Imported Charlottesville clergy: When a simple narrative overtakes the complex facts

Everyone is doing their Charlottesville post-mortems, which is why I was interested in what the New Yorker had to say about how church leaders there prepared for white supremacists.

The local clergy, and visiting clergy, played a crucial role in this story and many reporters made little or no effort to separate this group of counter-protesters from the highly confrontational, and ultimately violent, Antifa crowd that came in from outside.

That brings us to this New Yorker piece. What I didn't expect was a romanticized version of local clergy activism and a de-emphasis on the amount of outside clergy reinforcements brought in to maintain that false impression. The key facts: What clergy took part? Who didn't join the protests? Why? Where are the other voices?

The story begins at a historic black school where a few hundred of the town’s residents gather to assess exactly what happened on their streets to cause three people to die there during the recent riots.

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.

The article goes on to describe how the Collective got wind of an upcoming Ku Klux Klan visit and decided to hold a counter rally. Two of the major churches involved were Mt. Zion and St. Paul’s Episcopal.

There are a number of historically influential churches in Charlottesville, but Mt. Zion and St. Paul’s are especially emblematic. One is mostly black, the other mostly white. Mt. Zion sits at the bottom of a hill, in a quiet neighborhood called Fifeville, on the outskirts of downtown. St. Paul’s is on University Avenue, within feet of the school’s iconic statue of Thomas Jefferson; its classical portico and brick building are an extension of the campus’s architectural style. On Friday night, close to a thousand people were packed into St. Paul’s for a prayer service when a throng of torch-wielding demonstrators started massing across the street. Several police cars sped to the church just before the service let out, after reports that one of the demonstrators had brandished a rifle.

The reporter certainly brought up good points about how the city is divided between longtime "old Virginia” residents who want the Confederate monuments to stay and newcomers, including many university students and faculty, who want to remake the town but who plan to leave after a few years.

It ended on an uncertain note, with members of the Collective split over strategy and a concluding quote from a local University of Virginia (UVA) professor and Black Lives Matter member stating the Confederate monuments must be removed.

In journalism, it’s not what they say but what they don’t say. I noticed how many groups this article didn’t mention. Where were the Roman Catholics in all this? Or the many non-denominational chapels or a large church like Westminster Presbyterian? How about the Mormons (who have a university up the road)? Or the Assemblies of God? The Baptists? Or synagogues such as Congregation Beth Israel?

I realize the reporter was probably dropped in to do a quickie piece in a short time but a lot of voices went unheard.

I emailed a friend of mine in Charlottesville to ask what he thought and he said the Collective folks were buttressed by a lot of out-of-town clergy who were there for political theater, not for spiritual purposes.

The vast majority of the region’s Christians -– 99 percent, he said -– did not engage with the Collective or the counter protests.

I suspected as much. I read a ThinkProgress report about “hundreds” of religious leaders who traveled to Charlottesville for the event. That is, folks like Harvard Divinity School professor Cornel West and liberal evangelical leader Brian McLaren were flying in, which tells me the organizing was way more than just a group of local clergy and their flocks.

ThinkProgress also said the majority of clergy were from mainline Protestant groups. The website Vox made a similar point; that many clergy there weren’t from Charlottesville at all. The visitors saw their opportunity to be at a Selma-like gathering with lots of media present, so showed up.

In light of those articles, it’s clear the New Yorker misrepresented what the local clergy response was and didn’t make clear how the vast majority of the locals were boycotting the Collective. It would have been a much stronger story had the writer taken an extra day to interview religious groups that declined to take part.

The resulting narrative would not have been as tidy, but at least it would have been accurate and, thus, more truthful. 

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