Inside the Burnette Chapel Church of Christ in Antioch, Tennessee, on Sunday morning, preacher Ben Lambeth stood at the podium, lowered his eyes and spoke solemnly of pain and Satan. He addressed a crowd of survivors of the mass shooting incident that unfolded at the holy space in late September. Members of the scattered and multi-racial crowd of roughly 40 people wept as he recalled the bloodshed and the one life that was lost.
Lambeth then turned to the subject of white nationalists, who had descended on parts of middle Tennessee over the weekend, claiming to speak on the congregant’s behalf. Emanuel Samson, 25, a Sudanese born man who may have deliberately targeted white victims, is the suspect in the shooting, and so-called alt-right protesters had threatened to hold a torch light rally at the church, coloring it with a palpable sense of dread.
“Satan hates light and he hates truth,” Lambeth told the crowd. “Just know that you’re on the right side. The side that has already been victorious and will never be defeated.”
Outside the church, the fears of police and churchgoers had been realized. Five college-aged white nationalists had assembled during the service, unbeknownst to the people inside. They yelled from across the chilly parking lot that “white people are under attack,” and ranted about a well-publicized recent poll that found that more than half of whites believe that they are being discriminated against in America.
The four men and one woman staging the pop-up protest at the church were eventually chased away by police without any arrests, but the brief incident demonstrates the degree to which alt-right activists are still intently focused on the mass shooting that took place in Antioch last month—an incident they argue is a “reverse Dylann Roof” attack—even as the victims of the tragedy say they desperately want to leave it behind.
“These people are not who we are here at this church,” Alana Bishop, a black churchgoer in her late teens, told Newsweek. “These kind of views are just not what we’re about here.”
The protest at the church followed a much larger rally of neo-Nazis and white nationalists that took place on Saturday in nearby Shelbyville, Tennessee, hoping to draw attention to an influx of refugees that have settled in the area. There, one of the more than 100 white men in the crowd repeatedly screamed epithets at a group of counterprotesters, warning that “n—ggers are f—cking your daughters!” Brad Griffin, one of the organizers of the “White Lives Matter” event, told Newsweek that the church shooting added gravity to his message condemning refugee resettlements, even though Samson had already been living in the U.S. for roughly 20 years.
A day later at the church on Sunday, four of the five alt-right protesters, all young men, told Newsweek that they were members of Identity Evropa, a self-described “European Heritage” organization that frequently participates in white nationalist protest events alongside Richard Spencer. The fifth protester was a woman who identified herself as Leah, and claimed to not be affiliated with any group.
“This is not something that should be forgotten,” Leah said to Newsweek about the mass shooting that was allegedly perpetrated by Samson. “I’m here for the interests of our people and our country.”
Eli Mosley, the head of Identity Evropa, told Newsweek in explicit terms that they were not members of his organization. Asked why they would lie, Mosley said he believed that they were members of another white nationalist group “trolling.” Identity Evropa did not formally participate in the “White Lives Matter” protests that took place in Tennessee over the weekend in Shelbyville and Murfreesboro, but it is also not uncommon for crossover to occur in protest groups on the far-right.
Inside the church, the congregants had assembled in a drafty adjoining room from the main gathering space, to avoid the bullet holes and "splattered blood" left behind from the violence, according to Lambeth, the guest speaker. Five Sundays prior, Samson, armed with two guns, allegedly shot and killed 39-year-old Melanie Crow Smith, a mother of two.
He then entered the church from the rear, firing on churchgoers, injuring others, before being confronted by a man named Caleb Engle, according to police. During the altercation, Samson was shot in the left side of his chest with his own gun, according to police. He survived. A police detective recently told a court that Samson left behind a note saying that he had heard voices before the shooting.
Mike Stewart, a Tennessee State Representative from Nashville, who recently attended a virgil at the church, emailed Newsweek after learning of the pop-up protest on social media. "Their message of love and turning the other cheek was the opposite of the hateful nonsense these neo-Nazis are trying to spread," Stewart wrote. "It’s outrageous that they tried to use the tragedy suffered by that congregation to spread their hateful message."
Lambeth, who preaches both in Antioch and in parts of North Carolina, told Newsweek that he did not want the white nationalists to distract from the message of the gospel. “I love the white nationalists and I love the shooter,” Lambeth said, speaking of forgiveness. “Everyone’s soul is precious in God’s eyes.”
Lambeth told Newsweek that the Burnette Chapel community was progressing despite the distractions that still hover around its orbit. People who were injured in the ordeal are returning to their normal lives. Services had resumed there, even if speakers still frequently reference the violence that took place inside. He said his church would always remain open to accepting people of all color and backgrounds.
“We consider everyone to be our brother or sister,” he said of the church’s community. “Black, white or foreign it doesn’t matter to us."