How Church Leaders in Charlottesville Prepared for White Supremacists

Just down the road from Emancipation Park in Charlottesville, Virginia, where a thousand white supremacists congregated around a statue of Robert E. Lee this weekend, is another historical landmark. It’s a large, two-story brick building called the Jefferson School, which first underwent construction in 1924—the same year that the Confederate monument went up—at the insistence of the local black community, whose children were barred from the city’s high schools because of segregation. Now the school is on the National Register of Historic Places.

On Monday night, a few hundred Charlottesville residents gathered at the Jefferson School, in an auditorium on the second floor, for a community meeting. Two days before, three people died and nineteen were injured when violent demonstrators from across the country came to Charlottesville with guns, shields, weapons, and flaming tiki torches for a “Unite the Right” rally. “We’ll fucking kill these people if we have to,” one of them told Vice News. A twenty-year-old neo-Nazi from Ohio ran over counter-protesters in his car, in an act that Jeff Sessions, the Attorney General, later called domestic terrorism. (The President initially condemned violence “on many sides,” then followed up on Tuesday afternoon by saying that there were “very fine people on both sides.”) But, almost as soon as they had arrived, the agitators were gone, and community members were left to try to make sense of what had just happened.

One of the local leaders at the school was instantly recognizable to everybody: a sixty-five-year-old reverend named Alvin Edwards. When Terry McAuliffe, the governor of Virginia, came to town on Sunday, he went directly to a service at the Mt. Zion First African Baptist Church, which is Edwards’s congregation. He’s been there for the past thirty-six years, and during that time he’s also served as the city’s mayor and as a member of its school board. His years in politics have only seemed to strengthen his ties to his parishioners, and he likes to joke, with folksy charm, about his “B.C. days”—before Christ—when he lived in Illinois, where he grew up with plans “to make money and to be an industrial engineer.” Edwards marched with the counter-protesters over the weekend, but these days he’s best known for founding a broad coalition of local faith leaders called the Charlottesville Clergy Collective.

For the past month, the Collective has met weekly to prepare for the incursion that took place this weekend. The violence outstripped even Edwards’s expectations, and he and others in the Collective are trying to balance spiritual and pragmatic imperatives in the aftermath of the tragedy. The local debate over what to do with the city’s Confederate monuments, which was fractious but never violent, will flare again at the end of the month, with another public hearing on the issue. “You can’t let others have the last word, but we have to move to the high ground,” Edwards said. “If they come back, we have to shout louder and more often.”

In 2015, after a white supremacist in Charleston, South Carolina, murdered eight church members and their pastor, Edwards wondered what would have happened if a similar attack had taken place at his own congregation. Would he have called any of his fellow-clergy in Charlottesville for their support? “The answer was no,” he told me, when we met in his office Monday afternoon. “We didn’t have the kind of relationship that would warrant a call like that. Why would I call you when I barely know you? The clergy community here—the faith community—has been divided since desegregation. It was almost like they were nonexistent. They were over there; we were over here. You’d almost think they didn’t want to come over, because they were afraid of the projects!” It was a disturbing realization that Edwards vowed to correct immediately, so that summer he started calling other pastors to float the idea of a collective.

The initial proposition was simple: once a month, a small group of white and black pastors, from different denominations, would meet for breakfast and discuss activities that they could do together, such as taking a day trip to Monticello. “We talked about how we didn’t know each other,” he said. “We had a bunch of ideas. But we weren’t prepared for what happened with the K.K.K. coming here. We didn’t know that was going to happen when we formed this.” In May, two permit applications came before the City Council—the first was for a Ku Klux Klan rally, to be held in July, and the second was for “Unite the Right.” Attendance at the Collective went from about five or six regulars per session to close to fifty.

“We talked about the safety of those demonstrating close to the front, and about whether or not we wanted to march down there, or go pray,” Edwards said, of the meetings. He has the slightly more conservative outlook of an elder statesman, and he’d sooner lead a prayer vigil than rush into the fray. “My thought was that we should completely ignore the Klansmen,” he told me. Their numbers were small—this wasn’t the Klan of old, he argued—and they’d clearly come from out of town. “The worst thing you can do to a person is to not listen to him. I hate when someone does that to me,” he said. But in the Collective “you had the ones who wanted to confront them, and I respect that,” he told me.

Ultimately, the group decided to stage a counter-protest against the Klansmen, who in July flocked to another Confederate monument in town, a statue of Stonewall Jackson, in Justice Park. Elaine Ellis Thomas, a priest at St. Paul’s Memorial Church, a mostly white Episcopalian congregation across the street from the University of Virginia, had joined the Collective at its inception and marched with the other members at the K.K.K. counter-protest. “We’re not activists, but we are people who wanted to make our presence known,” Thomas told me. Young racial-justice activists who’d shown up to stand in opposition to the Klansmen rallied around the pastors when they arrived. “As we rounded the corner to Justice Park, they rushed toward us,” she said. “They kept saying, ‘The clergy are here! The clergy are here!’ ”

There are a number of historically influential churches in Charlottesville, but Mt. Zion and St. Paul’s are especially emblematic. One is mostly black, the other mostly white. Mt. Zion sits at the bottom of a hill, in a quiet neighborhood called Fifeville, on the outskirts of downtown. St. Paul’s is on University Avenue, within feet of the school’s iconic statue of Thomas Jefferson; its classical portico and brick building are an extension of the campus’s architectural style. On Friday night, close to a thousand people were packed into St. Paul’s for a prayer service when a throng of torch-wielding demonstrators started massing across the street. Several police cars sped to the church just before the service let out, after reports that one of the demonstrators had brandished a rifle.

I visited St. Paul’s earlier this week to talk with its rector, the Reverend William Peyton, a native Virginian whose great-great-grandfather lost his arm at the First Battle of Manassas. He has only recently returned to the state, after serving as the associate rector at St. James’ Church, in New York City, for the past seven years; he and Edwards are still only loose acquaintances. Peyton marched with a large group on Saturday that started at the Jefferson School and continued to the First United Methodist Church, which is directly across the street from Emancipation Park. As armed demonstrators moved along the fringes of the park beating counter-protesters, Peyton and others stood in the church parking lot to make sure that the property wasn’t overrun.

“There are all kinds of deep and intertwining historical ironies here,” Peyton told me, as we walked through St. Paul’s on Monday. “We had seven hundred people in the church the other night. There were Nazi torches outside. Some of the pews in the chapel bear the names of Confederate soldiers. This church also had a proud history of leadership during the civil-rights era.” Thomas Jefferson was a white supremacist, he said, adding to the litany. “How far was Robert E. Lee from Jefferson in terms of world view? But we deify Jefferson in this town.”

Even the liberal politics of Charlottesville were complex and tangled, he told me. On one side was what Peyton called Old Virginia, a contingent of residents with a more conservative, nostalgist bent, who never quite defended the Confederate monuments but still saw the City Council’s vote to remove them, in February, as a needless provocation. On the other was a progressive group anchored by students and faculty at the university, some of whom would leave town when their time at school was up. “It’s a big university and a small city,” he said. “People who come here from elsewhere don’t always appreciate the depth of the historic ties to the Confederacy.”

Peyton, like Edwards, wants his church to be a source of moral clarity and purpose, without overt activism becoming its sole function during trying times. “I’m trying to lead a church whose Christian identity leads my members to their politics, and not to have their politics lead them to the church,” he said. On Saturday morning, while protesters gathered downtown, Edwards invited congregants to Mt. Zion to pray from six until noon. To hear him describe it, the worshippers were a critical part of the resistance, too. “We were trying to be prayerful, and I’m grateful for that, because I believe it would have been worse if people hadn’t prayed,” he told me.

The Collective is now at a crossroads. Some of its participants, especially younger pastors, grew restless in the weeks before this weekend’s confrontation. They wanted the group to prepare for nonviolent direct action and to hold the line against the white supremacists who were coming to town by the van-load. “You can’t wish this away,” Seth Wispelwey, a recently ordained minister, told me at the Jefferson School, on Monday. He helped a colleague, Brittany Caine-Conley, put out a national call for pastors to come to Charlottesville to join the counter-protesters on the front lines. The move wasn’t exactly a consensus position among members of the Collective, but its defenders saw it as necessary given the circumstances.

On Monday night, one sentiment seemed to elicit broad and unqualified agreement. “There is a specific and demonstrable connection between symbols of racism and acts of racism,” Lisa Woolfork, a University of Virginia professor and member of Black Lives Matter, said. “They keep coming because we keep inviting them,” she said, of the white supremacists from out of town. “To rescind the invitation, you have to remove the Confederate monuments.” Her statement drew the biggest applause of the night.