Two historic Baptist churches in Washington, D.C., – formerly one congregation split by slavery – shared the Lord’s Supper Sunday afternoon in a counter message to right wing, white supremacist and neo-Nazi groups in town for a rally near the White House.
“We, two churches — once one, divided by racism — we come together on this day to show that we are united for a common purpose,” Darryl Roberts, senior pastor of historically black Nineteenth Street Baptist Church, said during a joint communion service with historically white First Baptist Church of Washington at the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial on the National Mall.
“We understand the cancer of racism that is infecting our society even at the centers of power, it is a cancer that we as people of faith and people of good will can no longer sit idly by and do nothing about,” Roberts proclaimed at United By Love, one of a number of events held around the city to counter messages of a staged Unite the Right 2 rally blocks away in Lafayette Park.
Large crowds of counter-protestors dwarfed about two dozen activists who showed up for the rally organized by Jason Kessler, a self-described “white civil rights activist” who held a similar event last year in Charlottesville, Va.
Last year’s rally sparked violence that brought national attention to groups such as the Alternative Right — emboldened by the presidency of Donald Trump — who claim that white identity is under attack by multicultural forces using catch phrases such as “political correctness” and “social justice.”
Julie Pennington-Russell, senior pastor of First Baptist Church of the City of Washington, D.C., said the United By Love event coordinated through the New Baptist Covenant “stands in stark contrast to a different kind of power on display” two-and-a-half miles away at Lafayette Square.
“Here’s the thing, trying to outshout white supremacists heals nothing,” Pennington-Russell said at the communion service. “But we can love each other, and by the Spirit’s power we can even find within ourselves the strength to love and to pray for those who say and do appalling and hateful things even as we resist that spirit with all the moral courage we possess.”
Pennington-Russell advised those preparing to take the elements they were not there “for the purpose of experiencing a nice little religious moment together.”
“I just want to make sure we understand that,” she said. “Coming to this table is not a sentimental thing, it’s a subversive thing. Don’t look now, but all of you are about to engage in an act of rebellion.”
“When Christians share the bread and cup, we are an extension of all that Jesus’ death and resurrection accomplished — overthrowing, undermining, subverting everything that stands in the way of full human liberation,” she reminded worshipers.
“This table reminds us that God in Christ has already defeated the evil of racism. Racism just doesn’t know it yet.”
“I know it may seem premature, naive, maybe even a little flippant, to declare victory over something that continues to inflict horrifying pain down here, and yet this table reminds us that God in Christ has already defeated the evil of racism. Racism just doesn’t know it yet,” the pastor said.
Pennington-Russell confessed that as a white Christian pastor, she felt a “little disquiet” about co-leading the gathering, “because I’ve come to believe that conversations about white supremacy and racism in America, in those conversations white people need to listen more than we speak.”
“It’s incumbent on us to listen and to observe and to reckon with the suffering of people of color in this nation,” she said. “Even so, addressing the wound of racism is something that all white Americans must take up, and here is a necessary beginning place for white people of faith: To refuse to limit our repentance to the confines of our own private hearts without doing our part to name and to dismantle the systemic structural injustices in this country toward people of color.”
“Because white supremacy from our country’s earliest days has been wrongly attributed to the will of God and defended in the name of Jesus Christ, every white Christian in America, therefore, has a special obligation,” Pennington-Russell said.
“White Christians have an obligation to acknowledge that the sin of white supremacy embedded in the founding doctrines and institutions of this nation — the doctrine of discovery, the doctrine of Manifest Destiny and the institution of chattel slavery — has done irreparable harm to generations of African-Americans and to the indigenous peoples of the Americas.”
Pennington-Russell said that even though most white Christians “could not conceive of brandishing a swastika or wearing a white hood or waving a tiki torch, we who are white in America have benefited from white supremacy in ways that we don’t even realize.”
Most of all, she said, white Christians “have an obligation to act as unambiguous allies in the struggle for racial justice, humbly receiving our cues from those who know what it means to resist injustice on a daily basis.”
Roberts said America has come too far to “go back to the day when Jim and Jane Crow were the rule of the land,” when “whites were considered superior and people of color inferior” and “when some people lived in fear of Klan rioters terrorizing them by night and dogs and Billy clubs by day.”
“What will make America a great nation is not how many walls we build but how many bridges of understanding and love that we can create that unite all of God’s people.”
“We have come on this day to write a new story, a new narrative,” Roberts said, “one that says what will make America a great nation is not how many walls we build but how many bridges of understanding and love that we can create that unite all of God’s people.”
“We have come together on this day to say that a people who many want to divide, we will not be divided,” he said. “This table symbolizes a unity that brings all God’s people together.”
Last year’s Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, originally to protest planned removal of a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee, sparked clashes between white supremacist and counter-protestors that led to violence and death.
A woman named Heather Heyer died during the Charlottesville rally when a neo-Nazi sympathizer drove his car into a crowd of protestors. Many more were injured, and two police officers died in a helicopter crash while patrolling the event.
Anticipating that something similar might happen on Sunday in Washington, a large police presence kept rally goers and counter protestors apart. While some threw objects and flares over the barricades, the counter-protestors dispersed without major incident after learning that police had secreted Kessler’s group to safety in vans.
Other peaceful responses to the neo-Nazi rally included a rally on the National Mall organized by the Baltimore-Washington Conference of the United Methodist Church. A group of Quakers and a cluster of about 15 interfaith clergy planned to counter-protest near the White House, according to Religion News Service, but changed their minds after seeing the one-sided nature of the event.