Brittany Caine-Conley (fifth from right), a 2014 Eastern Mennonite Seminary graduate, marches with clergy on Aug. 12 in Charlottesville, Virginia. Caine-Conley, a United Church of Christ pastor-in-training, is the lead organizer of Congregate Charlottesville, which called for 1,000 clergy and faith leaders to counterprotest the Unite the Right Rally. Among those who joined are Dr. Cornel West, professor of the practice of public philosophy at Harvard University and prominent social justice activist, and Rev. Traci Blackmon, executive director of Justice & Witness Ministries for the United Church of Christ. Many others linked with Eastern Mennonite University and Eastern Mennonite Seminary participated in the weekend's events. (Photo by Jordy Yager)

EMS alumna leads clergy protest in Charlottesville; EMU community members join activism

As news of the Aug. 12 Unite the Right rally reverberated out of Charlottesville, Eastern Mennonite University — located 60 miles over Afton Mountain in the Shenandoah Valley — and its widespread community watched in dismay and anger. Because of the close proximity and many connections, numerous EMU community members were part of events that day.

Brittany Caine-Conley, a United Church of Christ pastor-in-training, and 2014 Eastern Mennonite Seminary graduate was one of them. As one of the lead organizers for Congregate Charlottesville, Caine-Conley called for 1,000 clergy and faith leaders of all denominations to counter protest the gathered white supremacists.

Leading prayers and hugging participants, sometimes with a baseball cap on and always in black ministerial robes, Caine-Conley has been featured in the Washington Post and the New York Times. Her leadership was also noted in a blog post by Brian McLaren, senior fellow at Auburn Seminary, who was among those clergy joining in protest and ministry during the day.

“At EMU, we yearn, pray, and act for peace, restorative justice, healthy communities and the day when ‘we will be judged by the content of our character, not the color of our skin,’” said President Susan Schultz Huxman on Tuesday afternoon.

“As educators, we know that when we confront the worst examples of human frailty and viciousness, we are presented with teachable moments even as we reel ourselves from the dis-ease and disorientation these frightening events present.” The Charlottesville events will be fresh on the minds of students and faculty as the semester begins and provides opportunity for processing, discussion and action, she notes.

“We grieve with those who grieve, pray for hope and healing, stand with those on the margins and advocate for moral clarity — not moral equivalence — around racial and ethnic violence and civil speech in this country.”

Held in prayer

Professor David Evans, director of cross-cultural missions at Eastern Mennonite Seminary, teaches a course on white racial identity. (Photo by Joaquin Sosa)

The weekend’s protests and the aftermath were held in prayer at EMU’s annual faculty-staff conference, the first gathering of the academic year.

Professor David Evans noted that for each of the five years he’s been at EMU, the conference has been preceded by racially charged events of national import.

The events in Charlottesville were particularly moving, Evans said, because Caine-Conley was a student in the class he created to explore white racial identity titled “Racial Healing and the Blue-Eyed Soul.” Her leadership in Charlottesville helped to affirm his own presence as the only African-American faculty member at Eastern Mennonite Seminary. Evans, director of the seminary’s cross-cultural program, noted that he teaches the course to mostly white students, pushing them to think about and consider “their responsibility as white Christians in the world.”

“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,” Caine-Conley told Vox in an interview after the event.

Moving forward

Carol Hurst (right), professor of social work, walks with her 84-year-old father Luke Hurst, Sr. ’56 and her son on Aug. 12. She is a resident of Charlottesville. (Courtesy photo)

Immediately after the event, Roy Hange — Charlottesville resident, Mennonite pastor and long-time instructor at EMU’s Summer Peacebuilding Institute — received a joint email from the superintendents of Charlottesville city and Albemarle county school districts asking for help. This kind of collaborative leadership among civic leaders is exactly what the community—and our nation— needs, Hange said in an interview on 1070 WINA radio.

“We can live in or stay in the fear that was created for us on August 12 or we can face into that fear, that kind of fear, like Martin Luther King, Jr. did and imagine how to transform it with a vision towards incorporating even the Other, the enemy, into an eventual friend,” he said, calling this action a “revolution of reconciliation.”

Kay Nussbaum, chair of EMU’s Board of Trustees, also invites the campus community to remember that “the peace of Christ emboldens us to generous acts of love and compassion as we live into our prophetic mandate (Micah 6:8) to ‘do justice, love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.’”

Share your experiences and thoughts in the comment box below.

Discussion on “EMS alumna leads clergy protest in Charlottesville; EMU community members join activism

  1. I teach social work here at EMU, but live in the Charlottesville area, and worked for years for Children, Youth, and Family Services in an office a half block from the site of the Robert E. Lee Statue.

    I engaged deeply with my community of faith, Charlottesville Friends Meeting of Baltimore Yearly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends, to plan for a peaceful counter witness to the Unite the Right event. Belief in the dignity and worth of all persons is core to social work practice. This event, which literally was like an armed occupying force coming to town, felt very difficult for us locals.

    I started our day’s march with my 16-year-old son Gabe and 84-year-old father in a wheelchair for a trek to McGuffy Park where we had a permit for a protest adjacent to the nearby Emancipation Park. My father took me to civil rights marches when I was a little girl and I was returning the favor. Yet as we rolled out of the parking deck, side by side with alt-right persons toting their semi-automatic guns, I breathed a prayer for safety, wondering if we were risking our lives.

    By 9:45 a.m., we sent our son home with his grandpa, and my husband and I joined with others from our meeting to hold a silent worship three blocks down in Justice Park near the other confederate statue of Stonewall Jackson, where a protest permit had also been secured.

    In expectant waiting, we listened for inner Light and spiritual guidance, a Quaker tradition, while the police helicopter circled above. A father with his seven-year-old son joined us. The boy’s t-shirt read “just be kind,”and he snuggled onto his father’s lap. His father looked tense and I felt I understood the parental struggle of wanting to teach really important values dueling with anxiety over whether his precious little boy should actually be there.

    Other counter-protest groups served food and there was a low hum of humans chatting and laughing. There was a clown with a “shame” sign and “welcome fool’s convention.” Several roving bands of armed Alt-Right groups could be seen at the perimeter of the park. A small group of armed antifa said they would protect us. We didn’t necessarily want such protection. Quakers believe in “that of God in everyone” and our presence on this day was meant as to be an affirmation of this.

    I am so sad for the loss of a beautiful person’s life, and the trauma and injury to 19 other persons. It was a terrible day. Yet I am grateful that even in the craziness of this hateful event, some cooler heads kept those guns from being used. I am saddened to read about the life of James Fields, 20, of Maumee Ohio, who drove his car into the peaceful crowd. His father died before his birth, his mother, a paraplegic reportedly contacted police for help with violence multiple times in his teen years. The family could have benefited from the counseling services I used to provide there in the office near Emancipation Park.

    1. Did James Field indeed drive his car into a peaceful crowd? Do you speak here about something you personally have seen? From what we can see at the videos he may as well have tried to escape from a not-so-peaceful crowd.

  2. I was with the clergy group led by Brittany on Saturday. I wrote the following on my Facebook feed on Sunday.

    “Today is a day for healing. But healing isn’t like in the video games where you pick up a magical sphere or drink an elixir and your health bar is refilled immediately. Healing takes time. And sometimes trauma doesn’t ever fully heal. Let me give you a personal example that surfaced yesterday as I prepared to march against fascist nazis…

    I almost ran away.

    After meeting with my fellow clergy at First Baptist and discussing the very real danger we might face: physical danger, perhaps even death, and my fear was reaching a point close to panic. The larger and safer march had departed and was no longer an option. I either walked with my fellow clergy into the belly of the beast that was Emancipation Park, or I go home. I stood at my car as our group prepared to leave, deciding what I wanted to take with me and leave behind in the car and I froze…

    In my mind, I was transported back to being in Middle School living in Covington, Virginia. I was limping home, glasses shattered, head covered in knots, blood trickling down my face, hot tears gushing, my side aching…

    Then back a few moments before. I was laying in the middle of a side street in my neighborhood, bloodied, beaten, curled up in the fetal position, and crying. I had just been jumped by a high schooler that I did not know (although his group of friends were supposedly my friends from the neighborhood). There never was an explanation as to why…

    Then back just a little further to the moments right before the beating started. I knew something was wrong. Very wrong. Every instinct in my body said to run. But for some reason I didn’t run. I tried to play nice. Then a fist slamming into my face…

    Then I was back in Charlottesville facing the prospect of marching directly into the path of people who could and would replicate that flashback to middle school. Do I march or do I run?

    Trauma lingers… Yesterday I existed simultaneously in the chaos of Charlottesville in 2017 and the beatings of Covington in 1995. I honestly don’t know if that Middle School trauma will ever fully heal. Cause while the beating was the peak of the trauma, what surrounded that incident, both leading up to and following, was multiple years of living in significant fear of my neighbors, my classmates, and even my teachers. I suffered abuse of a variety from all of these places. Ranging from childish name calling up to being beaten to a pulp and many things in between. I didn’t fight back because it wasn’t in my nature to. My younger brother regularly fought people for me while I stood back or hid in my house, full of shame and tears. And I’ve carried those memories ever since.

    And here I was, standing on the precipice of facing that threat of bodily harm yet again. And I had a choice. Do I continue to allow others to fight this fight? To take this risk? Or do I willingly take a step forward knowing I may experience the violence of my childhood?

    As I stood at my car, frozen and wavering, I then remembered the faces of those who were also about to march. Black faces of people who face the real threat of violence daily. Jewish and Muslim faces of people who were about to literally meet their worst enemy. LGBTQ faces of people who are mocked, hated, and beaten simply for existing. Women’s faces who overcame misogyny and systems of oppression to become pastors only to now face derision and scorn. These faces in my mind reminded me of what was at stake. It reminded me that we ALL carry our past traumas. We were ALL incredibly afraid. But we had a choice in this moment to either run from those traumas, or face them head on.

    I did not run away.

    Instead, I marched. And with each step, that past trauma both faded a little but also, it became illuminated. That memory, that shame, that fear did not have to determine my future course of action. I don’t have to forget it, but I also don’t have to be afraid of it anymore. It doesn’t have to dictate how I respond to evil.

    And so I marched with my new friends. We stood face to face with the evil of white supremacy. We risked bodily harm. We suffered new traumas. And yet, I feel less injured now than ever before.

    Jesus proclaimed to his followers “All who want to save their lives will lose them. But all who lose their lives because of me will find them.” I haven’t lost my life yet. But I risked my life yesterday in a very real way in the name of following Jesus. And amazingly, I don’t think Jesus was lying. I found life. I saw the face of Jesus in the midst of the fear and chaotic violence and I was transformed.

    I knew this was true when later in the day, resting in a restaurant with my clergy friends, the call came to go. Something bad had happened/was happening. And I did not hesitate.

    I ran into danger.

    I ran into an unknown danger. I was not controlled by fear in that moment because I was alive. I had been baptized by fire and I did not fear the evil I was about to face. Instead I arrived at a grisly scene of chaos, injury, and death and knew my purpose was to care for as many people as I could.

    I looked at their faces. Each of them had experienced perhaps the worst trauma of their lives. And they looked to me and my fellow clergy. Some sought us out. We sought out others. And in that moment, we *were* Jesus in the world.

    Trauma heals. And today we need to rest our bodies and minds. We need to care for one another. We need to remember and weep. And we will carry these traumas going forward into life until we come to yet another point of decision…

    Face our traumas or flee from them?

    I faced my childhood trauma yesterday and I found life. It will be up to me to eventually choose to face this new trauma someday, at some future decision point. And in that moment, if I’ve carried this trauma with me, what seems like a weakness may well end up being the very thing that gives me the courage to run to the fire again.

    Be well friends.
    Receive love. Give love. Repeat.”

    1. Thank you for sharing this story, Adam. I was engaged with you all the way, and appreciate your perspective on your personal healing from trauma (weakness transformed to courage). Amazing.
      Peace On.

  3. Not having been there, I hesitate to say anything. So I say thank you to those who were there, my co-pilgrims like Brittany, and Lindsay, and Adam, and Carol…who demanded that we not turn away, that we look and see…the horror and the evil…and the love and the goodness. I suppose we can pray…and so I offer these prayers, and these calls to prayer from other pilgrims on the journey:

    Sara Wenger Shenk, President of Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary –

    and Ervin Stutzman, Executive Director, Mennonite Church – USA

    Pray on…walk on…speak out…stay woke…

  4. Well, since I’m being invited to share my thoughts and experiences which are more than relevant to this topic, I guess I will.

    I’ve lived in Charlottesville off and on since 1998, and I founded the Charlottesville Chapter (171) of Vets for Peace, and was on the Board of Directors of the Charlottesville Center for Peace & Justice from 2012-2017. I participated in Occupy Charlottesville in 2011 as the media spokesman and police liaison, where I met Jason Kessler, who this year organized the White Nationalist rally that ended in violence. I physically forced Kessler out of Lee Park when he got violent and the police refused to intervene. Big surprise, now he is an infamous neo-nazi.

    As a community leader in Charlottesville, I urged people to stay away from 8/12 in the Cville Weekly. I myself stayed away, and came back on 8/13, when I witnessed a riot and ended up chasing Richard Spencer on foot for several blocks before I even knew what was going on. I then ended up joining the Antifa patrol for a few hours of conversation and walking.

    I find it interesting that this piece wants to highlight the positive role that EMU people played in 8/12 from a peace & justice perspective, but then doesn’t include the most important part of the story of Charlottesville — the moral failure that led up to the rally on 8/12, which I, an alumn and EMS senior, played a key part in six over the last six years. And the ongoing moral failure we are all responsible for, our failure to adequately address the situation (race relations, hate speech) as our society continues to devolve into violence.

    As someone who has been neck-deep in Charlottesville peace and religious politics for the last six years, I find that this whole episode is one of spectacle from start to finish. There is no critical reflection going on, just ideology. We can’t critically examine the violence of the day because we are too afraid of sounding like Trump, who is probably a neo-nazi sympathizer using pseudo-ethical arguments to legitimize white supremacy.

    The Charlottesville situation is not altogether dissimilar to what has happened to Virginia Mennonite Conference and EMU with one-sided grandstanding, scapegoating, and ultimately a failure to truly relate. Say what you want about Antifa, the “far-left” — they are at least honest in doing their bit of violence, which is more than I can say for the self-styled liberal “crusaders” who are out for the blood of people who disagree with them. I’d rather try relating to Nazi’s than to some of the ideologues in the church! They are probably easier to get along with, than say, those who continue to demonize certain dead theologians from Indiana. What difference does it make if you call a person a monster, whether it is a nazi or an adulterous educator? The truth is, these people are human too, and we fail ourselves and them when we fail to see that.

    I’m sorry this is not a feel-good marketing tool for EMU. We are facing a pivotal moment of crisis in the history of America, a crisis which is screaming for the truth of the gospel, Anabaptist Gelassenheit, and the relational love taught by Jesus. We fail to demonstrate that day-to-day, as I did when Jason Kessler was still accessible to the left, and as certain others whom we have run off struggle to find love and healing through our silence.

    It is not the self-satisfied, the self-righteous, or the proud leaders who are promised that they will be in heaven this very day — it is some condemned thug who is already below our contempt. Let us not forget that. Forgiveness, as James Alison says, is not us forgiving those who have harmed us — it is us asking to be forgiven by those we have harmed.

    If I didn’t think that EMU/EMS had something unique and strong to offer the world, I wouldn’t be here. But like any other community, EMU struggles with the hard truth that hurts, the critical inquiry which dispels the easy narrative. If this comment actually gets posted, then I ask all of EMU to consider these things, and to eschew the easy narrative and dig a little deeper, not just on Charlottesville or Racism, but in every aspect of our living.


    Evan K Knappenberger

  5. This is my story:
    My brother, Jack Heppner (EMS Grad) said, “So, yes, we are now confronted with what pacifist activism looks like in the Anabaptist world view. I think what the Methodist church did across from the park where the violence was happening is a model. They opened their doors to all and in the end even treated a wounded Neo-Nazi. That says a lot. Love, even of the so-called enemy.”

  6. Good challenge here, Evan. I feel that peacebuilders are missing the mark by demonizing the warmongers and violent ones. We all hold the capacity for violence (think about your recent reactions to your bad dog, teenager’s behavior, or your impatience with a beloved friend or partner). Donald Trump has a back story and a life that brought him this far. For all we know, he could be just like Jesus just before Jesus went off for 40 days and 40 nights! We don’t know what Jesus was like before he turned 30, do we? So if we don’t, as you say, “truly relate” with our neighbors – ESPECIALLY those with whom we don’t agree, then we have failed to follow in the way of post-enlightened Jesus and the “relational love” he tried to bring to wealthy authority, violent citizens, his close friends, and the poor and lame alike. Still, i believe we will soon slowly turn our minds and hearts to a new conversation – as it is obvious that “grandstanding” and “scapegoating” are clearly not functional for anyone interested in nonviolence and/or those who strive to create peace in the world.
    An aside: I wonder what a large-scale public restorative justice process would have brought to all those in Charlottesville!?! That level of depth is what I’m talking about, and what i hold out as a viable peace process in our futures.

  7. Thank you Adam King, your reflection seems to be a beautiful working forward of your principled faith.

Comments are closed.