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NC church says it did not ask pastor who denounced white supremacy to leave

The Rev. Robert Wright Lee, a descendant of Confederate Army General Robert E. Lee, presents the award for best fight against the system at the MTV Video Music Awards at The Forum on Sunday, Aug. 27, 2017, in Inglewood, Calif.
The Rev. Robert Wright Lee, a descendant of Confederate Army General Robert E. Lee, presents the award for best fight against the system at the MTV Video Music Awards at The Forum on Sunday, Aug. 27, 2017, in Inglewood, Calif. Invision/AP

A spokesman for the tiny Winston-Salem church from which the Rev. Rob W. Lee IV felt it necessary to resign after speaking out against racism said Friday the congregation had no problem with the pastor and was surprised by his departure.

The Rev. Jerry Rhyne, minister for church affairs for the United Church of Christ in the region that includes Bethany United Church of Christ, said no one in the church’s governing council had watched MTV’s Video Music Awards show on Aug. 27. On that show, Lee – the fourth-great-nephew of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee – introduced Susan Bro, the mother of the woman who was killed by a self-described neo-Nazi who drove his car into a group of counter protesters in Charlottesville, Va., on Aug. 12.

White supremacist groups were in Charlottesville to rally around a statue of Robert E. Lee that the city planned to remove from one of its public parks.

Lee, 25, has said that statues of his revered relative have become idols for white supremacists, and he used his moment in the national spotlight to denounce racism.

“Today I call on all of us with privilege and power to answer God’s call to confront racism and white supremacy head-on,” Lee said during the VMA broadcast. “We can find inspiration in the Black Lives Matter movement, the women who marched in the Women’s March in January, and especially Heather Heyer, who died fighting for her beliefs in Charlottesville.”

Lee was criticized on Twitter and Facebook for referencing Black Lives Matter because the movement has been accused of inciting violence at protests.

A few days after the VMA broadcast, Lee announced he was resigning his job as pastor.

In a letter published on AuburnSeminary.org, he said some members of Bethany United Church of Christ supported his right of free speech, while others were worried about the attention it was attracting to the church.

He later appeared on ABC TV’s “The View,” where he said he had had to stand up for what he believed and resign his job.

But in a statement released Friday afternoon, Rhyne said church leaders “only became aware of any conflict when Pastor Lee emailed his resignation” to the head of the church’s governing council, Jerry Clodfelter.

The statement quoted Clodfelter as saying, “I was headed out of town when I received Pastor Lee’s email, so I respectfully declined his resignation and asked him if we could discuss his desire to resign when I returned. No one at Bethany was aware any problem existed, and we were unprepared for the media attention. To the knowledge of the governing council, no one at Bethany had an issue with Pastor Lee’s statements on television.”

Rhyne said the congregation of just 35 or 40 people were behind Lee and his mission of speaking out against white supremacism. The church had hired Lee as its minister, a part-time job, in April before he graduated from Duke Divinity School in May.

“They loved the guy,” Rhyne said in a phone interview. “They don’t know where this came from. They were shocked.

“Our denomination has said we support this young man in his ministry and mission and what he is preaching about: injustice and white supremacy. That is our theology in the UCC, from the top down.”

Rhyne said the church asked him to issue the statement because members felt Bethany was being portrayed poorly in news stories about Lee.

After the statement’s release Friday, Lee took to Twitter with a series of tweets:

“It is clear to me statements made always have rose-tinted glasses on issues that matter. I stand by my account.”

“It’s funny how stories shift and change. Y’all, racism is subversive and shifty.”

An hour later, he added, “I ask for your prayers as the church continues in an endeavor to discredit my name.”

Martha Quillin: 919-829-8989, @MarthaQuillin

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