Westminster has gotten some Commonwealth-wide recognition! Virginia Interfaith Power & Light (VAIPL) is our state affiliate of Interfaith Power & Light, which brings together faith communities to mobilize a religious response to climate change through energy conservation, energy efficiency, and renewable energy. Recently, their news featured solar faith communities and congregations across the state, and Westminster was one of those featured. Click here and scroll down.
Over my Head: What I witnessed in Charlottesville on August 12th, 2017
by Ken Henry, Pastor at Westminster Presbyterian Church
Let’s begin at the First Baptist Church. At 6:00 am, the church was full of people anticipating the day ahead. Cornell West spoke and we sang songs. I think the plan was that some were marching to the Jefferson School and then onto McGuffey Park, and some “trained” people were marching to the other park with the Lee statue to do an act of civil disobedience. The Spirit was there in the midst of us. So, after an hour of singing and listening and being together, most of us piled out onto Main Street and began singing, “Over my head, I hear freedom in the air. Over my head, I hear freedom in the air. Over my head, I hear freedom in the air. There must be a God somewhere.” We also sang, “Oh freedom over me, over me. And before I’ll be a slave, I’ll be buried in my grave and go home to my Lord and be free.”
In my heart, I was calm. We marched down Main Street with some 250 people, walking together and singing songs. At the Jefferson School, it was reassuring to see and embrace friends: Lynne Clements, Gene Locke, Lesley Hadley, Cheryl and Elton Oliver, some of the clergy. From there, another 100+ joined us and we walked across Preston Avenue, then up High Street to the McGuffey Park. Ron Wiley walked with me. Katie Couric also walked with us. In this very small park, with a few canopies scattered around, we listened to speeches: An African American pastor from Connecticut spoke. His voice was rich and deep. Some student leaders from UVA spoke. I saw Laura and Steve Brown. After so many speeches, they invited us to stay longer, but there was something terrible going on a few blocks away. I left.
Lynne and I walked over to the Methodist Church. Inside, I think people were basically afraid or lost in their thoughts. It all seemed a little strange to me. Several clergy went to the basement to drink coffee, me included. I talked to a few clergy who had driven 3-4 hours to be there. Brian Mclaren, author, introduced himself to me. Previously, I had read several of his books, and I thought this meeting would mean something to me, but today was not about meeting Brian McLaren. One pastor asked me, “Is anything else planned? What are we supposed to do next?” I told him I thought there was a lecture over at UVA. I really didn’t know what was next. We went into the sanctuary and Phil Woodson, one of the pastors at the UMC, announced that we were in a lock down. Then in a turn about, he announced all the clergy needed to go outside right now. Then he announced we’re safe and it was okay to move about. I got a little lost in the church, not physically. People sat around. People talked. I sat out on the UMC steps for a while, looking past a police barrier toward the protesters and counter-protesters. I spoke with Ashley Hurst about the right response to all of this, the Christian response, what the churches could do next. It was strange and surreal. All the police, emergency vehicles, people running around the church, and an outpost of national guardsmen sitting on a roof a few blocks away. I went back inside and met the Oliver’s. They had been to the site. Cheryl was visibly shaken. Then, I asked them: “Would you walk with me to the site”? They said they would. So, we walked out of the church, through the parking lot, and Elton lead me to the scene. We walked between men and boys dressed in army fatigues, carrying guns and clubs. We walked within 35 yards of the intersection of Market Street and 2nd. Lots of shouting. It looked like a war zone. A line of Alt-Rights and Supremacists stood at the ready in front of the public library. Ready for what? Cheryl, Elton, and I stood together. Cheryl held up a sign and I was wearing two clerical stoles. We noticed a boy in the line, a helmet strapped to his head. He had a rolled up American flag in one hand, knee pads, a pack on his back. Looking back, I saw so many clubs in hands, I thought I saw one in his. I could be wrong. I hope I am. Still, that look on the boy’s face. It was the look of anger and hatred. He was out there with his dad, I suppose. Learning what the real world was like. Suddenly, a group of Alt-Right Militia marched by us. One looked around the crowd and said out loud, “What a joke!” Then an old man with a smile approached me. “I want you to tell your people that they need to stop informing me that I’m number one.” He smiled and walked slowly away. He walked into the yelling crowd. It dawned on me that he was referring to people flipping him off. Then I turned to Cheryl and Elton: “I think that was the Alt-Right.” So weird, right? Then, someone threw a tear gas canister and the smoke wafted our way. So, we backed down the street so we wouldn’t choke on the gas. I was surprised when I took a breath and choked on it, like chalk on my throat. We watched people hurling bottles of urine (I was told later). Yelling and screaming. Then a man came out with a green flag and another man tackled him to the ground and began beating him. Then a man walked by me, his faced bandaged, blood all over the front of his shirt. We stood on the corner of 3rd and Market for a long time and witnessed. I backed up to the brick wall. I didn’t anyone coming up from behind. We watched alt-right groups marching in and out of the fray.
We watched groups wearing black and groups wearing army fatigues walking by us. We couldn’t tell who was who. Then suddenly, there was some announcement being made near the park, and we could see police in riot gear walking on Jefferson Street and up the mall. They were coming. It appeared that no one wanted to be arrested that day. So they came our way and passed by us in packs: Alt-Rights, White Supremacists, Black Lives Matter, Antifa, protestors, observers, bystanders, flag bearers. It appeared that everyone was going to another park or going to find a bar. The place was teaming with negative energy, but it felt like the war was over. Then we could see a line of helmeted police, and I wondered if we should go, but Elton and Cheryl didn’t move. We stood on the sidewalk and watched as the line of police officers passed us by. I suppose this was the most dangerous time. Everyone going everywhere, mixing. No line between opposing sides. People yelled. A drone hovered above my head. Then, slowly, the three of us walked back to the church. I saw a few more friends; Rabbi Tom, Alvin Edwards. Then I gave the Oliver’s a hug and told them I was heading home. I walked down to Millie’s Coffee. My wife, Heather, picked me up, and went home to write my sermon for the next day. An hour later, Heather Heyer, 32, was run down and killed a block from where we stood. Keep every child in your prayers and spread the word: Love is stronger than hate. Ken
Taking a Stand. . . Moving Forward: July 8th and August 12th
If you want to find out what churches and religious communities are doing in Charlottesville this summer, I invite you to check out the Charlottesville Clergy Collective (http://www.cvilleclergycollective.org/). In its vision statement, “the CCC seeks to be a God-centered faith community of prayer, solidarity, and impact within the Charlottesville-Albemarle Region of Central Virginia.” For last several months, I have been attending breakfast meetings with clergy and lay leaders, both black and white, for purpose of befriending new colleagues in ministry across the religious spectrum as well as learning first-hand about the racial challenges in Charlottesville.
In light of the July 8th KKK rally in Justice Park and another rally scheduled for August 12th, the CCC, in coordination with the city and other groups, has been planning a faith-based response to these events which promote hatred and division in our community. Here’s what we have planned so far for Saturday, July 8th:
- 7:00 am to 2:45 pm and 4:15 pm to 5:00 pm
Presence at Justice Park
- Members of the CCC and any who wish to join will take hour-long shifts in Justice Park to pray, sing, anoint, hang folded cranes, educate & dialogue
- 1:00 pm to 5:00 pm
Hospitality Safe Space at First United Methodist Church (FUMC)
FUMC is open for refreshment, but also prayer/music/dialogue/training for those who wish to join witness at Justice Park at 2:45 pm
I also encourage you to check out events at the Jefferson School http://jeffschoolheritagecenter.org/.
- 9 to 9:30 am – Outdoor meditation led by Common Grounds
- 9:30 to 10 am – Outdoor open mic featuring various choirs and youth
- 10 to 11 am – Charlene Green leads discussion of history of various ethnic groups in Cville and presentations made by leaders of these groups
11 to 12 pm – Two half-hour breakout sessions in various rooms in HC and other areas to answer questions of “Why Should We Care?” Topics include: immigration issues, Black Lives Matter, and how to deal with stress in felt in today’s climate.
As events on July 8th and August 12th develop around town and churches come together to stand against hatred and fear, may we, as God’s precious children, come together and pray for Christ’s unsurpassable peace to fall afresh on Charlottesville and Albemarle County.
In case of snow, sleet, or freezing rain, we will air any cancellation on local radio and TV stations. Bear in mind that there are Westminster Presbyterian Churches in many other cities—including Waynesboro, Lynchburg, and Richmond. Please be sure you hear the announcement for Westminster in Charlottesville.
In addition, our website will have up-to-date information: www.westminsterva.org. Any weather-related changes to the worship schedule or other activities will be posted on the main page of our website.
The church’s voicemail message will also announce any cancellations due to inclement weather. People who have specific responsibilities—like church school teachers, ushers, musicians, sound system engineers—should check one of the above resources if there is inclement weather.
We hope we won’t be having inclement weather on Sundays, but please keep this information in mind if bad weather comes our way on the weekend.