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A Charlottesville faith leader to Unite the Right: “love has already won here”

Lead organizer of Congregate C'Ville Brittany Caine-Conley on how religious leaders countered Charlottesville’s alt-right rally.

Rescue workers assist victims after a car plowed through a group of counter-demonstrators marching through Charlottesville, Virginia’s downtown shopping district.
Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images

Hundreds of white nationalists descended upon the University of Virginia Friday night, moving across the campus grounds with Tiki torches and chants before surrounding a statue of Thomas Jefferson.

A group of progressive faith followers, meeting for an event organized by the local faith and justice-based organizing group Congregate C’Ville, packed St. Paul’s Memorial Church. With “a call for 1,000 clergy and faith leaders to travel to Charlottesville,” the group planned a weekend of training sessions, interfaith services, and opportunities for nonviolent prayer. All of it was aimed at confronting “the rising threat posed by these white supremacist groups in Charlottesville and across the country.” But as they came together for this peaceful event, the group could hear and see the protesters, Tiki torches in hand for the Unite the Right rally.

In addition to the several other counter-protests planned by UVA students, Black Lives Matter, and antifa, Congregate C’Ville planned to make their peaceful presence known during the rally. So after the group’s Love Over Fear Sunrise Service at 6 am on Saturday, faith leaders like Dr. Cornel West and Rev. Dr. Traci Blackmon marched with followers across the city, in both silent and song-filled resistance.

But before the rally could even begin, it was over. As Congregate C’Ville spread through the Virginia city’s streets, armed with messages of prayer and offering assistance to those in need, a state of emergency was called and the alt-right event was canceled. Not only did protests turn violent, but a car was intentionally driven through one of the protest sites, killing one woman and injuring many, including one of Congregate’s own.

I spoke to Congregate C’Ville’s lead organizer Brittany Caine-Conley about the movement’s visible and documented faith-based presence before, during, and after the rally. Here’s what she had to say about leading a nonviolent resistance in the midst of hate-driven violence.

Abbey White

Around how many clergy members showed up on Friday after you put out the call at the end of July? And how many different denominations answered that call?

Brittany Caine-Conley

Several hundred people responded to our call. The majority of people that responded were not from Charlottesville. We had put out our own local call and had been training folks for months. But we had folks from all over the country, as far as Texas, Ohio, and New York — we really had a great representation of folks from many traditions. Not just Christian denominations, but many other faiths. We had Muslim folks with us, Jewish folks, people part of meditation communities. It was a wide array of faith leaders and clergy.

Abbey White

Did you have any organizational allies from other areas of the social justice community there with you?

Brittany Caine-Conley

Mostly the people responding to our call were people of faith. There weren’t a lot of folks that don’t align themselves religiously. Most of the organizations working with us were faith organizations who, however, were organizing locally with Black Lives Matter.

Abbey White

I know there was a service Friday and a reported run in with protesters from the Unite the Right rally at a church during that late night service. Can you briefly describe what happened?

Brittany Caine-Conley

The service was incredible. It was a packed house, standing room only. Near the end of the service, we received information that the white supremacists were doing another torch-light rally. They were marching toward us, toward the Jefferson statue at the University of Virginia, which is right across the street from where the church is that we were gathering.

At that point, we didn’t have a lot of information, but started to get reports in that a student group surrounding the statue was being pepper-sprayed and beaten by the white supremacist group. We tried to keep people at our services as safe as possible, and then attempted to send a few folks over that way to assist, but we were largely not in space where we could mobilize at that point.

Abbey White

Your initial call was for a weekend of training, interfaith services, and opportunities for visible prayerful presence. What kind of training were you offering and who were they offered to?

Brittany Caine-Conley

Our trainings were for nonviolent direct action. We wanted folks to be prepared and understand the magnitude of violence they could witness and even receive. So we attempted to train people to be very structured and very disciplined in their nonviolent presence, to be able to withstand brutalization by either the alt-right or the police.

Abbey White

You say you’re an organizing mechanism for equipping faith leaders and those who would follow them to show up in pursuit of justice. How are you preparing leaders to address justice?

Brittany Caine-Conley

In the organizing leading up to the event, we didn’t really have a whole lot of time to put out resources, but we did put up a resource page for congregations, and, really, any faith leaders to be able to start to talk about white supremacy. That’s one of the big things. We really need everyone, particularly white folks, to start talking about white supremacy, to start talking about whiteness and what that means for us as individuals, what that means for us as communities, and what that means for us as a country. So that is really where we’re headed.

Here locally, we intend to start very soon a white privilege curriculum, particularly for people of faith, and that will be something we continue to give. And then to bring together groups who are ready to just be present at city council meetings, and other places where the city needs to know that people of faith — leaders of faith — have a voice and we have a call toward justice. ... Those people are who we intend to stand with.

Abbey White

So much happened on Saturday. If you can, break down what Congregate C’Ville was doing from the start of the day until it ended.

Brittany Caine-Conley

So we started service at 6 am where we were given a message from Dr. Cornel West. From there we had people going out to different locations to serve in different capacities. So we did have a march of several hundred people that went from the Jefferson School to McGuffey Park. McGuffey Park was designated as a safe space where one of our allies had got a permit for the day.

Others of us marched from First Baptist Church down to Emancipation Park, where we held a line presence right in front of the armed militia. We sang and we prayed, and we really worked to change the environment and change the narrative to help community members feel safe. From there, a group of us had space on some stairs where we wanted a presence as the alt-right folks were coming in. We also had folks throughout the day serving as “care bears,” walking around the park, walking around all of downtown with water, snacks, and sunscreen. We had folks who were stationed at other safe spaces.

At First United Methodist Church, we had folks serving as sort of mental health medics, essentially. We had folks at another church that were ready to respond for any sort of jail support that was needed. We had a bunch of faith leaders and clergy that were sent to hospitals, particularly after the car attack. So we were really trying to disperse folks and send them all across the city to be helpful and be a presence in whatever way made sense for them and their skill sets.

There was also a small group of us that continued to be in the downtown space as conflict continued to arise. We had folks with us that would essentially get information about where the conflict was happening and we’d march there. We’d march there, hold space. We attempted to protect the community from the alt-right and showed up wherever we were needed.

Abbey White

There have been reports that clergy, faith leaders, and counter-protesters that were part of your movement were attacked. Can you confirm when and where this happened?

Brittany Caine-Conley

We were attempting to hold the stairs as a Nazi group came streaming toward us, trying to get into the park. They started to shove our group and someone from our group did end up breaking the line, so they were able to get through. There was a whole lot of physical injury at that point because someone did break the line out of fear, and that’s understood. We trained so that people wouldn’t, but in that case, someone feared for their life.

So we were pushed and shoved around at that point, however, there were people who trained with us that were hit during the car incident. Our particular group was ... just up the street and we ran to the scene of the accident, and we just attempted to keep people away from all the bodies on the street. It was the most horrible thing I’ve ever experienced. But one of the folks that had been training with us that was with the group that was there was hit by the car and all my indications are that she’s okay now and being treated for her injuries.

Abbey White

At many points, you were close to Unite the Right rally participants as well as an armed militia. What impact did their presence have on the group and what impact did you want your presence to have?

Brittany Caine-Conley

Our hashtag was #LoveOverFear. White supremacists were descending on our town and are still here in order to make us fearful, in order to take away our power and our agency. We wanted to say that we’re not afraid. In those moments, you can feel your own fear and anxiety, but that’s why we had trained for so long. People knew how to deal with those feelings and were responding to an almost higher call.

Most of us were they because we felt called by God to put our own bodies on the line, so that marginalized and oppressed people don’t have to continue to be the only ones who receive violence. We take on that violence. So yeah, it was scary, but we wanted to say this is not who we are, and that love wins.

That was one thing that we were continuing to chant, that love has already won here and that we will not — as people of faith, as people of Charlottesville — we will not allow white supremacy to take over who we are. That is largely what we were attempting to do with those spaces, to obviously make a statement to the white supremacists, but also a statement to our city that we are here, we are here with you, we are here to serve you. It was really beautiful to see all the community members that joined in with our songs and in our chants. We really felt that our presence was able to change the narrative and change the dynamic of the space.

Abbey White

What would you say to those who see religion as part of Trump’s agenda and an agenda that is encouraging hate and harm?

Brittany Caine-Conley

I would say that there is a religion that encourages harm, and that religion is white nationalism. My belief is that the religious right, their religion is white nationalism. Although they claim Christianity, they claim Christianity in the name of white supremacy, in the name of Christian supremacy, and those who I believe actually follow the way of Jesus — we believe they are completely off the mark.

It’s really disheartening that, particularly here in America, Christianity has been so wound up with white nationalism. It’s been co-opted, and there are many, many, many folks who are working to essentially save Christianity from itself. To say that following the way of Jesus has nothing to do with white nationalism. We’re working hard to organize and reclaim this beautiful way of peace and transformation that we believe is at the very heart of our faith’s tradition.

I keep telling folks, Jesus was killed by the empire. Jesus endured violence so that more marginalized and oppressed people didn’t have to. And that is our call — that if we are truly to follow Jesus, we need to put our bodies and lives in places where we’re also willing to speak truth to power and to put ourselves in places where we may be killed by the empire.

Abbey White

Has there been any larger statements of support from various faith-based organizations, not just locally but nationally?

Brittany Caine-Conley

It’s been a little difficult to distill, but we’ve gotten a lot of messages of support and a lot of messages that people are with us. We’ve received support on the national level from the United Church of Christ, which is where I locate myself.

We are very small operation. It’s largely been me and my friend, the Rev. Seth Wispelwey doing the organizing for Congregate. But yeah, we appreciate it and we’re so overwhelmed by the support that is pouring out across the nation and across the world. To see the lists of cities doing vigils in support of Charlottesville is very overwhelming in a beautiful way. We’ll continue to do work and continue to let people know how they can support Charlottesville and to mobilize for justice.

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