White Supremacist Rally Fizzles in the Face of Faith-Based Protest

May 31, 2017

Charlottesville was bracing, Wednesday, for another protest involving white supremacists -- angered by plans to remove a statue of Robert E. Lee from Lee Park. Police and reporters turned out in force, but the event apparently fizzled when about 150 clergymen and their congregants showed up first -- to pray and sing hymns.  Sandy Hausman has that story.

Religious leaders and members of their congregations rallied against white supremacists in Charlottesville.

When religious leaders in Charlottesville learned of a possible protest by white nationalists scheduled to start at 10 a.m., they resolved to gather in Lee Park at nine.  The city has seen some confrontations involving local blogger Jason Kessler and several national figures from the so-called Alt-Right, so the ministers were prepared for violence. We spoke with Phil Woodson, Seth Wispelwey, Tracey Howe  Wispelwey, and Neal Halvorson-Taylor.

“God’s grace goes before us wherever we go and whatever we do,” said Woodson, an associate pastor at the First United Methodist Church.

“Virginia, unfortunately, has really crazy gun laws, and so I’m always aware that there are probably weapons around me,” said Tracy Wispelwey, a minister at the Westminster Presbyterian Church.

“We certainly hope there’s not, but we are prepared to link arms and create safe space,” adds her husband, a clergyman at Sojourner's United Church of Christ.

“We want to de-escalate any type of violence that might be used to physically harm people,” adds the Reverend Neal Halvorson-Taylor of Grace Church Redhill.

“All of the groups who are here today in the park are here with an understanding of peace, and if clergy here can maintain that line, I will call today a success,” Woodson concludes. 

Westminster Presbyterian Pastor Tracy Howe Wispelwey leads about 150 protesters in song at Charlottesville's Lee Park.

United Methodist Church Pastor Robert Lewis gladly responded to a call for clergy to step up.

“I had heard that there was a chance the white supremacists might be back this morning, and so I responded to an invitation to clergy to bring the best of ourselves and our traditions – that we stand together as a community for peace and hope, that we heal these wounds that so often divide us,” he said.

And fellow methodist Phil Woodson expressed confidence in the possibility of compromise.

“I have members of my congregation who sit on both sides of the statue issue, but I have found agreement in how we confront racism that still exists in our society.  It’s really what people want to get to and what people want to talk about and work through.”  

White supremacist Kessler, who carried a megaphone, stood quietly with several friends -- watching from a distance, insisting he knew of no plans for a counter-protest. 

“I wasn’t planning to do any kind of demonstration here today.  All I heard was that Kenny Jackson, city council candidate, was going to be doing a little appearance here, and I wanted to come out and support him.”

Jackson was, in fact, on hand.  He backs keeping the monument in place.

"Leave it alone.  We have bigger things to do," Jackson explains. "We have people who are exiting the city, because they can’t live here.  They can work here, but they can’t live here.  I have friends who have worked at UVA for 25 years, and they can’t afford to buy a house here."

But he also used the occasion to bash well-meaning white liberals – suggesting they should do more for the African-American community if they really believe black lives matter.  Kessler was also critical of the crowd, noting most were white and should, he said, have compassion for members of their own race.