The clip that was posted to Twitter — and subsequently viewed over 1.2 million times — purports to show protesters invading a church, screaming “Black Lives Matter” and even abusing parishioners. One demonstrator is filmed calling a church member “a dumb fuck.”
The clip was uploaded by Charlie Kirk, one of the leading voices in the Trump Youth Movement, 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 inc. 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, the founder of Turning Points USA, has 1.8 million followers. His chief creative officer, Benny Johnson — who also tweeted the video, has more than 315,000. The video was picked up by a who’s who of conservative and fringe media: Dinesh D’Souza, Nigel Farage, Laura Ingraham, OAN, the Daily Wire, the Blaze, PJ Media, and Mike Cernovich. The Republican candidate for US House District 20 — which includes Troy, New York, where the events in the clip took place — tweeted it. So did RT, the state-controlled Russian propaganda network. The message of the coverage was a variation on the same theme: This is the real BLM, and they’re coming for your churches next.
But like any piece of local media that goes viral on a national level, the video is missing years — in truth, decades — of context. “It’s wild that the national story is that there’s a bunch of Marxists attacking Christians in the street,” one local, who asked not to use her name because of her employment affiliation, told me. “Everyone here knows that this is our Westboro Baptist." (Grace Baptist Church and its pastor declined multiple requests for an interview).
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 church was giving away one of the deadliest guns on the market. 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 — a ham or hot dogs — 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.
“I knew it was a trap.”
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, or the Presbyterians,” Bruce Gerencser, a former IFB pastor, told me. “But they’re really not. And they’re not countercultural, either. They’re anti-cultural. Standing apart from culture is their main objective. They’re belligerent and arrogant — and they don’t care if you think that they’re in bad taste. That’s the point.”
“I knew it was a trap,” Lukee Forbes, one of the leaders of the local Black Lives Matter movement, told me. They knew the church had orchestrated an event that would incite a protest — and that it’s easy for a video of a protest at a church to get distorted and go viral.
“What people need to know is we’re not protesting churches,” Forbes said. “We’re protesting this church. I’m a Christian. I’ve been saved. And it hurts to see people come out and drag us for fighting for our community. And now we’re the bad guys. But how do we feel safe in our own community when this church is in the middle of it?”
Black Lives Matter is a global movement with a local focus: Each group, from tiny towns to big cities, targets different areas, practices, and organizations for reform. In the “capital region” — which includes Albany, Troy, Schenectady, and Saratoga — that focus has been on local policing, with its long 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, they refuse to shut up, they make things visible. The conflagration at Grace Baptist, then, is what happens when that sort of visibility is what its targets crave most.
The flyer advertising the AR-15 giveaway wasn’t fancy. It was printed in black and white, with graphics that look at least a decade out of date. An invitation to attend Grace Baptist Church on Sunday, June 28, was paired with a blurry picture of an AR-15 and a promise that all winners would have to undergo a New York background check. “Where the Spirit of the Lord is,” the flyer proclaims, “there is liberty.”
In the week leading up to the giveaway, members of the church distributed the flyers in the neighborhood surrounding the church. After decades of white flight and generalized urban blight, downtown Troy has recently experienced a gentrification-fueled renaissance — the phrase “Troy is the new Brooklyn,” with all its various connotations, echoes off the restored brick buildings, much to the annoyance of pretty much everyone, including the Brooklyners who’ve moved there.
The town, located on the Erie Canal, had once been one of the richest in America. When it started to decline in the ’60s, the slide happened so quickly, as one resident put it to me, that there wasn’t time or impetus to try and implement the “urban renewal” plans that plowed freeways through cities across the US. The result was a downtown still filled with architecturally beautiful, largely untouched, old buildings: When Martin Scorsese needed a place to shoot 19th century New York for his 1993 adaptation of The Age of Innocence, he chose Troy. Today, those buildings are the exact sort of thing people want to transform into lofts or coffee shops with reclaimed wood tables. But as nouveau bourgeois as downtown Troy has become, the renewal aesthetic fades within blocks.
Grace Baptist has always met in Lansingburgh, the long, skinny neck of Troy that stretches north along the Hudson River. For the first 25 years, the congregation met in the building that Koletas had purchased in the church’s early years. But in 2012, it moved to a new building: a once-beautiful brick structure that had been home to Mills Memorial Baptist Church for more than a century. After the pastor of Mills Memorial died in 2006, the dwindling congregation struggled to cover the growing cost of repairs. The remaining church members wanted to give the building to another church, any church. Koletas was the only one they could find. He bought the church for a dollar.
Tasheca Medina lives just a few blocks from the church in Lansingburgh. She has a degree in criminal justice, and has been involved in local activist work for the last five years — including, most recently, Black Lives Matter. When she looks around her neighborhood, she sees no place to get fresh fruit or vegetables. She sees streets without adequate lighting, making them targets for crime. She doesn’t see rec centers, or pools, or anything to keep kids occupied and out of trouble. But she hears gunfire what feels like every night. “It’s almost like they want us to kill each other,” she said. “Here, there’s trash everywhere. There’s kids riding bikes on the main roads. You go into the white neighborhoods, and their shit is all together.”
White people do live in Lansingburgh. The Koletas family had lived there, above the church, until Koletas could save enough money to buy a farmhouse several miles out of town. According to Koletas lore, retold in sermon after sermon, back in 1987, he was driving around the capital area, saw the broken windows and dilapidation of Troy, and decided to start a church there. He didn’t have any training as a pastor. He hadn’t gone to seminary. There’s no IFB seminary for prospective clergy, although some go to Bible college, and Koletas hadn’t done that either. You hear the calling, and you’re a pastor.
Most IFB pastors grew up in the church. But Koletas was different — in pretty much every way imaginable. He came to the church on a unique path, and has since carved out his own understanding of what an IFB church should be and stand for. He has no organizational support, no larger church governing body, no one to answer to — except, he’d say, God.
Koletas grew up on the Philadelphia Main Line, between Ardmore and Bryn Mawr, the son of Greek immigrants. Everyone in his family was Greek Orthodox. In sermons, he refers to this period of his life as a time of great radicalism: He was as Marxist and socialist as could be. But according to one of his daughters, recently interviewed on a podcast for people who’ve left the IFB church, none of his extended family members remember any Marxist or socialist politics. He just thinks of his entire life, pre-IFB, as unspeakably liberal.
In the late ’70s, Koletas enrolled in court reporting school, where a classmate gave him gospel tracks and invited him to her IFB church. He converted and, in 1980, made a vow that he’d join the Marine Corps if Ronald Reagan won the election. After Reagan won, he kept his vow — and became engaged to a 16-year-old girl, Irene, from his Greek Orthodox community back home. But he broke off the engagement, insisting that she leave her faith and become a Baptist. “My dad’s parents, my mom’s parents, they just went along with it,” Koletas’s daughter said. “Everyone just goes along with my dad because he can be very antagonistic, very confrontational … and they just don’t want to push his buttons. It’s just like, oh, that’s just crazy Johnny.”
As soon as he starts preaching — behind the pulpit or in the streets — he becomes a different person.
In 1983, two weeks after Irene turned 18, John and Irene were married. In June, Koletas’s father fatally shot his mother in a dispute in their New Jersey home, which, in his daughter’s words, “really shaped a lot of how my dad to this day thinks, believes, preaches, and reacts to everything.” In September, Irene gave birth to the first of the couple’s six children. A few years later, Koletas moved his family to Troy, found a job as a court reporter, started a church, and declared himself its pastor.
In person, Koletas is, as his daughter put it, a sort of Dr. Jekyll and Rev. Hyde: He can be charming and charismatic, and come off as totally normal, especially in his formal capacity as a government employee. But as soon as he starts preaching — behind the pulpit or in the streets — he becomes a different person.
If you’ve seen street preaching before, maybe you get it. Street preaching is different than a guy handing you a pamphlet and kindly asking you if you know about his cool pal Jesus. It’s also different than the proselytizing practiced by Mormons or Jehovah’s Witnesses. It is loud, and confrontational, and urgent. Pastors who street-preach pick locations specifically designed to reach the largest number of people possible, even if those are places where people will be most annoyed with their presence. On my college campus, the local street preachers used to stand on the sidewalk outside the student union building, telling everyone who passed that they were damned. Others choose to preach outside movie theaters, at concerts, and state fairs.
Koletas liked to preach downtown. He’d yell so loudly, and persistently, that local business owners filed official complaints. “Most people think he’s really weird, and some are scared of him,” an assistant manager of a downtown clothing store told an AP reporter in 1990. “He screams so loud — people don’t want to walk by.”
Koletas would eventually be arrested seven times for disorderly conduct while street preaching (he was never convicted). In a photo of him following a court appearance, syndicated in papers throughout the capital area, he’s young, dapper-looking, dressed in a dark suit. He’s half-smiling. The look is similar to another old photo that currently serves as the banner on the church’s Facebook page: In this one, 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 more righteous his message.
In the years to come, the congregation at Grace Baptist would hover between 70 and 100. They’d recruit new members through a combination of street preaching (which, Koletas admitted, attracted very few people), door-knocking, and sending buses to the projects to bring children back to the church. They’d distribute flyers advertising free foods or gimmicks, like Koletas swallowing a live goldfish, as a form of spectacle. They could always get a few new people in the door. The problem was getting them to stick around once they realized the extent of Koletas’s teachings.
IFB churches are some of the most conservative in the country: Women can’t serve any function in worship, but are also not allowed to wear pants — even pajama pants — and are strongly discouraged from cutting their hair. IFB believers don’t drink, do drugs, or gamble. Many send their children to IFB schools or homeschool because public school is far too liberal. Only the King James Version of the Bible, written in the 17th century, is accepted as Scripture. Many are also part of the Quiverfull movement, which calls upon couples to have as many children as possible and forgo all forms of birth control. As part of the directive to separate yourself from the world, IFB members don’t watch movies or television, or listen to “secular” music — including Southern gospel music. They are incredibly cloistered. As one former IFB member put it to me, “think Duggars plus Amish.”
That’s IFB. And within IFB, 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.” That strictness — and far-right positioning — manifests in the home, in the pulpit, and in his dealings with the outside world. He preaches that Democrats are “mentally retarded.” Like many fundamentalists, his politics are best summarized as somewhere between libertarian and constitutionalist: There should be very little government intervention in, well, anything — but the Constitution, and American nationhood, is also divinely inspired.
They could always get a few new people in the door. The problem was getting them to stick around.
“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, and if anyone tries to infiltrate that world, be afraid of them, too.”
Some IFB churches do have Black members. There are even a handful of Black IFB pastors.
Koletas preaches that Black Americans have become slothful and lazy, turning their back on God, and that sin is at the root of every problem in the Black community — a belief that is 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,” Bruce Gerencser, the former IFB pastor, told me.
“There were never signs on the door that said No Blacks Permitted,” Gerencser said, “but it was made known, in some churches, that Blacks weren’t welcome.” IFB members would sanction Black believers marrying each other, but not a Black church member marrying one of their white daughters. Or they would send their kids to Bob Jones University, where interracial dating was banned until 2000. At Gerencser’s church outside of Detroit, they’d run buses into the city to pick up Black kids. Back at the church, they’d have their own Sunday school classes, separate from the rest of the congregants. Those classes were referred to as “B school.” Many IFB members believe in the “curse of Ham,” which has historically been used to justify slavery. Today, pastors like Koletas point to the manifestations of centuries of systemic racism — poverty, reduced life expectancy, drug use, gun violence — and interpret them as evidence of God’s enduring curse.
“But if you would’ve called us a bunch of racists,” Gerencser said, “there would have been objections.”
At Grace Baptist, Koletas’s daughter said, “normal families” didn’t stick around for more than a few weeks. But it didn’t really matter. The more alienating Koletas was, the more righteous his teachings. Their lives, their beliefs, their actions, all were intended to set them apart. Persecution for any of the above was just evidence that they were doing it right. Getting criticized in the press, by former church members, all of it makes you more credible.
Koletas essentially created a feedback loop of infallibility. Anyone who disagreed was either damned or, in IFB terms, “backsliding.” Other IFB churches think you’re too extreme? They’re wrong. Low church attendance? You’re doing something right. Alienated family members? Even better. This attitude is part of the reason that Koletas’s own daughter, who asked not to be named because of threats to her immediate family, has taken years to speak out against him: She knew exactly how he’d internalize, and weaponize, her criticism.
That attitude was only possible because of Koletas’s overarching independence: from any sort of church governing body, but also from the need for tithing members. Mainline churches are part of larger governing bodies; these bodies are responsible for everything from official doctrine and liturgy to helping facilitate ministerial placement. They’re at once overseers and underwriters, disciplinary bodies and insurance agents. They provide stability in exchange for theological and pastoral fidelity.
Koletas rejected all of that. IFB has no official governing body, but they do have conferences and gatherings, which Koletas would only sporadically attend. (Pastors of other IFB churches did not respond to requests for comment). He owned the church building. He hired no one else. There were no deacons, no overseers, no assistant pastors, no children’s pastors. “What he said, went,” his daughter said. “There was no other balance. No checks and controls.” Koletas thought most Baptists — including the IFB variety — were still too liberal.
But that didn’t mean he didn’t borrow some of their tactics. In March 2014, he sent an email to his family members with a link to 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,” using flyers to advertise gun giveaways with the aim of “pointing people to Christ.”
Survivors of a mass shooting near Paducah, Kentucky, were “shocked.” Family members of the three high school students who’d been killed contacted the pastor. Other prominent pastors condemned the move. But Koletas was inspired. Two days after the USA Today article was published, he announced that Grace Baptist would be holding a similar giveaway in Troy — only he’d be giving away an AR-15. On the church’s website, he declared the raffle was meant to “honor hunters and gun owners who have been so viciously attacked by the antichristian socialist media and antichristian socialist politicians over the last few years.”
But many in Troy were appalled: The town had been racked with gun violence for years, and local faith leaders and public officials had organized gun buy-backs to get firearms off the street. In Albany, Gov. Andrew Cuomo had recently signed the SAFE Act, making it much more difficult for civilians to get their hands on semi-automatic weapons in the wake of the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School.
But Koletas didn’t care if people were offended. He got the AR-15 from Brian Olesen, the owner of five gun shops in the area, who said he wanted to “support and promote any kind of Second Amendment activity.” He invited local Assembly Member Steve McLaughlin, a harsh critic of the SAFE Act, to speak at the service. The Times Union wrote a story about it, including a sharp condemnation from a local black pastor. The Albany County district attorney called it “one of the strangest things I’ve seen.”
The story earned very similar media pickups as the giveaways in Kentucky, and Koletas was featured in dozens of articles. He was profiled in Vice. He was on the cover of the New York Daily News. He reported receiving death threats. In contemporary parlance, he was very effectively trolling the libs. And he was, according to his daughter, delighted.
About 75 people showed up to Grace Baptist on March 24, 2014, and submitted their names for the giveaway. Koletas preached his long, typically admonishing sermon against a backdrop of the American flag, flanked by printouts of the First and Second Amendment. By the time the raffle took place, many who’d shown up in hopes of winning the AR-15 had already left. The piece of paper with the name of the man who did win — Ron Stafford, from nearby Schenectady — was the fourth drawn from the pile.
There was no discernible bump in attendance. No continued coverage of the church. But the giveaway had attracted the attention of someone whose style complemented Koletas’s — and who knew how to translate the pastor’s trolling skills to the internet. His name was Kevin McCashion.
McCashion has been described as Troy’s “resident gadfly,” a “shock jock,” and, as one of his local adversaries put it to me, “a real dick.” From 3 to 6 p.m., you can find him on his local talk show, ROAD RAGE. He first started getting involved in local activism when he founded a group called the Sons of Liberty as part of the tea party movement that arose following the 2008 election of President Obama. (McCashion and his radio station, Talk 1300, did not respond to requests for comment).
“I am a leader of a leaderless movement,” he wrote in the introductory post to a tea party blog hosted by the Times-Union. “I am an individual in a group of individualists.” At the time, he called himself “a bit of a rabble-rouser,” but averred that his antics were “all in good fun.” He started a hashtag called #Troycrazy to draw attention to what he saw as governmental fuckup, overspending, and mismanagement. He was a regular fixture at tea party protests — even earning a spot on the NBC Nightly News for his opposition to a statewide mandatory flu vaccine — but was still considered a good-natured adversary. The Democratic city council president referred to him as the city’s “resident funnyman” in his state-of-the-city address.
On May 28, Grace Baptist tweeted for the first time: The church would be giving away another AR-15.
Over the last few years, McCashion’s demeanor and tactics began to turn darker. His social media, where he employs a unique, almost haiku style of constant news commentary, became more combative, more conspiratorial, often interspersed with verses from the KJV Bible.
In June 2019, he was temporarily taken off the air by the station after posting a tweet that included pictures of a recent shooting victim holding stacks of money and the comment “another.@timesunion W H I T E W A S H just an innocent basketball player ha ha.” The story made the local news, but as with Koletas, the negative attention only underlined that he’d touched the right nerve.
Koletas refers to Facebook as “Fake Book” and generally shuns social media. But McCashion posts dozens of times a day — a habit he shares with Koletas’s son and presumed successor George, whose Twitter bio describes him as “Right-wing Libertarian. Baptist Extremist. Wretched Sinnner. Tweets Deleted for grammatical errors only - No apologies.” (George Koletas did not respond to a request for an interview). Over the past year, their shared tone was adopted by the church’s Facebook account, where video titles went from the provocative but somewhat opaque (“Nakedness Defined: Hellywood”) to boldly offensive clickbait (“Jungle, African Music Are Ruining Our Churches,” “Fat is SIN!”).
But the church itself had no Twitter account, and little attempt at daily content production — at least 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 another AR-15.
The day before the AR-15 auction in June, Tasheca Medina arrived at her doorstep, just a few blocks from the church, and saw a short black man putting a flyer on her door. “He told me, in his Haitian accent, ‘Yeah you need to come,’” she recalled. “And I look at the flyer and am like, ‘What the fuck. How are you guys auctioning off an AR-15? He says it’s for safety, and I say, ‘What?’”
Medina said she initially intended to blow the whole thing off. But the more she thought about it, the more she thought, This isn’t right. She called a contact at the Troy Police Department, who told her that they knew all about it, and that the church had pulled a similar stunt in the past. She started researching online, and saw that the giveaway was, in fact, legal. She decided they had to do something.
Others involved in the larger BLM movement had already heard through social media about what was happening. For the last month, the various Grace Baptist–affiliated accounts, including McCashion’s, had been promoting the giveaway, tagging journalists and publications who’d covered the one in 2014. On Facebook, the church’s account, according to the church, was briefly suspended for posting content related to the giveaway — which the church then celebrated on Twitter. George Koletas proclaimed that “those people who are bowing their knees to BLM are cowards and spineless traitors.”
“And I look at the flyer and am like, ‘What the fuck. How are you guys auctioning off an AR-15?”
The giveaway had received little pickup, other than a tweet from Times-Union journalist Chris Churchill. But then word began to reach the various BLM Facebook groups, where members started researching the church online. People saw Koletas’s sermon titles, and heard Koletas calling protesters savages and rioting a by-product of sin. They scrolled back a few months in Koletas’s son’s tweets — frequently retweeted by the Grace Baptist account — and saw a picture of a farmhouse with a Confederate flag flying in front of it. “This is the house I grew up in!” he captioned the photo. “That’s how we celebrated MLK Day.”
Some people in the various BLM Facebook groups argued that they shouldn’t show up and give the church the attention it craved. But others refused to let something so flagrantly offensive go unmarked.
“They’re much more radical, and don’t put up with the same shit,” one member of the movement, who chose not to comment publicly because of her job, told me. “They’re just not here for it. So when people tell them they shouldn’t go do something [like show up at the church], they’re like, ‘Fuck no, these are racists doing this. Let’s go out and protest and confront them.’ And that’s a different tactic than people have done before.”
In the past, this person told me, people might’ve written letters to the editor. One neighbor, she said, once told the pastor she very much did not approve of what he was doing. But for many of today’s activists, those days — and that sort of polite reticence to engage — are over.
And if there was going to be a protest, Lukee Forbes was going to be there. Forbes has become synonymous with the capital-area Black Lives Matter movement. He’s the cofounder of the Outsiders, which provides “security” and de-escalation for BLM actions. During the massive Troy protest, his group helped identify and direct police to a group of armed men in military gear and bulletproof vests; one of their vehicles was discovered with two AR-15s and thousands of rounds of ammunition. The Outsiders’ job, as Forbes put it to me, is simple: “We go to each protest and we try and keep them safe.”
On Sunday morning, Forbes’ team arrived on the scene to find a handful of protesters milling around outside the church — and a few men standing on the stairs. There was Koletas, in the dark suit standard among IFB pastors, and George, also in a suit, and another Koletas son wearing a bright red and blue Confederate flag belt buckle. There was a longtime member of the church, now in his seventies, and a black man, Erwin Sarazin, who’d previously been featured in one of the church’s videos of street preaching.
Forbes says that his team’s first goal was to get between the protesters and the church members and create some sort of barrier that would discourage a physical altercation. 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, after 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; you can hear “Our taxes” and “This is my sidewalk” and “Don’t fucking touch him!” before a protester in a tactical vest uses his bullhorn to start a call-and-response chant of “Whose streets?” “Our streets!”
In a different video of the confrontation, taken by protester Dan Harris, the scene feels even more chaotic, with police attempting to keep the two factions separated as Harris yells at protesters repeatedly to “get back, get back!” After the scuffle, the situation calms down, and deescalates into the typical small protest: a few dozen people milling around, a dozen others watching them, a fair amount of yelling and pointing. A woman with small children has to walk through the protesters to get into the church. Some of the protesters wear masks; others have pushed them down to yell. None of the church members have any face coverings.
“Every night there’s shootings, and they’re giving away an AR-15,” Medina told me. “It’s disrespectful to the mothers in the area — the ones who’ve buried their children in this last year. I came to this church to do what I could do. But I was so distraught, because we couldn’t do a thing.”
That Sunday might have been the end of the story. But then Grace Baptist announced they’d be doing a second AR-15 giveaway — the very next night. To the protesters, it felt like a provocation. So they showed up again. This time, the strategy was to hold a peaceful candlelight vigil, with some protesters modeling their own, non-racist racists religious rituals. In practice, this meant the scene was what one protester described as “beautifully chaotic,” with Wiccans practicing rituals alongside a chanting of the kaddish.
“I walked up, and I was like, ‘What the hell is going on?’” Medina recalled. “You got the witches on the ground. You got the Jewish guy and girl singing in Hebrew. You got the Black girl over there screaming out of the Bible. What the hell was going on?”
Another group, led by Forbes, had been invited by Koletas to enter the church. Medina didn’t go in: She’s Muslim, and refused to “slap the ham” as required by the church before entrance. (The ham had been stolen by protesters the day before and allegedly been fed to a dog; on Monday, it had been replaced by sliced hot dogs.) But some wanted to see Koletas’s message for themselves.
Koletas did eventually preach. But according to journalist Tyler A. McNeil, who documented the service, the protesters first had to sit through sermons from George Koletas, who described the protesters as “hoodlums” and “cowards,” as well as a visiting pastor. They listened while the congregation sang “America the Beautiful” and to a recording of Patrick Henry’s address to the Second Virginia Convention. And then Koletas came to the pulpit.
For 15 minutes, Koletas offered his “message to the protesters.” He said he grew up in a neighborhood that was 85% Black, and 95% of his friends growing up were Black. “I learned how to fight and play basketball pretty good,” he said. He got on his hands and knees and prayed for their souls to be saved; during prayer, he broke into tears.
“I know the pain and the hurt that’s in your heart,” he told them. “These knuckles have knocked at least 10 times on every door in the projects.” He mentioned his multiple arrests for street preaching and yelled, “Don’t tell me I don’t know what it’s like! Don’t tell me that I don’t understand your pain or your hurt!”
“I love you,” he told the protesters, “as much as I love the Troy cops.”
Five minutes later, the protesters had had enough. Forbes led them out of 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, for him, relatively innocuous — message, 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.”
After the June 29 service, both Grace Baptist Church and Kevin McCashion, the radio shock jock, immediately began tweeting video and images from the scene outside the church. They posted an image of the witch casting a spell against racists with the caption “BLACK MAGIC MATTERS.” They retweeted praise from community members, and the first story from the local Fox News affiliate, but the story didn’t spread outside of the area. But then, on July 2, Grace Baptist made an announcement: “Security footage coming soon…The truth shall make you free.”
The next day, the footage from inside the church went online, paired with a link to Koletas’s 15-minute message. The clip followed the same path as so many incendiary local news stories: from small accounts (Kevin McCashion) to large ones (Charlie Kirk et al.), from Twitter to news sites fueled by outrage-fueled clicks and shares, from the internet to Fox News. And McCashion posted all of it. The repeated suggestion: Here’s what BLM really is.
Starting July 3, McCashion also started posting about Lukee Forbes. A cursory Google search reveals that before joining BLM, Forbes spent seven years locked up for participating in the brutal beating of a 30-year-old man walking home after Albany Pride. Forbes, then 15, had admitted to breaking off the tree branch that was used by the other two men in the crime.
In mid-July, Forbes found out he’d been laid off from his job with the city.
The trial had been covered in detail by the local press, and since his release, Forbes has been open about his past, which, he told me, “is something that troubles me and moves me forward.” Back when he was 15, Forbes stood by and did nothing. “That’s what makes me do things now,” he said. “And I will continue to do things.” He works with reentry programs, talking with people transitioning out of the justice system. He’s gone to schools to speak about his past. “People are what they experience,” he said. “And this is something I hold on to, because I should not run from it.”
Forbes doesn’t care if others know about his past. He just cares about how McCashion is going about it. He has repeatedly tagged Forbes’ supervisor at the City of Albany. He provided contact information so followers could email and call his employer. “Circulating that article again, he’s brought up scars for my victim,” Forbes said. “I don’t want those scars to be brought up again, because everything I’m doing today — it’s because I didn’t save him back then. Bringing his name up, it’s like, What are you doing? How do you call yourself a man of God?”
In mid-July, Forbes found out he’d been laid off from his job with the city. The official reason: budget cuts.
Bruce Gerencser doesn’t live in Troy. But he’s been following Koletas, and dozens of other IFB pastors, for years. Before leaving organized religion in 2005, he was a pastor of fundamentalist evangelical churches, including IFB churches, for 25 years. Today, he looks like a Santa Claus who’s retired to his Ohio farm, and devotes his time to his wife of 42 years, his many grandchildren, and collecting and analyzing the theology of fundamentalist pastors on his website.
Gerencser grew up in Ohio, and the churches he pastored were always slightly more mainstream than Grace Baptist. But Koletas’s posture and strategy are deeply familiar to him. When Gerencser was a pastor, he was told to do any promotion necessary in order to make the church stand out in some way, no matter, in his words, “how trollish.” And like Koletas, he loved to street-preach: “I can’t tell you how many times I came into conflict with the local police.”
Every year, Gerencser told me, the Catholics in town would hold a big garden party, and he and other members of his church would show up with signs and tracts. “I would stand right across the street and preach again these deluded Catholics, with their gambling and their beer guzzling,” he recalled. “Oh my God, did it cause conflict. The local sheriff would show up and tell me he was going to throw me in jail. And I’d say, go right ahead. I have a lawyer, and the front page tomorrow is going to say: ‘Local Sheriff Throws Pastor in Jail for Preaching the Gospel.’”
For years, Gerencser would go to the fairgrounds and preach, claiming it was his right to preach on public grounds. One year, he got a letter from the Ohio attorney general, outlining the fact that county fairgrounds are actually leased to the Agricultural Board, and, as such, not public ground — and he would not be permitted to preach within 1,000 feet of the fair. He showed up, measured out exactly 1,000 feet, and started yelling the Gospel at every passerby.
The belligerence is the point. The persecution is the point. The attention is the point. Another church Gerencser pastored was in West Unity, Ohio — located in what, at the time, was one of the last dry counties in the state. “The VFW right across the street from our church, they wanted to get a liquor permit,” Gerencser said. “And I decided to make an issue out of that. I went door to door, and I let everyone know that they were trying to bring liquor into our county. And I defeated it! But those guys at the VFW, you know what they thought of me? I was Pastor Motherfucker. I won a great victory, but I look back on it now, and I ruined my ability to meaningfully affect other people — because why? Because they wanted to serve the beer that they were already serving, but do it legally?”
A few years later, the county passed a law that would allow liquor to be sold in the county. “It was all for nothing,” Gerencser said. “But that mentality — it feels like you’re born for conflict. Everything becomes a hill to die upon. And you can always convince yourself you’re being persecuted.”
It’s an attitude that meshes perfectly with the current news cycle, which chases outrage wherever it can find it, in every last corner of the political playing field. Sometimes the outrage feels undeniable. But often, it feels manufactured: planned, promoted, captured, and captioned to inflame the most people possible, local skirmishes designed to be folded into the national culture war.
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.
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 Department, 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.
“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.” ●