by Anne Helen Petersen BuzzFeed News [Excerpts]
The clip posted to Twitter — and viewed over 1.2 million times — purports to show protesters invading a church, screaming “Black Lives Matter” and even abusing parishioners.
The clip was uploaded by Charlie Kirk, founder of Turning Point USA, the pro-Trump student group, who added his own interpretation of events: “Christians have not been allowed to attend church for months,” Kirk tweeted, referring to coronavirus-related pauses in services. “But when they finally are, BLM rioters are allowed to assault them. Christianity is now under physical assault by radical left wing terrorism. Where is the media coverage of this?”
Kirk has 1.8 million followers. The video was picked up by a who’s who of conservative and fringe media: Dinesh D’Souza, Nigel Farage, Laura Ingraham, and Mike Cernovich. The message was a variation on the same theme: This is the real BLM, and they’re coming for your churches next.
The video clip bears a slight relationship to reality. The protesters were there about that particular church. The day of the video, the church was hosting its second AR-15 “raffle” in two days in the middle of a neighborhood stricken with gun violence. The Black Lives Matter protesters were invited inside by the church’s pastor, John Koletas, a self-proclaimed “bigot” who has preached against interracial marriage, defends the use of the n-word, and believes that Black people, as descendants of Ham and Canaan, are cursed by God.
He thinks Black History Month is “communism and Marxism month.” He calls Black Lives Matter protesters “savages.” He places a pork product at the door, and requires all church attendees to touch it, supposedly to ward off would-be jihadists. He abhors feminists and gay people. He hates Catholics and thinks Muslims shouldn’t be allowed in the country. He mocks sexual abuse victims and the #MeToo movement. And videos of Koletas preaching these beliefs are readily available on the church’s Facebook and YouTube pages.
The protesters knew Koletas was a racist. But they didn’t know that he’d spent years refining his posture for this moment, to make his point by any means necessary.
Grace Baptist is not the sort of Baptist church most people would associate with the denomination. It’s an Independent Fundamentalist Baptist church, better known as IFB — a movement that broke off from the Baptists in the late 19th and early 20th centuries in order to preserve their more conservative beliefs. “I think a lot of people on the outside look at an IFB pastor and think, Oh, he’s just like the Methodists,” Bruce Gerencser, a former IFB pastor, told me. “But they’re not. They’re anti-cultural. They’re belligerent and arrogant — and they don’t care if you think that they’re in bad taste. That’s the point.”
Koletas built his self-appointed ministry and church as a loud street preacher downtown. He’d yell so loudly, that local business owners filed official complaints. “Most people think he’s really weird, and some are scared of him,” a manager of a downtown store told the AP in 1990. “He screams so loud — people don’t want to walk by.” Koletas would be arrested seven times for disorderly conduct while street preaching (he was never convicted). In a photo, Koletas is on the street, his Bible in hand, his mouth open in a yell, and a camera crew stands to the side, filming it all. In 1990 — as in 2020 — the more coverage he received, the better.
Koletas was stricter than anyone. “I don’t think there’s a pastor out there who’s to the right of my dad,” his daughter said. “My dad’s very proud of that — that he’s stricter than all of them.”
“The whole theology is based on fear,” Ryan Burge, a professor of political theory and a Baptist pastor, told me. “Fear of hell, obviously, but also fear of the world. Christians are told to be in the world, but not of the world, and they take it to the extreme: Don’t watch TV and don’t listen to music, but also be afraid of Black people, and of the Other.”
Some IFB churches do have Black members and a handful of Black IFB pastors. Koletas preaches that Black Americans have become slothful and lazy, turning their back on God, and sin is at the root of every problem in the Black community — a belief also held by some Black conservatives. “But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a healthy strain of racism that runs through the IFB church movement,” said Bruce Gerencser, the former IFB pastor.
Koletas had no oversight and no need for tithing. He owned the church building bought for $1 from a failed denomination. He hired no one. There were no deacons, no overseers. “What he said, went,” his daughter said. Koletas thought most Baptists — including the IFB variety — were still too liberal.
In March 2014, he saw a USA Today article: “Ky. Baptists Lure New Worshippers With Gun Giveaway.” Churches throughout Kentucky were participating in what a spokesperson referred to as “redneck outreach.” Koletas gave away an AR-15 in 2014, with little impact. But when the George Floyd protests began, he decided to do it again.
The church itself had no Twitter account, and little attempt at daily content production — until this May. George Floyd was killed on May 25. The protests in Minneapolis started on the 26th. On May 28, Grace Baptist tweeted for the first time: The church would be giving away an AR-15. A local right wing talk radio host, along with Koletas’s son George, began to promote it on social media.
The day before the AR-15 auction, Tasheca Medina arrived at her doorstep, blocks from the church, and saw a flyer on her door. “And I look at the flyer and am like, ‘What the fuck. How are you guys auctioning off an AR-15?” The more she thought about it, the more she thought, This isn’t right. She called a contact at the Troy PD, who told her that they knew all about it. She researched online, and saw the giveaway was legal. She decided they had to do something.
Others involved in the larger BLM movement had already heard about what was happening. For the last month, various Grace Baptist–affiliated accounts had been promoting the giveaway. On Facebook, the church’s account was briefly suspended for posting content related to the giveaway — which the church then celebrated on Twitter. George Koletas proclaimed that “those who are bowing to BLM are cowards and traitors.”
Black Lives Matter is a global movement with a local focus: Each group targets different areas for reform. In the “capital region” — Albany, Troy, Schenectady, and Saratoga — that has been on policing, with a history of misconduct, settlements for police brutality, and what one law professor calls “white protectionism.” But it’s also been directed at other, less obvious targets, like the owner of a local ice cream shop who’s been accused of using racial slurs.
The primary way BLM protesters target these entities is by directing attention: They show up, refuse to shut up, make things visible. Grace Baptist is what happens when that sort of visibility is what its target craves most. The church staged the AR-15 giveaway as a publicity stunt to try to attract attention and new members.
In the capital area, the Black Lives Matter movement had been brewing for years. Several observers told me that they were surprised, given the history of the Troy Police, that protests hadn’t really erupted until now. But now that they have, there’s energy and anger and a refusal to look the other way. BLM might have “lost” on the national optics on this particular protest action. But maybe trying out new strategies of resistance and reform means periodically falling into traps like this one.
In a video posted by Grace Baptist, shot from the vantage of the stairs, the video starts in the middle of a confrontation between protesters and church members; one of the protesters steps on the stairs and the Koletas son with the Confederate belt buckle seems to attempt to remove him. Everyone’s yelling; a protester in a tactical vest uses his bullhorn to start a chant of “Whose streets?” “Our streets!”
In a different video, taken by protester Dan Harris, the scene feels chaotic, with police attempting to keep the two factions separated as Harris yells at protesters to “get back, get back!” After the scuffle, the situation de-escalates into the typical small protest: a few dozen people milling around, yelling and pointing , a dozen others watching. Some wear masks; others have pushed them down to yell. None of the church members have any face coverings.
That might have been the end of the story. But then Grace Baptist announced they’d be doing a second AR-15 giveaway — the next night. So protesters showed up again. The strategy was to hold a peaceful candlelight vigil, with some protesters modeling their own, non-racist religious rituals. The scene was what one protester described as “beautifully chaotic,” with Wiccans practicing rituals alongside a chanting of the Jewish Mourner’s Kaddish. Another group of protesters had been invited by Koletas to enter the church. Some wanted to see Koletas for themselves. Koletas did eventually preach. But the protesters first had to sit through sermons from son George Koletas, who described the protesters as “hoodlums” and “cowards.” Five minutes later, the protesters had had enough. They left the sanctuary, many of their arms crossed, chanting “Black lives matter.” George Koletas confronted a protester attempting to film in the sanctuary, and a police officer separated them.
Everyone who entered the church had been asked to sign an agreement not to film in the church. There’s no footage online of George Koletas’s inflammatory preaching — just John Koletas’s relatively brief and mild sermo, and the security camera footage of the protesters leaving the church that would later go viral. The church had the tools to create a new narrative. It would just take a few days to assemble it. In his July 5 sermon, describing the interactions with the protesters, Koletas told the church, “We could not have planned it any better.” They combined the inside and outside footage and portrayed BLM as attacking Christianity.
Despite the social media price, protesters feel they did the right thing. “Would I do this again? Yeah, I would,” Adam Pelletier, a BLM protester who lives in Lansingburgh, told me. “And I think most of the other people would too. But listen, I have no illusions about actually getting that place shut down, or getting it closed.” Pelletier said that some people in the group are looking into potential code violations on the part of Grace Baptist, looking into nonprofit status, trying to find some way to compel the government to do something about them. But like everyone else I talked to, Pelletier knows none of that’s probably going to happen. The church is protected under freedom of religion — but also freedom of speech and freedom of assembly, just like the protesters are.
“The only way to victory, if that’s even a possibility, is to shift the narrative,” Pelletier said. “From ‘Those protesters are pissed off communists,’ to ‘Here’s what this church is actually preaching.’ That right there — that’s the real story.”