WASHINGTON (RNS) — Early Monday evening (June 1), President Donald Trump stood before the historic St. John’s Episcopal Church in downtown Washington and held aloft a Bible for cameras.
The photo opportunity had an eerie quality: Trump said relatively little, positioned stoically in front of the boarded-up church, which had been damaged the day before in a fire during protests sparked by the death of George Floyd on May 25 in Minneapolis.
The church appeared to be completely abandoned.
It was, in fact, abandoned, but not by choice: Less than an hour before Trump’s arrival, armored police used tear gas to clear hundreds of peaceful demonstrators from Lafayette Square park, which is across the street from the church.
Authorities also expelled at least one Episcopal priest and a seminarian from the church’s patio.
“They turned holy ground into a battleground,” said the Rev. Gini Gerbasi.
Gerbasi, who serves as rector at a different St. John’s Episcopal Church, in nearby Georgetown, arrived at St. John’s Lafayette earlier that day with what she said were at least 20 other priests and a group of laypeople. They were organized by the Episcopal Diocese of Washington to serve as a “peaceful presence in support of protesters.”
The volunteers and clergy offered water, snacks and hand sanitizer to demonstrators who were gathered in Lafayette Park across the street — which sits directly in front of the White House — to denounce racism and police brutality after the death of Floyd.
But sometime after 6 in the evening, when volunteers were packing up supplies, Gerbasi said police suddenly began to expel demonstrators from the park — before the 7 p.m. curfew announced for Washington residents earlier in the day.
“I was suddenly coughing from the tear gas,” she said. “We heard those explosions and people would drop to the ground because you weren’t sure what it was.”
The Rev. Glenna J. Huber, rector of the Church of the Epiphany, another downtown Washington church, was at St. John’s but left as the National Guard arrived. She said she watched as police rushed into the area she had just fled. Concerned, the priest sent a frantic email to clergy at the church urging them to be careful.
Back at St. John’s, Gerbasi said she was dressed in clerical garb and standing on church grounds as police approached.
“I’m there in my little pink sweater in my collar, my gray hair up in a ponytail, my reading glasses on, and my seminarian who was with me — she got tear gas in her eyes,” she said.
Gerbasi said that as she and the seminarian watched, police began to expel people from the church patio.
“The police in their riot gear with their black shields and the whole bit start pushing on to the patio of St. John’s Lafayette Square,” she said, adding that people around her began crying out in pain, saying they had been shot with nonlethal projectiles.
Gerbasi and others eventually fled the scene, leaving emergency medical supplies behind. By the time she reached K Street several blocks away and checked her phone, Trump was already in front of the church holding a Bible.
“That’s what it was for: to clear that patio so that man could stand in front of that building with a Bible,” said Gerbasi.
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Source: Religion News Service