Prayers Against Hate in Foggy Bottom

By Colbert I. King
Saturday, June 13, 2009

During the very hour when a handful of worshipers, including yours truly and the wife, were at St. Mary's Episcopal Church in Foggy Bottom praying "for all who are in danger, sorrow, or any kind of trouble," 88-year-old James von Brunn was nine blocks away wreaking havoc at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.

So much for the peace which passes all understanding.

With von Brunn now in George Washington University Hospital, one block down the street, the St. Mary's anniversary celebration tomorrow comes with a sober reminder that the white supremacist yearnings of the era in which the parish was born 142 years ago are still alive in the hearts of some Americans.

James von Brunn is a living reminder that the survival of the city's first Episcopal church for African Americans is no assurance that bigotry won't survive right along with it.

Von Brunn was driven by a virulent kind of hatred as old as mankind. He is charged with shooting and killing a man he never knew -- someone who had done him no wrong, except perhaps to be black and to work as a special police officer at the museum in Washington that bears witness to the state-sponsored persecution and extermination of millions of European Jews and other groups during World War II.

In von Brunn's twisted world, being Jewish or black are offenses serious enough to warrant death. And so, eyewitnesses say, von Brunn entered the museum, aimed his rifle, pulled the trigger and took a black man's life.

Odd how things turn out.

Von Brunn, who was wounded by special police officers returning fire, was transported to GW, as was his victim, Stephen Tyrone Johns, 39. There, Johns was pronounced dead while the hospital's staff worked feverishly to keep von Brunn alive.

I don't know how that elderly white supremacist would take this but, according to a hospital spokeswoman, from the time von Brunn entered the emergency room, through his surgery in the operating room, to his placement in the intensive-care unit, he has been under the care of a diverse medical staff that includes blacks, Jews and Middle Easterners.

Landing near St. Mary's would probably be one of the last things on his to-do list. The church, like the holocaust museum, represents all that von Brunn despises. Formed shortly after the end of the Civil War, St. Mary's Chapel was donated by Abraham Lincoln's secretary of war, Edwin M. Stanton. A stained glass window is dedicated to Lincoln.

Generations of blacks, whites and people of all colors have sat together in its pews -- anathema to someone like von Brunn.

Racism -- opposition to ending slavery and giving voting rights to blacks -- formed the basis of John Wilkes Booth's hatred of Lincoln. Racist and anti-Semitic beliefs inform James von Brunn more than 140 years later.

That's what makes the museum shooting so hard to stomach. It comes on the eve of a church celebration in which the Civil War trauma is treated as a thing of the past.

Now a tangible sign of the white supremacy that flourished before, during and long after the end of that war is alive and down the street in a GWU hospital bed.

Around now, some readers may be shouting: "Why are you spending time on von Brunn and not saying anything about Abdulhakim Mujahid Muhammad, the 23-year-old black convert to Islam charged with shooting to death one soldier and wounding another outside an Army-Navy Career Center in Little Rock last week?"

A prosecutor said, according to news accounts, that Muhammad, aka Carlos Bledsoe, admitted shooting the two soldiers "because of what they had done to Muslims in the past."

Muhammad's dead wrong. Both victims had just gotten out of basic training. The problem rests with Muhammad, his corrupt world view, his religious hatred and his bigotry. The charges, if true, make him no better than von Brunn.

But von Brunn is also being celebrated as a martyr and hero.

The Anti-Defamation League reports that John de Nugent, a white supremacist, Holocaust denier and von Brunn acquaintance, conjectured in a media interview that von Brunn was driven to action as a result of the election of Barack Obama, which de Nugent described as a "tremendous signal of alarm for" von Brunn.

The ADL also reports these comments from white supremacist Web sites:

-- Von Brunn is a "white power activist who has martyred himself to further his ideals and to bring to the forefront the struggle of the Aryan race," says the neo-Nazi New Saxon Web site.

-- "Von Brunn is a true hero. He is an exemplar of the warrior spirit within every White person. . . . This holy spirit, given to the White Man by God Himself, is what allowed us to conquer the known world and bring holy light to the world and prosperity and salvation to every White man," says the neo-Nazi VNN Forum Web site.

The Southern Poverty Law Center tracks more than 800 hate groups around the country.

All of that hate still will not stop St. Mary's from countering with prayers for a spirit of respect and forbearance -- as it has for 142 years.

kingc@washpost.com

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