Dark clouds appeared over Charlottesville on Friday night. A city church hosting a large congregation for a prayer service was taking extra security precautions.

As activists from opposites ends of the political spectrum started to make their presence known throughout the day, social justice activist Cornel West said the city is now “the ground zero for the struggle against white supremacy and the alt-right.”

After an afternoon of sunshine gave way to a brief evening rain shower and an overcast sky, clergy members and people of faith gathered in St. Paul’s Memorial Church on University Avenue for a prayer service that was organized in response to the Unite the Right rally on Saturday.

“Virginia has a long history of racism and fighting racism,” West said before the service.

Describing the Saturday rally in Emancipation Park, which until recently was named Lee Park, West said it would be the “biggest gathering of a hate-driven right wing in the history of this country in the last 30 to 35 years.”

The 8 p.m. multi-faith service included dozens of local and national clergy members who are visiting the city this weekend.

Along with various activist groups and movements, the clergy members were called to confront the hundreds of alt-right and white nationalist activists who have been planning for weeks to rally in Emancipation Park to protest the planned removal of the statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee there.

“This is a pivotal moment in our nation,” said the Rev. Susan Frederick-Gray, president of the Unitarian Universalist Association. “I am here to show up on the side of love. This is a time when violence, fear and radicalized hate have been given permission. It is important for people of conscience to say that love and equity is our future.

“Faith calls us to see the humanity in one another,” she said. “The Christian scriptures call us to love our neighbors as ourselves. Jesus says that even our enemies are our neighbors. That is the kind of radical, unconditional love that we are called to live out as people of faith towards one another.”

After a North Carolina chapter of the Ku Klux Klan held a rally last month to protest the removal of the statue, the so-called alt-right populist movement that’s often associated with racism, anti-Semitism and misogyny will hold its own protest against the city Saturday.

The Charlottesville City Council earlier this year voted 3-2 to remove the statue of the Confederate general. (Mayor Mike Signer and Councilor Kathy Galvin voted against the measure.) The decision has generated backlash from heritage supporters and white nationalists who think that the removal of the statue would be an erasure of history and a symbol of Southern pride.

Others, however, see such statues as memorials to white supremacy that must be removed from prominent public spaces.

“They are representative of the ideas that are embedded in our whole American society — that’s the deification of Confederate generals and the idea of white supremacy in general,” said David Straughn, a member of the yet-to-be-sanctioned Black Lives Matter Charlottesville chapter.

“Just because this is 2017 and a few black people have some money in their pockets doesn’t necessarily mean that racism is dead,” Straughn said. “We do not live in a post-racial society — as we can see on a daily basis.”

“Right now, we live in two Americas. My goal is to create one America that is inclusive of everybody and doesn’t marginalize any people of color or any people of different sexual orientations or lifestyles…”

Another prayer service will be held at First Baptist Church on West Main Street at 6 a.m. Saturday. The morning service will be followed by a march from the Jefferson School City Center to McGuffey Park that begins at 8 a.m.

The Unite the Right rally in Emancipation Park is scheduled to begin at noon.

Chris Suarez is a reporter for The Daily Progress. Contact him at (434) 978-7274, csuarez@dailyprogress.com or @Suarez_CM  on Twitter.

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