Clergy from the US-based Episcopal Church joined other Christians leaders in Charlottesville, Virginia this weekend in a show of solidarity with members of minority communities. Priests from across the diocese of Virginia took part in the rally which was held to counter what became a deadly protest by white-supremacists, neo-Nazis, the Ku Klux Klan and other extreme right-wing groups.
The right-wing protest was sparked by a decision to remove a statue of Civil War Confederate military leader Robert E Lee and change the name of the city’s Lee Park into Emancipation Park. The decision to remove the statue is currently being challenged in court. There is growing pressure to erase Lee from public view, or celebration, because of the way that far-right groups across America have turned him into a rallying symbol and icon for racism.
Saturday’s “Unite The Right” march was met with a counter-demonstration, leading to violent clashes in which around 15 people were hurt. A further 19 people taking part in the counter-demonstration were injured and one - 32-year-old legal assistant Heather Heyer – was killed when a car was deliberately driven at them. The alleged driver, 20-year old James Fields of Ohio, is due to appear in court today charged with murder, malicious wounding, and failing to stop at the scene of an accident.
In a separate incident, two police officers were killed when their helicopter, which they were using to monitor the protests, crashed.
Writing in advance of Saturday to invite clergy to take part in a counter-protest against the racist groups, the bishops of the diocese of Virginia said that “together we will stand in non-confrontational and prayerful opposition to the rally… Our purpose will be to bear visible witness to the entirety of the beloved community in which people of all races are equal.”
Clergy were asked to join a prayer gathering organised by the Charlottesville Clergy Collective. The invitation was extended only to clergy, rather than lay members of the churches “for the purposes of crowd reduction and public safety.”
The clergy took park in a 7.30 am march from Jefferson School’s African-American Heritage Centre, through Emancipation Park, and onto the First United Methodist Church where they remained for a prayer rally while the main protests took place.
Clergy taking part in the march were asked to wear clerical clothes “to make the most visible witness.”
The bishops of the diocese of Virginia, Shannon Johnston, Susan Goff, and Edwin Gulick concluded their letter saying: “Your voice is needed!
“As people who have been reconciled to God through Christ, we have been entrusted with the ministry of reconciliation (2 Corinthians 5:18-19). In our judgment, therefore, the Church cannot remain silent in the face of those who seek to foment division.”
The Bishop of Washington, Mariann Budde, responded to the weekend’s violence in a blog post. “once again our nation’s demon of racism has reared its head, spewing hatred and inciting violence,” she said. “What we saw in Charlottesville was unmasked and ugly, culminating in a deadly act of domestic terrorism.
“But something else was also present in Charlottesville: the power of collective resolve and mobilised love.”
The bishop praised the work of the Charlottesville Clergy Collective, saying: “Their witness was needed on Saturday, and they were ready.
“As white supremacists shouted words of hatred and violence, people of faith stood resolute in prayer and song. And the Episcopal Church was strong among their number.” She added: “The Spirit of God is at work in our world and will prevail. The evil of racism is real, but it is not stronger than God’s love embodied in the lives of those committed to justice.”