Alt-right rally: Clergy cannot be absent

Members of the Union community who joined demonstrators protesting the August 12, 2017, white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, reflect on what they saw, heard, and learned amid the violent clashes. Jay McNeal is Library User Services Specialist at Union’s William Smith Morton Library and director of United Faith Leaders in Richmond, Virginia.

By Jay McNeal

Union Presbyterian Seminary:  Why did you decide to attend the rally? Did advisories from the governor and other officials to stay away for safety reasons affect your decision?

Jay McNeal:  There is often no cost associated with being a Christian in 21st century America. We can all stand to reread Bonhoeffer’s Cost of Discipleship. Why I attended the rally is why I ever stand up with anyone. Jews, people of color, and a city were under attack. It is a fine starting place to read and study the Bible. It is excellent to be in a worshiping community. It is sensitive and favorable to hold vigils and pray. There are many, many times and places, however, to come out of our buildings and stand in the streets with sneakers, flowers, songs, and interlocked arms. Clergy were very present and engaged August 11th and 12th in Charlottesville but we have been notably absent almost every other day of the year, on the whole. It takes every one of us and every member of our faith communities contributing in whatever ways their many talents can to stand in front of the tidal wave. We must be seen and we must be at risk. As Christians, we are sent people, especially clergy. Clergy also bring a moral authority to contentious situations and the potential to de-escalate conflicts. We can pray with the injured and perform last rights over the dead. Our absence, our staying home in safety while others stand up for justice, is problematic. We must be convicted by our faith in Jesus Christ to be everywhere there is conflict. We must stand with immigrants and refugees. We must stand with Latinx and Asians. We must stand with the the LGBTQIA communities. We must stand with Black Lives Matter. We must stand with women and girls. We must stand with the aged and children. We must stand for trafficked humans. We must stand with the overworked and underpaid. We must stand with survivors of abuse and crush the climates that ever allow it. We must stand with Muslims and Jews. We must be united together on the side of good.

Photo credit: Jay McNeal

Union: What did you see and hear from both sides that is still on your mind today? Any surprises?

JM:  Many things surprised me but I will share one vulgar story because it is telling. I was generally astounded by the faces of the individuals among the white supremacists, what could be seen there – insecurity, fear, anger. Then specifically, late Saturday morning I was delivering jugs of water (with Brian McLaren) to a medical tent at McGuffy Park. A white supremacist was being doused with water by a gray haired woman. It was normal to see people shedding their clothes and being doused with water, milk, or milk of magnesia to treat the effects of pepper spray. As I stepped in for the briefest moment I could not un-hear what this struggling young man said to the woman as he squirmed in pain and wiped his flesh with flowing water. I was gone before I could know what I heard but his words, please excuse me, were, “I hope you don’t think I’m a pussy.” I heard worse words all day long. This fellow’s manhood was very much on his mind, as it appeared to be paramount for the scared young men in white shirts, helmets, and shields receiving their barked commands from their platoon sergeants earlier (and later).

Union:  What did you learn?

JM:  I learned a couple things. We’re ALL needed. And I am not nearly as woke as I need to be. I learned that we are all desperately needed. Clergy, yes, but not just clergy. I suspect most of the people standing up for justice were not regular church members but they need the church and they need faith leaders. How is it that we let them down so often? How is it that we leave them to stand alone as a moral authority so often? While we cannot agree with both sides, or often one side, we cannot be absent.

Photo credit: Jay McNeal

Union:  What are your biggest takeaways from this experience?
JM:  Getting a stage, having the conflicts, sparking violence all escalate further violence. The perpetuating of violence will be against the people for whom we advocate, in this case, Jews and people of color. If violence is the predictable outcome then permits to gather should not be granted.

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