Washington vigil runs into tension with some protesters as church leaders offer prayer, solidarity

By David Paulsen
Posted Jun 3, 2020

Washington Bishop Mariann Budde, at bottom in hat, and an ecumenical group of clergy pray briefly near St. John’s Episcopal Church, Lafayette Square, in solidarity with peaceful protesters. Photo: Daryl Lobban

[Episcopal News Service] By all accounts, an ecumenical prayer vigil organized by the Diocese of Washington didn’t go as planned June 3. A White House security perimeter forced the event north of its intended site on the grounds of St. John’s Episcopal Church, Lafayette Square. And with news cameras trained on the vigil’s organizers, some protesters complained that undue attention was being drawn to clergy leaders rather than to the cause that the clergy were supporting.

Those circumstances scrambled plans for a vigil, but participants still were able to pray.

In the street just north of St. John’s, standing in front of a line of police in riot gear, they offered a prayer of solidarity. Washington Bishop Mariann Budde, joined by fellow Episcopalians and leaders from other Christian denominations, as well as Washington Mayor Muriel Bowser, prayed in support of peaceful protests against racial injustice and police brutality that have swept the country and spread worldwide since the killing of George Floyd, an unarmed black man, while in police custody.

Floyd, 46, died May 25 after being pinned to the ground by police for nearly nine minutes with an officer’s knee to his neck in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Since then, The Episcopal Church has amplified its calls to end systemic racism, as clergy and lay leaders have joined other Americans in expressing outrage at the number of people of color killed by police and white vigilantes.

“We as people of faith are here to stand with you and for you,” Budde told the protesters in Washington, according to a WAMU-FM reporter’s Twitter updates, as Budde and other religious leaders attempted to get the June 3 vigil underway around 3:30 p.m.

Budde has been in the national spotlight this week as one of the voices in the widespread condemnation of the Trump administration’s decision to forcibly clear protesters from the area between the White House and St. John’s so the president could pose for photos in front of the church on June 1. The impromptu visit caught Budde and the church’s rector by surprise.

Late June 2, the diocese began promoting a solidarity prayer vigil to be held in the courtyard outside St. John’s, which is just north of the White House across the street from Lafayette Square. A news release said Episcopal clergy would be joined by leaders from the United Methodist Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the Dietrich Bonhoeffer Institute and the Washington Mayor’s Office of Religious Affairs, as well as the Rev. Jim Wallis of Sojourners.

But by June 3, law enforcement agencies had extended the security perimeter around the White House beyond St. John’s, blocking the public from accessing the church and forcing the diocese to move its event about a block north to the intersection of 16th and I streets.

“We came out here to pray,” the Rev. Daryl Lobban, the diocese’s missioner for justice and advocacy, told Episcopal News Service by phone. “The military was set up almost right in front of our church.”

Some “peacekeeper clergy” stood between the security forces and the protesters, and other clergy leaders arrived together, according to Sojourners’ Twitter thread from the scene.

Because the protesters and vigil attendees both were pushed north by the security perimeter, news reporters converged on that site, with dozens of cameras pointing at Budde and the other clergy leaders, Lobban said.

While Budde tried to speak, some protesters began yelling that the bishop didn’t speak for them, according to the WAMU reporter, Mikaela Lefrak. Budde then sat down to talk to some of the protesters individually. “Vigil has now turned into debate between clergy and some protesters about who should be focus of this protest,” Lefrak said.

A large crowd of Episcopalians came to attend the vigil, but “there was some tension there” with the protesters, Lobban said. “We decided to go and listen to what the protesters had to say.”

Budde and other clergy leaders talked with some of the protesters for about 10 minutes. They felt the vigil was taking the focus off the protest, said the Rev. Paula Clark, the diocese’s canon to the ordinary.

“We felt the need to interact and talk with them,” Clark told ENS, and she said those interactions helped diffuse the tension. “We came out in the same place, and that’s when we had prayer together, all of us with a great, ‘Amen.’”

After praying together, Budde and the other clergy members left the area. “It did not go as planned, but the Holy Spirit was still moving,” Clark said.

The Rev. Melanie Mullen, who attended the event, said the government’s restrictions on movement were mostly to blame for disrupting plans for the vigil, making it difficult for some of the participants to reach the revised location.

“We have really seen what it’s like when the entire force of the government and the military and the state come out against religious freedom,” Mullen, The Episcopal Church’s director of reconciliation, justice and creation care, told ENS.

Trump photo op at church followed minor arson fire

St. John’s had sustained minor damage from a fire May 31 as peaceful protests in the nation’s capital and in other cities were marred in some cases by property destruction.

On the evening of June 1, Trump addressed reporters in the White House’s Rose Garden, declaring himself both “your president of law and order” and “an ally of all peaceful protesters.” At about that time, under the order of Attorney General William Barr to clear the area, officers from the U.S. Park Police and other assisting law enforcement agencies, outfitted in riot gear, began pushing back protesters who had amassed outside the White House and in Lafayette Square across from St. John’s. Reports indicate the protest there had been peaceful, and protesters were not yet in violation of the city’s 7 p.m. curfew.

At least one Episcopal priest was among those who fled the scene when police began using smoke and what eyewitnesses said was some sort of tear gas on the crowd, as well as flash-bang grenades. At least 20 priests and a group of laypeople had been ministering to protesters throughout the day as “a peaceful presence” in support of the demonstrations.

U.S. Park Police denied using tear gas on protesters, though the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says a range of “riot control agents,” like the smoke canisters and pepper balls used by federal authorities, are commonly referred to as “tear gas.”

President Donald Trump holds a Bible as he stands outside St. John’s Episcopal Church, across from the White House, in Washington, D.C., on June 1, 2020. Photo: Patrick Semansky/AP

With the square cleared, Secret Service agents and White House officials then escorted Trump to St. John’s, where he was handed a Bible and posed briefly for journalists while video footage showed him giving only a cursory glance at the boarded-up church. The visit lasted about 3 minutes. Trump called some of his aides, including Barr, to pose by his side before he left to return to the White House.

Read full ENS coverage of reaction to George Floyd’s killing.

The show of force and the president’s photo op have been criticized by Capitol Hill lawmakers from both parties. “There is a fundamental — a constitutional — right to protest, and I’m against clearing out a peaceful protest for a photo op that treats the word of God as a political prop,” Nebraska Sen. Ben Sasse, a Republican, said.

Trump on June 3 defended the visit to St. John’s in an interview with Fox News Radio, adding he wasn’t aware how the square was cleared before he arrived.

“It was very fast. I think it was very symbolic. I did hold up a Bible. I think that’s a good thing, not a bad thing, and many religious leaders loved it,” Trump told host Brian Kilmeade. “Why wouldn’t they love it? I’m standing in front of a church that went through trauma.”

Budde said in several news interviews that she and other church leaders were never notified that Trump intended to visit the church, and he did so in a way that she and other leaders say ran counter to Christian teachings, in effect using the church and a Bible as political props.

“He used violent means to ask to be escorted across the park into the courtyard of the church,” Budde told NPR on June 2, emphasizing that Trump didn’t come to pray.

“He did not offer a word of balm or condolence to those who are grieving. He did not seek to unify the country, but rather he used our symbols and our sacred space as a way to reinforce a message that is antithetical to everything that the person of Jesus, whom we follow, and the Gospel texts that we strive to emulate … represent.”

The 204-year-old St. John’s is known as the “church of presidents” because every president since James Madison has attended a service there. Trump attended a worship service there on his inauguration day, Jan. 20, 2017, and at least two more times during his presidency, according to USA Today.

Curry, in a written statement, accused Trump on June 1 of using the church and the Bible for “partisan political purposes.”

“We need our president, and all who hold office, to be moral leaders who help us to be a people and nation living these values,” Curry said. “For the sake of George Floyd, for all who have wrongly suffered, and for the sake of us all, we need leaders to help us to be ‘one nation, under God, with liberty and justice for all.’”

Since the incident, St. John’s has continued to offer support for the protesters gathered outside the White House while promoting a daily time of prayer and witness in the four hours leading up to each day’s overnight curfew.

“We in the Diocese of Washington follow Jesus in his way of love. We aspire to be people of peace and advocates of justice,” Budde said in the diocese’s news release announcing the vigil. “In faithfulness to our savior who lived a life of non-violence and sacrificial love, we align ourselves with those seeking justice for the death of George Floyd and countless others through the sacred act of peaceful protest.”

– David Paulsen is an editor and reporter for Episcopal News Service. He can be reached at dpaulsen@episcopalchurch.org.