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Charlottesville pastors see protest as an act of faith

Why We Wrote This

United Church of Christ ministers Brittany Caine-Conley and Seth Wispelwey wanted to stand against white supremacists in Charlottesville, Va. On Aug. 12, they not only marched but also helped the wounded and calmed the frightened. Then, they say, the really hard work began. Third in a series of profiles.

Steve HelberAP
Brittany Caine-Conley, lead organizer for Congregate Charlottesville, addresses the crowd during a vigil on Aug. 13, 2017, held at the site where a car plowed into a crowd of people protesting a white nationalist rally the day before in Charlottesville, Va.

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On Aug. 12, Charlottesville, Va., ministers Brittany Caine-Conley, Seth Wispelwey, and other faith leaders not only marched with local activists, but they also – after the violence started – helped the wounded and calmed the frightened. In the aftermath of that weekend, they began to comprehend the vastness of the task ahead. The pastors faced resistance from members of the faith community who didn’t love the idea of their ministers taking to the streets. They wrestled with complex traumatic experiences that were tangled with faith and race. They also sought to explain to their congregants about why it mattered to stand with communities of color, especially when it was uncomfortable. “We weren’t prepared for how difficult it was going to be afterward, how long the trauma would linger,” Ms. Caine-Conley says. “Every day has felt like Aug. 13 since,” Mr. Wispelwey adds. For both, what happened last summer – and everything that’s come since – has meant a fundamental shift in what they fight for, who they hang out with, and how they’ve oriented their lives. “There’s no going back, having passed through the fire of last year,” Wispelwey says.

The idea seemed simple enough: Put out a call to faith leaders and clergy across the country, and get them to show up in Charlottesville and stand against white supremacy.

It was the summer of 2017, and white supremacists had already marched on the city twice: First in May, at a torchlight rally led by white nationalist Richard Spencer, and again in July, when the Ku Klux Klan came and held a demonstration that ended in tear gas. The robust local activist community had long begun marshaling their forces, but local ministers Brittany Caine-Conley and Seth Wispelwey – both with the United Church of Christ – saw a glaring gap.

“We didn’t really have a mechanism to mobilize people of faith to show up and do public witness,” says the Rev. Caine-Conley. “[We] weren’t prepared or equipped to show up in the streets or to demonstrate in any capacity.”

From that need came Congregate Charlottesville. Long term, the goal was to create an infrastructure for faith leaders here to organize and to serve as a bridge between the local faith and activist communities. Short term – the weekend of Aug. 12 – they wanted “to keep our community as safe as possible and to claim that white supremacy is evil,” Caine-Conley, who heads the organization, says.

As it turned out, none of it was simple. Congregate Charlottesville built the framework for a local activist clergy, training them in how to respond to conflict and fear. On Aug. 12, they not only marched with local activists. They also – once the violence started – helped the wounded and calmed the frightened.

But the pastors’ founding principles faced resistance from members of the faith community who didn’t love the idea of their ministers taking to the streets. In the aftermath of that weekend, Caine-Conley and the Rev. Wispelwey say they began to comprehend the enormity of the task ahead. They would have to wrestle with complex traumatic experiences that were tangled with faith and race. They also sought to explain to their congregants about why it mattered to stand with communities of color, especially when it was uncomfortable.

“We weren’t prepared for how difficult it was going to be afterward, how long the trauma would linger,” Caine-Conley says.

“Every day has felt like Aug. 13 since,” Wispelwey adds.

The two pastors issued the nationwide call at the end of last July. About 300 responded from as far away as California, Texas, Massachusetts, and Florida. Those who came took part in training sessions that Congregate, alongside local activist groups, had been holding all summer. They learned how to react in conflict situations and avoid arrest, how to keep themselves and their congregations safe, and how to de-escalate crises.

In some ways, Caine-Conley says, what resulted was beautiful: a diverse group of faith leaders turning up to prove they could stand against neo-Nazism and white supremacy. “It was people of color, Muslim and Jewish leaders, a lot of women, a lot of queer leaders,” she says. “Those were the people that showed up and put their bodies on the line.”

Wispelwey, who identifies as a straight, white male, says it changed how he looked at his own role. “The people most often on the receiving end of systemic violence and actual violence are the ones most often showing up to confront it,” he says. “And until that equation changes and more white people embody solidarity and step outside their comfort zones and risk some skin in the game, we’re not going to see the needle move the way it needs to.”

That has led Wispelwey and Caine-Conley to walk increasingly different paths. Caine-Conley has stepped forward as an activist leader, drawing from her experiences as a queer clergywoman. Wispelwey has tried to step back, and instead work to raise the voices and experiences of his colleagues and congregants of color. “It’s high time that we default to white men not calling the shots, period,” he says.

It’s a message that can come with a cost – in Charlottesville and elsewhere. Shortly after the protests, the Rev. Robert W. Lee IV, a young pastor at a church in North Carolina and an indirect descendant of Robert E. Lee, took a stand against racism at MTV’s “Video Music Awards.” Mr. Lee, who appeared alongside the mother of the woman killed during the Aug. 12 riot, urged those in positions of power and privilege to “answer God’s call to confront racism and white supremacy head-on.” He later resigned from his congregation, citing some members’ displeasure with his remarks (an account the church’s governing council disputed).

For both Wispelwey and Caine-Conley, what happened on Aug. 12 – and everything that’s come since – has meant a fundamental shift: in what they fight for, who they hang out with, and how they’ve oriented their lives.

“There’s no going back, having passed through the fire of last year,” Wispelwey says. “When activists of color say, ‘Jump!’ I wanna be there to say, ‘How high?’ ”

“Antiracist organizing here has largely become my life,” Caine-Conley adds. “It’s difficult to be around people who have experienced nothing similar. My community has shifted quite a bit.”

Still, both hope that more people will take what Charlottesville went through and use it as a means to start asking tough questions of themselves and those around them. “White progressives or white people in general can’t just read Ta-Nehisi Coates, read The New York Times, and go, ‘Oh, apparently the police are shooting black men with impunity. I strongly disagree.Next,’ ” Wispelwey says. “It has to be more than just Facebook agreement.”

Staff writer Christa Case Bryant contributed to this report.

[Editor's note: This article originally misstated Brittany Caine-Conley's role at Sojourners United Church of Christ in Charlottesville.]

Part 1: A new life for mother whose daughter was killed in Charlottesville

Part 2: Charlottesville teen goes from targeting statue to taking on system

Coming Thursday: The organizer and the alt-right, a year later

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