressed the seriousness of what might lie ahead of them that day.

“In the face of fear, the only weapon that wins is love…It is not your body that wins your battle, it is your heart,” Reverend Traci Blackmon, executive minister of justice and local church ministries for the United Church of Christ, told them. “Until the lion tells his whole story, the hunter will be the hero.”

“I didn’t come to Charlottesville to run my mouth. I came to go to jail,” philosopher and political activist Dr. Cornel West told them. “This is not a discourse about hope. We’re going to be the hope.”

“Go and be brave and be fierce…because we can,” said Reverend Winnie Varghese, priest and director of Community Outreach at Trinity Episcopal Church Wall Street in New York City, before Reverend Osagyefo Sekou, who directed most of the morning’s musical offerings, led the congregation in another civil rights movement song, “Freedom In The Air.”

As the song wound down, Sekou asked those who had “been trained” to come forward to the altar. Dozens of clergy, most of them dressed in their religious garb, walked to the altar and bowed their heads as Sekou asked the congregation to extend their hands and pray for the safety of the clergy as they prepared to bear witness.

He asked them to pray, too, for the people who were against them, who wished to cause them harm. To pray for the white supremacists.

Don Gathers, a deacon at First Baptist Church on West Main Street, put together the program for the August 12, 2017, sunrise prayer service. He offered the site—Charlottesville’s oldest black church—when he heard clergy wanted to do something that morning. It wasn’t without risk, though: Black churches, along with mosques and other houses of prayer, have been frequent targets of white supremacist violence.

“Be safe, be mindful, be vigilant. Look out for the brother and sister beside you,” Gathers reminded the group as the clergy walked from the church sanctuary.

In front of the church, the clergy formed two groups: One proceeded quietly to Market Street Park, the planned site of the Unite the Right rally. A second sang “This Little Light Of Mine” as it’s members walked to designated safe spaces around town.

They sought to be a nonviolent but strong presence, a visible indication that love is greater than hate. They were ready to bear witness to God’s love, wherever it may be that day, and to bear witness to injustice.

It goes without saying that the day was mayhem. The rally was shut down before it started, and a melee broke out in the streets of Charlottesville.

After a white supremacist drove his car into a crowd of protesters on Fourth Street, killing Heather Heyer and injuring dozens of other people, Gathers stood at the corner of Fourth and Water streets with other activists, community members, and clergy, the asphalt covered in bloody and broken bodies, the air filled with the smell of tires and sweat and screams of pain. The deacon who’d put together the program for that morning’s prayer service at First Baptist had reached his limit.

“I was tired of the fight. I didn’t want to see anyone else hurt or injured. All the fight had left out of me at that point. I was just done,” Gathers recalls nearly one year later. When it came time for him to leave the scene of the attack, he hadn’t walked half a block down Water Street before running into NBC29 news director David Foky. Before Gathers could say a word, Foky embraced him and whispered, “you can’t give up. You can’t walk away.”

“Oh, my God,” Gathers thought. “How did he know?”

Gathers has long felt God tapping on his shoulder; that chance meeting with Foky was one such tap. Most people feel it but try to outrun the proverbial tapping hand, he says, and in the past year, he’s realized he’s not so fast.

Gathers, 59, answered the call. He’s now making plans to enter seminary and become an ordained minister.

Enduring mission

Over the past year and a half—and even before then—a number of Charlottesville faith leaders have been visible and audible beyond their pulpits and sanctuaries in order to address racial, social, and economic injustices. And they’ve done so together.

Some have taken pilgrimages to civil rights landmark sites like Selma, Alabama, and visited the site of a slave auction block in Richmond. They have attended demonstrations in support of DREAMers and affordable housing, and signed and sent a letter to the Albemarle County Jail Board asking the facility to reconsider its choice to notify ICE when an undocumented person enters the facility. Some of them have literally put their bodies on the line. For these members of the clergy, their call to social justice and activism is part of, and inseparable from, the call received from God.

“The events of last year were not new to us,” says Reverend Cass Bailey, vicar of Trinity Episcopal Church on Preston Avenue since 2010. While many folks in Charlottesville are just now beginning to understand how white supremacy and racism have manifest in every corner of the city, it’s a familiar story to many, including members of Bailey’s parish.

What is new, says Bailey, is how many people—particularly white people—are now willing to acknowledge racism and white supremacy as a problem that needs to be solved.

Trinity Episcopal began as a mission in the Vinegar Hill neighborhood in 1919, a mostly black church that today has a racially and economically diverse congregation, which is a bit unusual in Charlottesville (and, really, in the United States), says Bailey—most houses of worship, whether intentionally or not, are not terribly diverse.

Trinity Episcopal pastors and parishioners were active during the massive resistance and the civil rights movement of the 1950s and ’60s, and in the 1970s, Trinity Episcopal was one of the first parishes in town to intentionally integrate. Currently, the parish has a ministry program that works to address systemic problems of access to healthy food that disproportionately affect people of color in our community.

Reverend Dr. Alvin Edwards, senior pastor at Mt. Zion First African Baptist Church, says his congregation emphasizes equity and equality through education. Mt. Zion sponsors an annual back to school bash, where they hand out school supplies to children. “Education is the best transport to equalizing, to making the ground level” for all, says Edwards, who has served at Mt. Zion since 1981, making him almost certainly the longest-serving clergy person in Charlottesville. “I believe it’s one of the best things we could do as a community, and as a city,” he says.

Clergy of different faiths “may not agree doctrinally on everything, but we can impact the lives of people in our community by doing different things” together, says Edwards.

The promise of what a group of diverse and interfaith clergy can accomplish when working together is what led Edwards to establish the Charlottesville Clergy Collective in 2015 with the intention “to discuss and address the challenge of race relations” in Charlottesville and Albemarle County.

After a white supremacist opened fire on a prayer service at Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, Edwards began to wonder if pastors and faith leaders in town knew one another well enough to call upon each other if something like this were to happen in Charlottesville. At a breakfast meeting, he and a few other pastors admitted that the answer was no.

It now seems an almost prophetic action on Edwards’ part, because in 2017, it became clear to members of the Charlottesville Clergy Collective that they would need to rely on one another as white supremacists began holding rallies in the city and threatening the Jewish synagogue, black churches, and people of color in the community.

The collective realized it needed to respond as a unified group with some measure of authority, to assert that white supremacy in all forms “is not acceptable, and then find tangible ways to support more vulnerable members of the community,” says volunteer secretary Reverend Michael Cheuk.

The morning of the Ku Klux Klan rally on July 8, 2017, a group of Charlottesville Clergy Collective members linked arms and walked to the park together in a show of solidarity. When they came into view of the people who had set up to protest the Klan’s rally, some people started yelling, “The clergy are here! The clergy are here!” and it became clear that their presence meant something positive to people in the community.

Collecting trust

While the Charlottesville Clergy Collective seeks to foster trust and relationships among faith leaders, a few of the group’s members wanted to develop stronger relationships with local social activists as well.

For Reverend Brittany Caine-Conley, a member of Sojourners United Church of Christ and current interim campus minister at Westminster Presbyterian Church, her faith and her activism are “very much the same thing.”

Reverend Brittany Caine-Conley, interim campus minister at Westminster Presbyterian and a member of Sojourners, is called to social activism because of her faith. She is a co-founder of Congregate Charlottesville, a group established last year to “equip and prepare people of faith to bear public witness to injustice and educate faith communities on issues of justice and liberation” through nonviolent direct action and faithful presence trainings.

“I’m called to action because of my faith,” she says. “The more I study, the more I read the Bible, the more I read theologians, the more I dig deep into the Christian tradition, the more I am pushed toward activism. I am convinced that the basic premise of the gospel is that Jesus absorbed violence so that others didn’t have to.”

With that activism in mind, in early summer 2017, Caine-Conley and Reverend Seth Wispelwey of Restoration Village Arts, both members of the Charlottesville Clergy Collective, founded Congregate Charlottesville, a group whose mission is “to prepare and equip people of faith to bear public witness and to show up for matters of justice,” says Caine-Conley.

While the Charlottesville Clergy Collective and Congregate Charlottesville are two different groups, there’s a fair amount of crossover between them, says Caine-Conley.

Last summer, Congregate Charlottesville put out a nationwide call to clergy requesting their presence on August 12, to participate in nonviolent direction action and civil disobedience training and dozens actually showed up to be present in a variety of ways that day—most of them were clergy of color, LGBTQ+ clergy, and female clergy, joined by plenty of Jewish, Muslim, and other non-Christian clergy. People who are used to showing up.

Over the past year, Congregate Charlottesville has continued to hold trainings on faithful presence for clergy and for laypeople alike, and they’ve established a rapid response network through which the community can request their presence. The Congregate folks will show up “only through invitation,” says Caine-Conley. “We never want to show up somewhere where we’re not wanted or helpful.”

Heightened threat

Walk toward Congregation Beth Israel on East Jefferson Street and it’s likely you’ll hear shouts of delight from the synagogue’s preschoolers. Once you’re standing in front of the magnificent brick building, it’s hard not to notice that the children are playing under the watch of an armed security guard. The juxtaposition is jarring, heartbreaking even, but it’s evidence of what the Reform synagogue’s congregation has been through in the past year.

Last year, on the night of August 11 and the morning of August 12, as the congregation held its weekly prayer services, white supremacists and neo-Nazis loitered outside yelling anti-Semitic slurs loud enough for those inside to hear. When prayer services were over, congregants had to leave in small groups through a side door—the prominent front door was deemed too dangerous an exit.

Rabbi Tom Gutherz, senior rabbi at Congregation Beth Israel, seen here on the bus during last month’s community pilgrimage to the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Alabama, says that in order to “create a better, more equitable, more just community and country,” we have to open our hearts as well as take action.

“To have that kind of hate, and specifically some of the anti-Semitic hate, parading around the streets so proudly, and assertively, that’s…unsettling,” says CBI Senior Rabbi Tom Gutherz. “People from different generations maybe deal with it in different ways; for some people, they’d never seen anything like that, and for other people, they had,” depending on where and when they grew up.

Congregation Beth Israel’s existence as a community of Jewish ethnic culture and worship makes it vulnerable ideologically; the synagogue’s location has made it vulnerable physically, too. With Market Street Park one block to the west, and Court Square Park one block to the east, the synagogue is literally in the middle of where many of the white supremacist rallies have taken place. Gutherz points out, too, that the city and county courtrooms where some of these white supremacists have been tried throughout the year—often bringing a group of like-minded friends along for support—are only a few blocks away as well.

Printed on a piece of paper taped up to a doorway in the Congregation Beth Israel office is the congregation’s principles: Worship; culture; lifelong learning; repair of the world; gladness and joy; caring and kindness; commitment to Israel. The sign also reads, “We promote social justice, charitable giving and lifetime learning.”

Gutherz, who participated in last month’s pilgrimage from Charlottesville to the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Alabama, says that Congregation Beth Israel is a community of people that “feels very strongly” about social justice initiatives; many congregants are involved on both a personal and a community level. “I think it’s part of the Jewish worldview,” says Gutherz. “I would say part of the Jewish mission is to see that the teachings that we teach, and the words that we speak, should also lead to action out there in the world.”

Ministry of presence

Showing up to court is something that Reverend Dr. Susan Minasian never anticipated would be part of her ministry. But there she was, sitting in the Charlottesville General District Court the morning of July 19, 2018, wearing a short-sleeved black collared top, the bright white rectangle of the clerical tab at the center of her throat.

A second generation Armenian American whose grandparents immigrated to escape Ottoman Turk rule—and the Armenian Genocide—in the early 20th century, Minasian was raised in the United Church of Christ by a mother who she says was ahead of her time—an electrologist, frequently offering hair removal services gratis to people going through gender reassignment.

Minasian recalls playing receptionist in her mother’s office one day, and asking her about a client: “He looks like a she, but I thought he was a he?” 7-year-old Minasian asked.

Reverend Dr. Susan Minasian, pastor at Sojourners United Church of Christ who recently celebrated the 30th anniversary of her ordination, has incorporated social justice initiatives into her ministry since the beginning—she’s attended protests, served as a clinic escort for Planned Parenthood patients, and performed same-sex unions before they were legal.

Without missing a beat, Minasian’s mother replied, “She’s becoming who God created her to be.”

That sort of love—acknowledging, recognizing, and valuing people for who they are—is the focus of Minasian’s ministry through Sojourners United Church of Christ. It’s a ministry of presence, both physically and spiritually.

Minasian, like the other clergy interviewed for this story, are upset by the ways in which religion, and Christianity in particular, is used by some—including American white nationalists—as a weapon of oppression against people of different races, genders, sexualities, and faiths.

Local clergy of all faiths hope to help dismantle that system eventually, but they know it will take time and patience—they have to recognize when to be present and when to give someone their space. They understand that for those who have been turned away from a church, or abused emotionally or physically by a religious ideology or religious person, the clerical collar, stoles, and robes might not be a welcome sight. And so these particular clergy have to do a lot of gentle convincing that they are not “terrible people,” says Caine-Conley, and that process involves showing up, quietly, over and over again.

So, while in court, Minasian says she’s “usually praying for some people to be comforted and to be of peace and okay,” she says. “And then I’m praying for the other side, saying, ‘Dear God, if there is any way to soften their hearts and change their minds, this would be a good time to zap ’em.’”

This particular morning, one of the activists who was found guilty of stepping in a road with poor visibility during a recent protest didn’t have the money to pay the fine—$15—plus $89 in court fees. As the activist’s name was called to go into the clerk’s office, Minasian rose from the bench, clutching her change purse in her hand.

“I’m sorry,” the activist said to Minasian as they walked to the clerk’s office door side by side. “I’m sorry.”

“What do you have to be sorry for?” Minasian asked, waving her change purse in the air. “I’ll take care of you.”

Walking the talk

It’s the job of the clergy to take care of people, says Reverend Brenda Brown-Grooms, co-pastor of New Beginnings Christian Community on Market Street. “Our spirits need growing, and care, and a pastor is someone who grows people’s spirits up.”

The Reverend Brenda Brown-Grooms believes that every faith leader has a single sermon that they preach “a million different ways, a million different times” throughout their lives. Hers is: What is just? What does God say? Where is justice in this?

Sometimes that care requires pastors to be in court, at protests. It requires sitting on a park bench with a grieving congregant. It requires difficult conversations with community members and even with fellow clergy. Caine-Conley says that Brown-Grooms, who grew in Charlottesville, attending a church that was razed along with the Vinegar Hill neighborhood, will frequently “pipe up” in meetings and “say what needs to be said.” Brown-Grooms will remind white clergy and male clergy that the work of social justice has long been done by women and clergy of color in town—and that women and clergy of color should be supported in and given credit for that work. She won’t let that story go untold or unheard.

And while so many pastors have been active in the community outside of their church buildings and congregations, one should not forget the profound work a pastor can accomplish in a worship service. In a sermon in particular.

“A church is a hospital. From the pulpit to the door, we are all broken. And this is the place where there’s space enough for all, the space to be and become in. To be a church is to understand your position in helping people,” says Brown-Grooms. She says every faith leader has a single sermon that they are called to preach “a million different ways, a million different times” throughout their lives. Hers is: What is just? What does God say? Where is justice in this?

She preaches her sermons with the intention of getting people to relate to one another. She knows a sermon is working when people respond. They murmur, shift in their seats, nod their heads, turn their gaze upward and take a deep breath. When a sermon works, she says, “it can accomplish healing.” A sermon can change minds and hearts.

“Stories are the Tupperware of the universe,” she says. “Everything that’s important and that we need to know as human beings is contained in a story. It’s a proper container—you can carry it from one generation to the next, and you can pop it open, and it’s there. This is why I preach. It’s stories.”

Faith in community

The ability to see the humanity of all people is the gold thread among the ideologies of the clergy interviewed for this story.

Through the meetings of the Charlottesville Clergy Collective, “I feel like we’ve strengthened our sense that our religions are maybe sometimes using different language” to say the same thing, that “we all have the same idea of the dignity of every human being, that every human being is created in the image of God,” says Gutherz.

Reverend Phil Woodson of First United Methodist Church and Rabbi Rachel Schmelkin of Congregation Beth Israel participate in a community prayer on Fourth St. SE on August 13, 2017.

“I can never ignore the humanity in the people who are on a side opposite than I am,” says Reverend Elaine Ellis Thomas, formerly of St. Paul’s Memorial Church on University Avenue, who participated in various events with both the Clergy Collective and Congregate Cville last year.

“It gets interesting sometimes,” says Gathers about this challenge. “It’s not easy to separate the two, because that means I have to look [at all these white supremacists] and be able to love what’s standing in front of me, and look past everything that they’re doing and what’s coming out of them, and love the spirit that’s inside of them.”

The “emotional, spiritual toll” this work takes on the clergy “is great,” says Cheuk.

What’s more, Cheuk says he knows for certain that several of those involved with the Clergy Collective and in Congregate C’ville, “face tremendous pushback and criticism from their own congregants” for their faith-driven activism. “Their lives and their calling are at stake. So the amount of courage that is required to stay connected to their own community of faith while also doing this work” is extraordinary, says Cheuk.

The work is perhaps made easier by the fact that none of them are doing it alone. They heard and, over and over again, have heeded the request Gathers made of them during that sunrise service at First Baptist Church: “Be safe, be mindful, be vigilant. Look out for the brother and sister beside you.”

One of the “really beautiful things that came out of last summer are these amazing, really deep relationships I’ve formed with clergy of different faiths, through the work of activism,” says CBI rabbi educator Rabbi Rachel Schmelkin, who regularly keeps in touch with her protest buddy and frequent “This Little Light Of Mine” duet partner Thomas—now rector of All Saints Episcopal Parish in Hoboken, New Jersey—via text message.

Reverends Susan Minasian and Brenda Brown-Grooms and Rabbi Tom Gutherz led a prayer during a ceremony when soil was collected from the site where John Henry James was lynched by an Albemarle County mob on July 12, 1898. Many local clergy believe that by strengthening relationships among clergy, they can better serve the Charlottesville community as a whole.

Perhaps because she has a bit of physical distance from Charlottesville now, Thomas believes that what happened here last summer was a watershed moment that finally got the community—and some clergy—acting on issues of justice they’d only been talking about for years and years.

It is very difficult to be what God created us to be when we have borne witness to the worst, says Thomas. “It’s very difficult to do if you are by yourself. If you are in some kind of community that is seeking to do good, it’s much easier to recognize that in some small way, in your corner of the universe, you might be able to make a difference.”

Throughout this week, the Charlottesville Clergy Collective is sponsoring a number of interfaith prayer and worship services open to the community. See the group’s website for times and locations.

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