The visitors began arriving early last Friday night at St. Paul’s Memorial Church across the street from the Rotunda at the University of Virginia. Doors opened at 7:30 and within minutes some 600 people filled the pews and lined its walls. Many others were turned away. They had gathered for an interdenominational prayer and song service presented by Congregate Charlottesville, a collection of local clergy organized in opposition to the white nationalist rally planned for the following day in Emancipation Park.
Less than a mile away, another large group was coming together that evening on the university campus. At a darkened Nameless Field, about 300 white nationalists and Nazi supporters formed a long column, two by two, and held unlit tiki torches. Many wore khakis and polo shirts and Make America Great Again hats. They were preparing for a march through the campus that they intended as a show of force and a rally cry for their white power cause.
The church service began at 8 p.m. Sitting in the pews were clergy members from all over the country who had paid their way to come to Charlottesville to support those protesting against the Unite the Right rally. There were many local residents on hand as well, including long time activists with experience in civil rights rallies and newcomers who wanted to voice their opposition to what they saw as an ugly threat to their city.
“We wanted to have a service that demanded in the name of God and people of conscience that white supremacy must be overcome if America is going to have a successful future,” said Seth Wispelwey, a local minister who organized the event along with his wife Tracy Howe Wispelwey, also a minister, and Brittany Caine-Conley.
Charlottesville Mayor Michael Signer and his wife sat near the front of the church. Former mayor Kay Slaughter was on hand as were Harvard professor and civil rights leader Cornel West and television journalist Katie Couric, a University of Virginia graduate who was working on a long-form report for National Geographic television about the national debate over statues, memorials and the naming of buildings. Following the weekend’s events, she released a gripping report that captured the tension leading up to the Charlottesville showdown and its violent outcome.
The service began with a quintet of young women singing and the people in the church clapping along. There was a welcome from St. Paul’s rector, Rev. William Peyton and a reading of statement of support from the National Council of Churches. Muslim, Jewish and Christian faith leaders spoke to the predominately white audience in front of them.
At that time, most in the church had no idea that the large group of white nationalists had formed just a short walk away and were then lighting their torches. “Hey kike!,” one snarled at a reporter who walked down the line taking photos. “F--- you, faggot!” yelled another. As they climbed the steps leading out of Nameless Field, they let loose a loud roar that was soon followed by chants of “Our blood, our soil!” and “Jews will not replace us!”
In the church, Traci Blackmon, a minister from St. Louis delivered a “barnburner of a sermon,” said Jalane Schmidt, a University of Virginia professor and one of the leaders of those protesting the rally. “It was just a raucous service. Clapping and singing and a feeling that we would not be deterred.”
Mayor Signer looked down at his phone and left soon after. He had received word, he said later, that a federal judge had ruled against the city’s effort to move the following day’s rally to a city park outside of the city’s bustling downtown district.
But the spirit inside the church didn’t dampen. The singing and the songs continued. “Wade in the Water,” “This Little Heart of Mine,” “Oh Freedom!.” Jamie Ross, a local documentary filmmaker, was moved by the camaraderie and shared sense of purpose.
“It was galvanizing,” she said. “It was so well put together and very clearly gave people strength and hope.”
Meanwhile, the marchers continued their rapid trek across the university campus, their torches a line of fire as they hurried in formation past the school’s iconic buildings. At times running to keep in formation they passed. The campus was almost entirely empty and silent except for the marchers and their threatening chants.
Inside the church, the first messages began to reach clergy members via text and Twitter about the fast-approaching group of marchers. There was confusion at first. Wariness and fear. No one knew where the marchers were headed or what they intended, but they didn’t need to be reminded of recent and distant attacks by white supremacists on houses of faith.
“People were scurrying around trying to find out if the protesters were coming toward the church,” said Couric. “There was a lot of fear that they were going to walk right across the street to the church.”
The service concluded and from the pulpit, Peyton addressed the crowd, alerting them to potential trouble from protesters.
“I think it’s a good time for a prayer for our enemies,” he said. “God called us to the hard work of loving our enemies. Lead them and lead us from prejudice to truth. Deliver them and deliver us from hatred, cruelty and revenge.”
There was no panic in the church, but “it was a very tense and kind of trepidatious environment toward the end,” Couric said. “You couldn’t help but think about churches in Birmingham and other places that have been targeted so it was definitely worrisome.”
Inside of St. Paul’s Blackmon, who had given her sermon, tweeted: They are coming for the church! Police all around. They won’t let us go outside. Y’all these KKK are marching with torches!
For Ross, the filmmaker, images flashed in her head.
“I kept thinking of movies where the Nazis round up all the people into the church or the synagogue and blow it up,” she said. “And I kept thinking we’re all sitting here and those guys are out there.”
By then the marchers had reached the Thomas Jefferson statue in front of the Rotunda and just across University Avenue from the church. There, a small group of students linked arms around the statue determined to face down the mob.
Surrounding the students, the marchers began chanting “Our streets!” and “White Lives Matter!” Then chaos. Punches and pepper spray. Bodies tumbling. Torches thrown at the statue and the students circled around it.
In the church, everyone was told everyone to shelter in place. A few organizers pushed to have people in the church rush across and help the students, but the decision was made to stay put.
“As I think about relaying an invitation to confront a mob to a full church of mostly untrained people and many children, I imagine mostly bad outcomes,” Willis Jenkins, a University of Virginia professor and one of the organizers providing security at the church, wrote in a message he sent on Wednesday And yet, he wrote, “I am personally haunted that I did not go to assist those students.”
As quickly as the melee erupted, it was over. Marchers returned to Nameless Field, stuffing their extinguished torches in garbage cans on the campus. Volunteers in the church left to help those near the statue who had been Maced.
The worshipers who had gathered two hours earlier for an evening of prayer and song went home to prepare for the following day.
Arelis Hernandez contributed to this report.