Reacting to Charlottesville violence, Long Island removes Confederate memorial from Episcopal church

By Amy Sowder
Posted Aug 16, 2017

Crew working with the Episcopal Diocese of Long Island saw into one of the plaques commemorating Robert E. Lee. Photo: Episcopal Diocese of Long Island

[Episcopal News Service] A work crew sawed off two Robert E. Lee plaques from a tree on church property in south Brooklyn, New York, fewer than 24 hours after the Episcopal Diocese of Long Island received the first of many calls about the Confederate memorial.

The Rev. Khader El-Yateem, a community activist and founder of Salam Arabic Lutheran Church in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Bay Ridge, made the first call, responding to concerns he heard Monday from community residents.

At issue: Two tree plaques at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Fort Hamilton, near the still-active military base in Brooklyn. More than a decade before Robert E. Lee led the Confederate Army, he was stationed from 1842 to 1847 at the U.S. Army’s Fort Hamilton. He was a member of the church, along with Stonewall Jackson, who was baptized there, said Long Island Bishop Lawrence Provenzano. Lee planted a tree near the church, and the plaques commemorate him.

The first Brooklyn plaque was placed in front of a maple tree in April 1912 by the United Daughters of the Confederacy, according to the sign, near where Lee had once planted a tree. The tree died, and the Confederate group replanted it in the 1930s, and then again in the 1960s, Provenzano said. The church’s last service was in September 2014, and the building is under contract to be sold. The congregation merged with Christ Church in Bay Ridge.

El-Yateem called the diocese at 10:30 a.m. Aug. 15. By 10 a.m. Aug. 16, the plaques were being taken down, to be stored in diocesan archives. He said he’s grateful for the quick response. “We needed to take that sign down in support and solidarity of those who are victims of hate and racism in this country,” El-Yateem said.

The removal was covered by local and national media, and was featured on social media platforms.


The Brooklyn removal was part of a wave of swift actions taken by leaders across the United States to remove public memorials of Confederate leaders. The removals come days after white supremacists, white nationalists and neo-Nazis converged onto the University of Virginia campus in Charlottesville this past weekend, protesting the removal of a Lee statue. After violent clashes with counter-protestors, three people were killed and dozens injured. Clergy from Charlottesville’s three Episcopal churches were part of a peaceable faith-based contingent of the counter-protesters, and none were injured.

Bishop Lawrence Provenzano addresses reporters with Pastor Khader El-Yateem outside of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Fort Hamilton before the plaques were removed. Photo: Episcopal Diocese of Long Island

“We’re in a mess with the rhetoric coming out of the White House and how people are feeling emboldened by the rhetoric,” Provenzano said. “I think this is a moment for the church. We’ve got to preach the gospel and more importantly, live it. Shame on us for not removing those plaques before it was brought to our attention. This pastor reminded us that when people pass this church property, there’s a commemoration to a general who fought to preserve slavery.”

In the last two days, Provenzano’s office has fielded about 120 calls and emails about the church’s plaques, a ratio of 2-to-1 in favor of removal, from his estimation. The negative calls and emails included people he identified as neo-Nazi and white supremacist. “Those were nasty,” Provenzano said.

Responding to President Donald Trump’s Tuesday afternoon press conference in which he warned of the slippery slope of removing statues of historical figures who had anything to do with owning slaves, including Presidents Jefferson and Washington, El-Yateem said that’s not the same. There’s a big difference between a historical figure who owned slaves and one who led a war against the United States to preserve slavery, El-Yateem said.

“General Lee needs to be remembered, but not celebrated in our churches and streets. Because of his actions, over 300,000 people died as he fought to preserve slavery in this country,” El-Yateem said.

The plaques and statues shouldn’t be erased, but kept in archives and in museums, he said.

“We’re not denying history, and maybe that some of those times, the church was complicit in it,” Provenzano said. “If we did nothing, I think that would have made us complicit in furthering the concerns of people that issues like this are not important enough for the church to pay attention to.

“I think we did the right thing.”

— Amy Sowder is a freelance writer and editor in Brooklyn.


Comments (29)

  1. Pjcabbiness says:

    Very sad, thoughtless and reactionary. Should the Statue of David be removed because of perceived historical insensitivity to the Phillistines? This historic purging is Stalinist at its core.

    1. Fr Sean Patrick Henry Maloney says:

      Which part of fighting to uphold slavery is “perceived insensitivity”? Cause I am pretty sure that slavery was an actual thing that happened. Nothing perceived about it. In terms of its insensitivity if you don’t get that I can’t help you.

    2. John Miller says:

      I hope you read the history of Gen Lee and the history of the demolishing of reconstruction by southern leaders who installed Jim Crowe. You should know that Gen Lee was active in this effort, that he held slaves and sold a mother and a child to different buyers, and that the president at the end of the War wanted to try Lee for treason (most of his fellow Virginia military personnel joined the Northern side) since he had taken an oath to defined and support the USA.

      Those statues, many of them were in response to reconstruction efforts, and memorials were in defiance of the country.I think it is appropriate for them to be removed but some should be given to museums or historicalsocieties so we never forget this sordid, sinful time
      in our country.

      1. James D. Saunders says:

        I hope you have read the history of General Lee, who had nothing to do with Jim Crow, and who behaved honorably from before the war until his death. His decision to take a side in the conflict and to become an advisor to President Davis was one which caused him a lot of personal grief to have to make, and which was ultimately based on his loyalty to Virginia–in a time when most people felt loyalty to their respective home states (which, after all, under the Constitution remain sovereign) rather than to the federal government. He behaved gallantly at Appomattox, and his calm voice after the war–which included his wish, not followed, that Confederate memorials should not be erected–was one which made Reconstruction under President Johnson’s plan palatable to the southerners whom the Republicans treated abysmally during their occupation. It was Lee’s reason and calming voice that made him a hero not only to the defeated Confederates, but to the northerners as well–which explains why any number of schools and public buildings in Illinois, Ohio and Michigan (not exactly places that would obviously warm quickly to a commander of the erstwhile enemy) have been named in his honor; he was not only a Confederate hero, but genuinely an American one. And, it should be pointed out, he had freed his slaves in 1862, before he entered into combat with the Army of Northern Virginia, and well before Ulysses Grant was forced to free his, after was Missouri was emancipated in 1865.

        I find this mad rush to revise history and to vilify people like Lee disheartening and, really, absurd. It is particularly sad that this particular memorial notes not just any particular historical figure, but an historical figure who is also a former member of that very congregation.

        Of course this is no the first time our church has been affected by popular foment: we might recall that in a fit of passion following the English Civil War, the artwork, especially stained glass windows, in many of England’s churches and cathedrals was destroyed, often overnight to avoid conflicts with dissenters, in much the same way to erase the memory and therefor the history of the Church of England. We see now that this did not make England a richer country, nor her church more pure.

  2. Jim Gilchrist says:

    History is not to be loved or hated, but chronicled and studied to learn what it may teach us for the future. When we start letting others erase and rewrite our history, we will soon start letting those others to write our future as they choose to see it.

  3. Susan Steinmann says:

    The above is such a silly and inaccurate analogy that it doesn’t deserve an answer. You need to realize who the Philistines are in this instance.

  4. Clare Nesmith says:

    Why did the UDCs (United Daughters of the Confederacy) erect a plaque honoring General Lee, the leader of the Army of the Confederacy in the North? At the time that they did? To reinforce Jim Crow. To perpetuate the romantic myth of the Lost Cause. We don’t need that in the Episcopal Church. (And note well: I am a child of the South. My grandmother was a UDC and I was a member of the C of C – the Children of the Confederacy. As a child I did not know any better. As an adult and as a more mature Christian, I do.) I am proud of the Bishop and the Diocese for removing that plaque.

    1. We assume it is to protect these artifacts from vandalism at these times of alt-left hooliganism.

  5. M. J. Wise says:

    “There’s a big difference between a historical figure who owned slaves and one who led a war against the United States to preserve slavery, El-Yateen said.”

    Rev. El-Yateen of course speaks only for himself. Latter-day iconoclasts always need a new image to tear down tomorrow, so when all the Confederate memorials are gone, I’m not counting on an outbreak of self-restraint.

    Considering the congregation was long gone and the property was actually under contract to be sold, this does not rank as more than cringeworthy EC virtue signaling to me.

  6. Richard Brown says:

    When we start erasing our history, we will forget it. Since George Washington was a slave owner should we erase all statues of him and delete from all history books all mention of him.

  7. Only Black & White – the message the Church is sending that no act of goodness or piety must be associated with a person they classify as an evildoer. This is revealing.

    1. Margaret Kuebler says:

      One would think that this Episcopal church, in fact, is a Catholic church. I guess they showed Robert E. Lee (and soon Stonewall Jackson) what ex-communication is all about! But, even the Catholics when they seek to ex-communicate (for rebellious or anti-church establishment or non-“religiously correct” behaviors) draw the line at a parishioner’s death, don’t they? This church holds the right to banish-from-the-congregation for centuries after the death! This, too, is revealing. In effect, “Kill that dead person. Just the thought of him, but especially the sight of his image preserved in an art form and displayed in a public place, just might upset a ‘victim’ somewhere.”
      Makes one wonder exactly who are the true “victims” of “hate” and “racism” in America, doesn’t it? We neglect to mention those killed on 9/11, and their survivors, in this debate on the “victims” of “hate” and “racism” in the U.S, less than 20 years after their deaths, as we are coerced to embrace new Muslim refugees into our country. At the same time, we eagerly want to give solace and support and to show solidarity to persons who still mourn the lives of American slaves … who died over 150 years ago. Under the Doctrine of Political Correctness, we may not seek to rid our country of radical Islam, or any of its symbols, even if its followers seek to overthrow our government and to kill all of us based on our race and religion; yet, to make amends for a racist cultural practice ended over 150 years ago, we are amenable to purging our society of every artifact which may memorialize the historical figures connected to this practice. This hypocrisy is so blatant that it is mind-blowing. Whatever is going on here, in substance, has little to nothing to do either with “race” or with “hate or with supporting “victims.”

  8. Scott Albergate says:

    Would we commemorate an American who sold state secrets to a foreign government? The Confederates were no less traitors who sought secession. Good riddance to their memorials and keeping alive this hypocrisy.

  9. Doug Desper says:

    I would hope that none of us would ever face the agonizing issues that Robert E. Lee (among others) had to choose from. He could not have been as wicked as represented since President Lincoln chose him to command the Union Army at the onset of the Civil War. Our generation views everything from the perspective of the Civil Rights era struggles, but as great as those struggles were (and are) there was a monumental struggle even worse than race relations when Lincoln asked Lee to lead the Union army. The struggle that Lee agonized over was how to live and serve in a country whose national army was to swell from 16,000 to 91,000. A 75,000 man army was being raised solely to occupy communities all over the United States and to enforce national policy at the point of a bayonet. In other words, martial law and dictatorship. Many of those troops were of questionable quality, some didn’t even speak English, but yet they were issued authority and weapons to live among civilian populations. Lee declined and went home to resist. Even Union General McClellan who took Lee’s place saw the disaster of warring on one’s own country and he slow-walked his troops towards battles in the hopes that sanity would prevail in Washington. Freeing slaves wasn’t even a war aim of that conflict until 1863. Before that the aim was to have the entire country conform to Washington’s policies. The history of the Civil War shows what martial law, and abolishing the writ of habeus corpus was like. The great injustices of federal dictatorship was seen in both the North and the South. We have not lived that nightmare. If Lee is guilty of anything it is that he wasn’t superhuman and had to pick between horrors.

    Well paid bishops, activists, and social justice warriors have it easy. Their main nightmare is to not look bad for the media.

  10. Bill Louis says:

    The story mentions that Yateem is an activist but if you dig you will find it goes deeper that that.

    Not surprising that a socialist like Pastor Yateem would like to erase history. If you look into his background, which is not mentioned in the story you will find that Khader El-Yateem is a not only a priest but also candidate for Bay Ridge City Council. Candidate Khader El-Yateem thinks Southwest Brooklyn Is ready for socialism and he plans to protect the city’s undocumented immigrants.

    His opponent Bob Capano has called for him to renounce the words of radical Muslim activist Linda Sarsour, who recently called for a “Jihad” against President Trump while speaking to the Islamic Society of North America’s convention in Chicago.

    “Khader El- Yateem has never hidden the fact that he is a cleric. If he is a man of God, he needs to speak out against Linda Sarsour’s hate-filled rant. If he won’t denounce Sarsour, then he should explain to the voters why not. He already has refused to disavow the endorsement of the radical New York City Democratic Socialist of America who oppose ‘an economy organized for private profit’ in a city that was built on capitalism.” says Capano

    Sound familiar?

    Regarding removal of the memorial Yateem says, ““If we did nothing, I think that would have made us complicit in furthering the concerns of people that issues like this are not important enough for the church to pay attention to.

    If that is so then I wonder why he thinks that people concerned with Sarsour’s words of hate are not important enough for him, as a pastor to pay attention to. Sounds a bit hypocritical to me but then it if doesn’t fit a liberal/progressive/socialist narrative then it doesn’t matter

    1. Doug Desper says:

      Khader El- Yateem is looking for a straw man diversion to ingratiate himself to his voter base. In the same way, Charlottesville’s Vice-Mayor (Wes Bellamy) has brought divisive racial agendas to his role on that city’s Council. Google both men. Both men want to lead in government and in their wake there is usually some great social upheaval. Both men have buttons that they press to light up phones and cameras for a media-ready cause. Both men have active histories of intolerance and division. Bellamy’s Twitter life revealed who he is for any reporter that has the care to vett him. Before enshrining him as a noble warrior opposed to racism just look up his statements and internet activity. Losing his job as a teacher over his extreme views and hate speech is just one tiny fact that few in the media are catching on to. In short, there are clever and divisive far left image-makers playing on people’s sympathies and creating artificial storms for their own political aggrandizement.

  11. Tony Oberdorfer says:

    “Well paid bishops, activists, and social justice warriors have it easy. Their main nightmare is to not look bad for the media.”

    Doug Desper has it exactly right. Their own personal competitive professional status is basically what is motivating virtually all of the church people in the Charlottesville mess and the Episcopal hierarchy seems to be about the worst. Common sense is completely missing. Sadly, this is the name of the game these days and one can assume that the end result will be the complete demise of the Church. Destroying monuments is just the tip of the iceberg.

  12. Pjcabbiness says:

    Thank you Doug Desper and Bill Louis for your thoughtful, factual analysis and commentary.

  13. Hugh Hansen, Ph.D. says:

    Since the effort is now underway to destroy history, which city will be first to empty their libraries of every “evil” on their shelves? ECUSA is step-by-step allowing the glory to depart its grand halls of worship. Will it ever get back to spreading the good news?

  14. William Brown says:

    Why are people so concerned that removing statues and plaques will somehow erase 19th history from the face of the earth? People seemed to remember before these memorials were raised. It’s highly doubtful that books will disappear. Reenactments will still take place. I’m certain that the Sons of Confederate Veterans will continue to exist. So why is it so important for these items to remain in place?

  15. Pjcabbiness says:

    I never thought I would see the day when our Episcopal leadership would condone and actively support historical “cleansing”. There is another so called religious group that is also known for tearing down statues and destroying historical artifacts. I believe they are commonly known as ISIS.

  16. Richard Basta says:

    After a thoughtful and deliberative process of reading this article and its comments, I conclude that Doug despar has it right. The ECUSA is indeed engaging in historical censorship of the worst kind in order to curry favor with their pre approved list if agreived parties. It is morally despicable. Guilty on all counts of idiocy in the first degree.

  17. Terry Francis says:

    Good commentary from Doug, Bill and Pjcabbiness. Commentary that will, as usual, be completely and totally ignored by most of our wise and noble Episcopal clergy!

  18. Terry Francis says:

    Richard Basta, I could not agree with you more. A shame that our priests and bishops couldn’t care less about opinions such as yours.

  19. Susan Zimmerman says:

    You’re so political correct I’m sure Jesus really loves you for doing this…maybe you’ll destroy the Temple Mount next, for all the beautiful animals slaughtered on Sabbath mornings…can you imagine a child watching the liturgy of killing a lamb…

    …do you remember “…forgive them father for they don’t know what they’re doing…”? Now there is a response!!!

  20. Susan Zimmerman says:

    You’re so political correct I’m sure Jesus really loves you for doing this…maybe you’ll destroy the Temple Mount next, for all the beautiful animals slaughtered on Sabbath mornings…can you imagine a child watching the liturgy of killing a lamb…

    …do you remember “…forgive them father for they don’t know what they’re doing…”? Now there is a response!!!

  21. Lucy Mauterer says:

    This Confederate hysteria is just disgusting. I’m disappointed in the Episcopal Church which has gone full blown progressive in recent years. In this instance, they are acting like ISIS, removing anything that “offends”. You preach tolerance and yet you are not.

  22. Terry Francis says:

    AMEN Lucy!

  23. Pjcabbiness says:

    Right on Lucy.

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