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Presbyterians gather in Charlottesville to unite against hate groups

Local pastor and organizer of pre-event prayer vigil was witness to violence

by Gregg Brekke and Rick Jones

Clergy link arms to provide a barricade during Saturday’s counter-demonstration as white supremacist groups march on the streets of Charlottesville, Virginia. (Photo by Heather Wilson)

LOUISVILLE – Opposition to white supremacist, KKK and neo-Nazi groups gathered in Charlottesville, Virginia, for a “Unite the Right” rally over the weekend included several Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) clergy and members. The Rev. Ken Henry, of Westminster Presbyterian Church in Charlottesville, was one of the organizers of a Thursday prayer vigil that preceded the events of the weekend. He was also present at Saturday’s counter-demonstration.

“I thought there should be a place for congregations to participate in praying for peace,” Henry said. “The inspiration was the idea of congregations coming together at a time when fear is rampant in our cities. I was surprised by the good response.”

Carson Rhyne, General Presbyter in Presbytery of the James, attended the prayer vigil and praised its unifying force for the community.

“This was very powerful, that we could all rally around this kind of injustice regardless of where we stood theologically,” Rhyne said. “It was a powerful experience for the Presbyterians involved and I hope to capitalize on that as we move forward.”

Henry was part of the several-hundred-strong clergy contingent that stood in opposition to rallying white supremacists on Saturday when much of the violence occurred.

“I have never had a day like that one, to see so much hate, it just wears you out,” Henry said. “You’re standing there and see people dressed up in militia gear and hard hats, people throwing punches and others bleeding as they walk by. It’s unreal.”

Henry said the most poignant moment of the day for him was seeing a pre-teen white supremacist dressed in battle gear.

“I looked across the street in the midst of tear gas and everything, watching people screaming and yelling. I saw this 10-year-old boy dressed in army fatigues, wearing a hard hat and he looked like he was getting ready for battle,” Henry said. “He had a small bat in one hand and an American flag in the other. His face showed nothing but hate. If we are teaching our children to be this way, its no wonder we have so much gun violence in our country.”

The Rev. Jill Duffield, publisher of The Presbyterian Outlook, also attended the clergy counter-demonstration and said in a written reflection, “only two sides were represented: good and evil, right and wrong.”

“Affirming the inescapable nature of sin, the reality that none of us righteous and all have fallen short of the glory of God, is no excuse for moral equivalence,” she said. “White supremacists, neo-Nazis and the KKK came to this progressive, college town, the cradle of the American democracy, to escalate their ‘summer of war’ as they chanted ‘Blood and soil’ and ‘Jew will not replace us.’ They alone came to Charlottesville with this explicit, vile agenda.”

Rhyne said he’s reached out to area PC(USA) pastors following Saturday’s events.

“I’m hoping to meet with the Presbyterian pastors in Charlottesville and determine what we can do for the community in terms of going forward,” Rhyne said. “We will take their suggestions and learn what they’re seeing in their congregations and see what the possibilities are for the community.”

Rhyne plans to assess what sort of help and assistance churches need to respond in the days and weeks ahead. He was contacted by Presbyterian Disaster Assistance Sunday morning and will work with them and local congregations to provide resources and grants as needed.

“I think many people are just dumbfounded and confused about what to do and what the next step should be,” Rhyne said. “The ministers in the area are very concerned about their congregations and the impact this event has had on them. I think it is a shock for all of us and a realization that we were fairly naïve and didn’t realize how deep racism is in this country.”

“One of the things that contributes to the healing of communities after public violence is the will, hope and power of community,” said the Rev. Dr. Laurie Kraus, coordinator of Presbyterian Disaster Assistance. “We are already seeing these at work in the actions around the counter-demonstration as well as the response from the mayor, governor, chief of police and clergy who stood up with fellow citizens and said there is no place for hatred, Nazi ideology and racial targeting in American communities.”

“PDA will support the community when asked, with the resources we have for community grants, pastoral accompaniment and resiliency building. After natural disaster, recovery and rebuilding take a long time and can wear out the people who are involved,” Kraus said. “This is all the more true after public violence events. When the disaster is human-caused, and especially as it encompasses issues of systemic racism and structural violence, the work of recovery is complex and will demand a sustained response.”

For his part, Henry hopes his church and others can continue to be examples of grace in the midst of hateful speech.

“I heard people say everyone has a right to free speech, but we need to look at ourselves and not become the thing we despise. This is an opportunity for Presbyterian pastors to gather and do some reflection and do some honest talking,” Henry said. “If all of my colleagues act together, it would be beautiful. Congregations would see we are serious about peace and grace and carry that throughout the world. We need to work together.”

The weekend’s violence left one person dead when a car driven by a white supremacist rammed into a group of counter demonstrators. Nearly two-dozen people were injured in this and other incidents. Two Virginia state troopers providing aerial surveillance of the demonstration died when their helicopter crashed. As of this writing, no PC(USA) members have been identified among the victims.

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