Alt-right rally: Praying for the enemy

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. Alumnus Christopher Tweel (pictured at left with alumna Lana Heath de Martinez and Union library staff member Jay McNeal) is Associate Pastor for Christian Education at Grace Covenant Presbyterian Church in Richmond, Virginia.

By Rev. Christopher Tweel (M.Div.’14)

I made the decision to attend the rally as soon as I heard that there was a call for pastors to come and support the counter-protesters in a peaceful way.

Another Union alum, who was my first head of staff and a dear friend and mentor, took me to my first rally years ago. It marked for me the foundational theological idea that peaceful protest or making the voice of God heard in terms of justice in the world is a way of taking on the role of prophet–something that pastors have been doing historically since the reformation. For me, I felt like I had to attend this rally and counter-protest. Having the support of other alumni was important and meaningful.

I know that some pastors and clergy had been to other demonstrations in Charlottesville, and others were concerned about safety. Some thought that it would be more helpful to stay clear of the situation, but I will say that I didn’t find that to be true. The governor’s call was meant to diffuse and de-escalate the situation and I understand that and support his position as an elected official. Pastors answer and are responsible to a different call. Protests, especially demonstrations like this one, need the pastors’ presence; to wear the robe, the collar, the stole, whatever, and simply walk around as a powerful witness to the faithful and the hateful alike. It sends an important message to bear witness to peace in the face of rank hate.

When we arrived I was surprised that the Neo-Nazi groups and racists that were gathered there were as heavily armed as they were. From the first moment I saw them walk by the church that was our home base on the way to the park across the street, I knew their intentions. They carried assault rifles, handguns, homemade shields, helmets, riot padding, vests, clubs and metal poles. They were girded for war. They had leaders who shouted commands like battalion leaders and they marched and chanted as if they were walking to a military action. They were not there for peace from the moment they arrived.

Our part was largely to be the active arms of the church in offering water, pastoral care, food, safety and love to everyone who was there working against racism and fascism. It was good work and had the feel of a field hospital. People were everywhere, yet the spirit of the place had a serenity to it. There were ongoing worship services that people dropped in and out of. Spontaneous groups broke out praying in every nook and cranny of the church throughout the day. There were people weeping, and people to hold them as they wept. As the day and the violence wore on, the presence of the pastors and clergy were more deeply felt. And there was singing.

Standing at the barricades I was called racial slurs and screamed at, I watched one protester get bloodied by a group of men twice her size before any of us could rush over, and I saw the KKK pull out a handgun and point it at the crowd only 20 feet from where we stood. And still, we sang. We stayed safe and gathered people into the church several times for a lockdown, but always re-emerged to tend to more wounded folks, give more water, hold more hands, and sing again together.

It was meaningful for pastors to be there in numbers because a lot of these racists and Nazis invoke scripture and the name of God to support their broken and utterly abhorrent ideology. It meant something to the other protesters that the true church was there, standing with them, giving them water and food, and kindness. When people entered the church boundaries you could sense a small release. It was also meaningful for us to pray for the enemy. Christ commands that we have love for our enemies and never has that verse had a more powerful effect than this past weekend as the enemies of God and humanity surrounded churches, chanted hate, and drew weapons on new friends we had made. Even though it made me sick to my stomach at times, we prayed for them.

Another moment that I will always carry with me happened Saturday morning. As these people of hate came to gather at the park they shouted racist slogans and beat on their homemade shields. You could hear them coming from a long way off, like an approaching army. Several clergy and other protesters were already gathered at the park waiting to face them. The chants of the Nazis and the KKK grew louder and louder, and then you could hear something else happen. It was so soft at first and then got louder and louder. It was the people of faith singing “This little light of mine.” They kept singing it and as people heard it they took up the song until you couldn’t hear the drumbeats of hate, but only the people of God who chose to gather and sing instead.

There was a lot that happened, and I won’t do it justice now, but as much as the weekend was a time of pain and death and deep injury, it was also a place where God’s people shone through the darkness, reaching out, offering love, and combating hate together.

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