[Episcopal News Service] The church that has been seen around the world as the backdrop for the ongoing unrest over systemic racism and police brutality in America has reluctantly decided to put up security fencing to protect the building after repeated acts of vandalism.
St. John’s Episcopal Church, the “church of presidents” across from the White House in Washington, D.C., told parishioners in an email on June 25 that the parish had accepted the city’s offer to put up fencing around the property, which has been tagged with graffiti and damaged by fire since protests flared nationwide in response to the police killing of George Floyd on May 25 in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
“We as a parish support the protesters’ fight for an end to systemic racism. As is often the case in these situations, we have also been faced with significant challenges,” the Rev. Robert Fisher, rector, and the parish wardens wrote. “While we hate both the fencing and the boarded-up windows, one of our main responsibilities as rector and wardens is to protect the buildings. Our hope is to remove both the fencing and plywood as soon as practicable.”
Church leaders also expressed concern over the unsafe activities of people camping near the church.
People “have built encampments on the church grounds, pitching tents, cooking on open fires in close proximity to the buildings, and relieving themselves in inappropriate places, resulting in a risk to the health and safety of protesters and others. At times, our staff have not felt safe traveling to and from work, or in their offices,” the church leaders wrote.
St. John’s has been used as a symbol by people on disparate sides of the conflict over racism and policing in America, which has simmered since the 2012 death of Trayvon Martin and escalated since Floyd’s killing. On June 1, police violently forced peaceful protesters and clergy out of the area in front of St. John’s so that Trump could pose for photos holding a Bible in front of the church, an action harshly condemned by Episcopal leaders. The church has since been the site of further protests and prayer vigils focusing on racial justice. In the latest incident of vandalism, the church’s columns were tagged with “BHAZ,” an acronym apparently associated with an attempt to create an “autonomous zone” near the White House.
Fisher and the wardens said that the vestry had met last week to discuss “the tension between support of the Black Lives Matter movement and keeping our staff and property safe,” and then met with city officials to form a plan to “peacefully relocate” the people camping on the property. That plan was not enacted because police began clearing the area on June 22.
“We have much work to do. In the coming weeks we must return our attention to regathering and reengaging our congregation, while continuing the conversation on racial healing that we started the past two Sundays,” the church leaders wrote.
– Egan Millard is an assistant editor and reporter for Episcopal News Service. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.