dc protests

Historic Church Near White House Damaged Amid Unrest; Leaders Pray for Healing

St. John's Church, known as the "Church of the Presidents," was damaged after peaceful protests near the White House took a destructive turn

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The leaders of a historic church near the White House say they are praying for the nation to heal after the building was damaged when violence erupted following anti-racism and anti-police brutality protests in Washington, D.C.

Bishop Mariann Budde later on Monday criticized President Donald Trump for allowing police to use tear gas to clear protesters away from the church so he could pose for a photo op and address the country there.

"The President just used a Bible and one of the churches of my diocese as a backdrop for a message antithetical to the teachings of Jesus and everything that our church stands for,” Budde said in a statement. “To do so, he sanctioned the use of tear gas by police officers in riot gear to clear the church yard."

The church had been damaged amid unrest on Sunday.

D.C. Firefighters found a fire in the basement of St. John's Episcopal Church on Sunday, authorities said. A large fire also burned outside the church at one point.

The nursery was set on fire, Rector Rev. Rob Fisher said.

"The protests that began peacefully grew to something more, and eventually a fire was lit in the nursery, in the basement of Ashburton House," Fisher said in an email to worshippers. "Protestors easily could have done a lot worse to our buildings, but they chose not to do that."

The more than 200-year-old church sits at 16th and H Streets NW, near Lafayette Square and the White House, where demonstrators clashed with police throughout the weekend.

The protective glass over a stained-glass window was broken, church leaders said in a statement. The stained glass was not damaged. Graffiti stained the building's yellow and white exterior.

In response, church leaders shared a prayer asking "that barriers which divide us may crumble, suspicions disappear, and hatreds cease," from "The Book of Common Prayer."

The church is a National Historic Landmark known as the "Church of the Presidents" and says every president since James Madison has attended a service at St. John's.

Fischer said that he was out of town for the weekend and rushed back to D.C. upon seeing the news and an up-close video of the fire.

"I just assessed the damage as best I could, in the semi-dark and with a flashing, bleating alarm system that I could not figure out how to shut off. My ears are still ringing, and I am still coughing a bit from various fumes I inhaled," he said. "But I am happy to share with you that I could see no other real damage."

Church leaders said that the interior damage was limited to the nursery room.

"Please pray that our country can heal the wounds laid bare by the tragic and unnecessary death of George Floyd," Rev. Fisher and two wardens of the church wrote in an email.

Fisher said his heart is heavy but hopeful and wrote in support of peaceful protesters.

"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," the letter read.

The church will repair the physical damage when it's possible to do so.

Fisher said the church is examining ways to offer a ministry of presence against racism.

Peaceful demonstrations were followed by some attendees clashing with police outside the White House. Many defied D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser's 11 p.m. curfew.

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