A historic Washington, D.C., church damaged during protests against police brutality over the weekend pledged solidarity with protesters on Monday ― hours before President Donald Trump used its building for a photo-op.
After a press conference in the Rose Garden Monday evening, Trump walked from the White House to pose in front of St. John’s Church’s sign while holding a Bible. Law enforcement fired tear gas at hundreds of peaceful protesters to clear the way for Trump, The Associated Press reported.
The church belongs to the Episcopal Diocese of Washington ― part of a progressive denomination that has often stood at odds with the president’s policies and tactics.
Bishop Mariann Budde, leader of The Episcopal Diocese of Washington, told HuffPost that she was “outraged” about Trump’s appearance. “I am going to do everything in my power to disassociate our church from what the president did tonight,” she said.
Trump used the Bible and St. John’s Church as a backdrop for a message that is “antithetical to the teachings of Jesus and everything that our church stands for,” Budde said in a separate statement.
“He did not pray when he came to St. John’s,” Budde said. The president also failed to acknowledge the agony of people of color who are “rightfully demanding an end to 400 years of systemic racism and white supremacy.”
“In no way do we support the President’s incendiary response to a wounded, grieving nation,” she said.
Budde told CNN’s Anderson Cooper that she had no idea that Trump was planning to appear at the church on Monday ― she found out about it by watching it on television, like everyone else.
“I just can’t believe what my eyes have seen tonight,” she said.
St. John’s Church is located across the street from Lafayette Square, a park that lies directly north of the White House and has become a gathering spot since protests erupted over the death of George Floyd, a Black man who was killed in Minneapolis last week by a white officer who kneeled on his neck for nearly nine minutes.
St. John’s sustained damage late Sunday night during protests. By Monday afternoon, the Episcopal church had set up a hospitality station outside its front doors ― offering protesters water bottles, hand sanitizing liquid, snacks and a place to rest.
Hours before Trump’s photo-op at the church, Budde told HuffPost that while she was sad to hear about the damage to the church, people are what matter in the end.
“There’s a huge difference between loss of life at the hands of a police officer as part of a systemic pattern of racism, and being concerned about the basement of a church,” Budde said Monday evening. “We’re trying to keep our focus on the major issues.”
Eight members of the clergy from Budde’s diocese were at the church Monday to help with the hospitality station, she said. The diocese plans to maintain a presence outside St. John’s until the protests cease.
“We just wanted to make sure the church wasn’t just a building, that there were people there praying, offering support and solidarity, offering refreshments, opening the door of the church for people to go to the bathroom,” Budde said. “Just to have a sense that we’re not just a historic building, that we’re people who care.”
At over 200 years old, St. John’s Church is a national historic landmark with a membership of over 1,000 people, and has earned the nickname “church of the presidents.” Every president since James Madison has attended at least one service inside its halls, according to the church’s website.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt attended a church service at St. John’s in 1933 on the morning of his inauguration, setting a precedent followed by many of his successors, including Trump. Pew 54, the “President’s Pew,” is reserved for the president’s use.
Floyd’s death has sparked demonstrations nationwide over police brutality toward Black Americans. Sunday’s protests, which marked the third day of demonstrations in Washington, D.C., started out peacefully. As night fell and the protest outlasted the city’s 11 p.m. curfew, tensions between police and protesters heightened.
Police fired tear gas and stun grenades into a crowd of over 1,000 people, The Associated Press reports. The crowd started fires at several nearby buildings, including St. John’s. The church fire was intentionally set, D.C. police said in a tweet.
“We just wanted to make sure the church wasn’t just a building, that there were people there praying, offering support and solidarity.”
In addition to the fire, protesters reportedly tore down an American flag hanging outside the church, broke protective glass covering a stained-glass window and sprayed graffiti on the walls.
“The Devil is across [the] street,” read one of the messages sprayed onto the exterior of the building, according to The Washington Post.
On Monday, church officials said damage from the blaze was primarily contained to the parish nursery, although there was smoke and water damage to other areas of the basement. The graffiti on the exterior of the building has already been covered up, they said. No one from the parish was inside the building at the time it was damaged.
Parish rector Rev. Rob Fisher said that the events of Sunday night haven’t deterred his church’s resolve to “be an instrument for God’s work” during the protests.
“If anything, this only encourages us even more to be a ministry of presence as much as we can in the days ahead and beyond, working against racism, and towards compassion and healing,” Fisher wrote on Facebook early Monday morning.
The diocese put out a call asking Episcopalians and people of other denominations and faiths to gather at St. John’s in the upcoming days to “stand in prayerful solidarity and witness for racial justice and healing.” Participants are required to wear masks and bring hospitality items, such as water and snacks, to pass out to fellow protesters. Clergy have been asked to wear clerical collars so that they are identifiable.
Asked if she is concerned about the spread of COVID-19 through this initiative, Budde admitted that she is.
“We’ve made it very clear that people who are at risk or have family members at risk should not go down there. Everyone should be wearing masks,” she said. “It is scary. But I think there are ways we can do that and keep people reasonably safe.”
Budde said that she doesn’t condone the destruction of property during the protests. But she’s not going to focus on that when the bigger outrage is what is happening to people’s lives.
“The most important thing is to keep our eyes focused on real police reform, real criminal justice reform, the murderous inequities in our society that have been exposed by the pandemic. That’s what I want people to focus on,” she said. “And also to support, in whatever way they can, particularly those rising generations that are just aching for a world that they can live in that would be safe.”