BY ROSANNA WEAVER — Two local pastors were in Charlottesville, Va., on Aug. 12 to stand with other clergy members in response to the white nationalist “Unite the Right” rally. White nationalists clashed with counter-demonstrators on Aug. 11 and Aug. 12. One person was killed and dozens were injured when a man drove his car into a crowd of anti-racist demonstrators on Aug. 12.
Kim McDowell, who lives with her family in Hyattsville, has been the pastor of University Park Church of the Brethren since 1990. Cynthia Lapp has lived in Mount Rainier since 1996, and has been pastor of Hyattsville Mennonite Church since 2002. Here is their story, in their own words, gathered in response to email questions. Their answers have been edited for length and clarity.
McDowell: A group of clergy called Congregate Charlottesville put out a plea to clergy from beyond the city to join them in standing against hate and for love and justice. Cindy Lapp and I talked about this and felt that we wanted to join in the clergy gathering.
Lapp: This was a counterprotest organized by an interfaith coalition so we were also prepared through worship services on Friday evening and Saturday morning (at 6 a.m.!)
McDowell: The spirit of determination and hope among the people of faith and also community members who gathered was intense and powerful. This helped ground us as a group of about 50 or 60 clergy walked together to Emancipation Park on Saturday. As the white supremacists began to gather, some armed and outfitted for battle, our group lined up along a curb just outside the park and stood, at various times in silence, song, or prayer. Our hope was that we could embody a different spirit.
Lapp: We stood linked arm in arm with about 50 other clergy and people of faith. The militia, police and white supremacists were in front of us toward the park. Some alt-right men heckled us, challenging our credentials in many ways. Behind us were onlookers, (including a woman passing out loaves of homemade bread and homegrown tomatoes,) antifa, Black Lives Matter and other counterprotestors. And media, everywhere media. It was unpredictable and scary as so many people were heavily armed — militia, white nationalists and the police.
McDowell: Spread out in front of us, between us and the park, were members of a heavily armed citizen militia. The alt-right ralliers were lined up along the edge of the park, often chanting, yelling, and rattling spears. Those most at risk in our midst (people of color, Jewish folks, and LTBTQ community members) were courageously present in the face of the vitriol and racism before them.
Lapp: There was so much firepower in the hands of so many different armed white groups (including police and militia) and yet no shots were fired. It seems impossible that this would have been the case if it were a Black Lives Matter event. It was surreal to see black police officers standing next to, and protecting, white supremacists.
McDowell: Counter-protestors of a variety of types began to filter in, culminating with at least one larger group that was also very confrontational. Soon thereafter, violence began to break out. When the worst was happening, we had moved away from the center of the conflict. I wonder whether staying might have been of more use.
Lapp: I have been relating to the Hyattsville Police Department for the past year. Several local pastors and I started meeting with [Hyattsville City Police] Chief [Douglas] Holland (and other people in the department) monthly to provide support to them, and to find ways that the community and police can have better communication and cooperation. Now several us are “Community Chaplains” with the police; they call us when there is a death and they feel like it would be helpful to have a chaplain be with the family. We do ride-alongs to get to know the officers. I know that informed how I saw the police in Charlottesville. It gave me compassion for the impossible job they had in keeping people safe.
McDowell: I was struck on that day with a couple comments I’ll remember. As we walked, several police officers on the street thanked us for coming. When we lined up along the walk outside the park, even one of the armed citizen militia members quietly said, “Blessings on you. We need more of you.” In many ways, I feel extremely fortunate to come from a community where I can’t imagine such a gathering. I say this recognizing that I and many of us have much work to do with regard to our own and our culture’s racism.
Lapp: We are a town that tries hard to stand together across difference. Let’s keep working at that. This is the time to stand together against hate and to find ways to call in those who lean toward hate.