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