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Fire set at historic St. John's church during protests of George Floyd's death

Fire set at historic St. John's church during protests of George Floyd's death
D.C. protests organized in reaction to George Floyd's death continued on Pentecost Sunday
Multiple fires broke out, including one at historic St. John's Church

Peter Hermann, Sarah Pulliam Bailey, and Michelle Boorstein
May 31, 2020

WASHINGTON, DC -- A fire was set in the basement of historic St. John's Episcopal Church, across Lafayette Square from the White House, during demonstrations Sunday night expressing outrage at the death of George Floyd in police custody, police said.

Although the protests were largely peaceful in the afternoon and evening, small groups of people began setting fires and smashing windows once darkness fell.

Shortly after 10 p.m., someone tore down the American flag that hangs outside the butter-yellow church and appeared to toss the flag into a nearby fire. A glass door or window was shattered.

A person sprayed graffiti: "The Devil is across [the] street."

D.C. police said a small fire was deliberately set in the basement. Under police escort, D.C. firefighters quickly extinguished it. Fire department spokesman Vito Maggiolo said the blaze did not appear to cause any significant damage.

"I guess God was on its side," Maggiolo said. "It didn't seem to have spread very much."

The Right Rev. Mariann Budde, bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington, said the fire was in the basement of the parish house, which holds offices and the church's nursery. No one from the church was in the building, she said.

"It's heart-rending," said the Rev. Robert W. Fisher, church rector. "This is a very historic building."

St. John's Episcopal Church was built in 1815 and its first service was Oct. 27, 1816. It's often called the "church of the presidents." According to the church website, every president since James Madison has attended at least one service there.

Pew 54 is considered the "President's Pew," reserved for the president's use when visiting the church.

Budde said she had stood outside the church earlier Sunday to participate in the demonstrations, when people were handing out water bottles and protesting in a civil manner.

"There are a lot of things to be heartbroken about, but obviously we wanted the church to be a place of haven and safety," she said.

Before his swearing-in ceremony, President-elect Franklin D. Roosevelt attended a service at St. John's, setting a precedent that has been followed by presidents ever since, including President Trump.

President Barack Obama did not formally join a church while he was in the White House, but he attended St. John's more than any other church during his time in office.

A statement from St. John's Church Lafayette Square

Grant, O God, that your holy and life-giving Spirit may so move every human heart and especially the hearts of the people of this land, that barriers which divide us may crumble, suspicions disappear, and hatreds cease; that our divisions being healed, we may live in justice and peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
A Collect for Social Justice
The Book of Common Prayer , p. 823

Dear Parishioners,

We write to you with heavy, but hopeful hearts. Our community and our country are in anguish and unrest. And yet, we can see that thousands of people are lifting their voices and organizations are engaging in peaceful, meaningful action to ensure the life of George Floyd and countless others are not lost in vain. As Bishop Curry wrote this morning , in the upcoming days and weeks, we will unite as a church community to follow the path of love and to channel this anguish into concrete, productive and powerful action.

Given the recent media coverage of the protests, you may be concerned about our beloved church and parish house. We are fortunate that the damage to the buildings is limited. There is some exterior graffiti, and the protective glass over one of the more modern stained-glass windows on the north side of the narthex has been broken (the stained glass itself is unharmed). Thankfully, there is no damage inside either of the buildings. This morning we secured, as best we could, our most valuable items.

As you know, today is Pentecost, one of the church's primary feasts. If we had been in church, we would surely have sung Sweet, Sweet Spirit , a St. John's favorite. You know the words: "There's a sweet, sweet spirit in this place, and I know it's the spirit of the Lord. Sweet holy spirit, sweet heavenly dove, stay right here with us, filling us with your love." Hymn 120, Lift Every Voice and Sing, II . It's hard to imagine a more appropriate prayer for the place in which we as a nation find ourselves.

We promise to keep you up to date on any developments over the coming days. When it is possible, we will repair the physical damage to our church. Please pray that our country can heal the wounds laid bare by the tragic and unnecessary death of George Floyd.

We are proud to be a church that welcomes all and champions the path of love.

In peace,
The Rev. Rob Fisher, Rector
Paul Barkett, Senior Warden
Jeff Hanston, Junior Warden

Budde is from Minneapolis, the city where Floyd died last week when a police officer trapped him on the asphalt by placing a knee on the back of his neck, even after Floyd said he couldn't breathe.

The bishop said she does not condone the destruction of property, but also doesn't want to lose sight of what the protests are calling for in the wake of Floyd's death: necessary change.

"It's a building. No one's life is gone, but we have work to do and we'll do it," she said. "Cleaning up, rebuild and focus on the rebuilding of our country which is more important."

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