How Church Leaders Prepared to Respond to the Hate That Descended on Charlottesville

A coalition of local faith leaders called the Charlottesville Clergy Collective was poised to respond when hate descended on the Virginia town this weekend. Photograph by Salwan Georges / The Washington Post via Getty

Just down the road from Emancipation Park in Charlottesville, Virginia, where a thousand white supremacists congregated around a statue of Robert E. Lee this weekend, is another historical landmark. It’s a large, two-story brick building called the Jefferson School, which first underwent construction in 1924—the same year that the Confederate monument went up—at the insistence of the local black community, whose children were barred from the city’s high schools because of segregation. Now the school is on the National Register of Historic Places.

On Monday night, a few hundred Charlottesville residents gathered at the Jefferson School, in an auditorium on the second floor, for a community meeting. Two days before, three people died and nineteen were injured when violent demonstrators from across the country came to Charlottesville with guns, shields, weapons, and flaming tiki torches for a “Unite the Right” rally. “We’ll fucking kill these people if we have to,” one of them told Vice News. A twenty-year-old neo-Nazi from Ohio ran over counter-protesters in his car, in an act that Jeff Sessions, the Attorney General, later called domestic terrorism. (The President initially condemned violence “on many sides,” then followed up on Tuesday afternoon by saying that there were “very fine people on both sides.”) But, almost as soon as they had arrived, the agitators were gone, and community members were left to try to make sense of what had just happened.

One of the local leaders at the school was instantly recognizable to everybody: a sixty-five-year-old reverend named Alvin Edwards. When Terry McAuliffe, the governor of Virginia, came to town on Sunday, he went directly to a service at the Mt. Zion First African Baptist Church, which is Edwards’s congregation. He’s been there for the past thirty-six years, and during that time he’s also served as the city’s mayor and as a member of its school board. His years in politics have only seemed to strengthen his ties to his parishioners, and he likes to joke, with folksy charm, about his “B.C. days”—before Christ—when he lived in Illinois, where he grew up with plans “to make money and to be an industrial engineer.” Edwards marched with the counter-protesters over the weekend, but these days he’s best known for founding a broad coalition of local faith leaders called the Charlottesville Clergy Collective.

For the past month, the Collective has met weekly to prepare for the incursion that took place this weekend. The violence outstripped even Edwards’s expectations, and he and others in the Collective are trying to balance spiritual and pragmatic imperatives in the aftermath of the tragedy. The local debate over what to do with the city’s Confederate monuments, which was fractious but never violent, will flare again at the end of the month, with another public hearing on the issue. “You can’t let others have the last word, but we have to move to the high ground,” Edwards said. “If they come back, we have to shout louder and more often.”

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SOURCE: The New Yorker