Chairman Raskin, Ranking Member Roy, and members of the Subcommittee, thank you for the opportunity to contribute to today’s briefing. My name is Gini Gerbasi, and I serve as the Rector at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Georgetown. Before assuming my current role, I previously served on the clergy staff of St. John’s Lafayette Square.
I would like to begin today by acknowledging the millions of Americans who have participated in peaceful protests in response to the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tamir Rice, and so many others. I believe this is a defining moment in our nation’s history, and I would be remiss if I did not give appropriate attention to these brave Americans who have experienced, witnessed, or recognized injustice and have decided they must take action and make their voices heard. It is their pursuit of justice—by the thousands and even millions across the country and across the globe—that has brought us here today. In fact, the only reason I am testifying before you is because I witnessed, firsthand, what happened when this movement—a profound force for good—was met with the arbitrary and brutal force of its government, quashing the ability of protesters to peaceably assemble and demonstrate on the defining issues of racism, racial justice, and the respect and dignity to which every human being is entitled.
My ministry brought me to Lafayette Square on June 1, 2020. The day before, during my sermon, I looked directly into the camera on my laptop—because that’s how we preach these days—and called the church to account for its lack of leadership in dismantling systemic racism. That Sunday was the feast of Pentecost, when Christians celebrate receiving the gift of the Holy Spirit, and I lamented that for centuries the church has squandered this mighty gift, and has not had the courage to stand up and cast out the evil of racism from our civic body in the name of love.
Throughout my career, I have been committed to standing up for those on the margins. These convictions drew me to Seminary, and they likewise drew me to Lafayette Square almost a month ago. Racial justice, rooted in Scripture, is a critical ministry of the Episcopal church in the Diocese of Washington.
As I previously served at St. John’s Lafayette Square, I am intimately familiar with that church, its surroundings, and the unique role it has played in American history as the Church of Presidents. While enjoying historic proximity to power, St. John’s Lafayette Square has also been a constant witness to those who would speak truth to power, on issues across the political spectrum and as diverse as our great country. That Monday, I was there on behalf of the Church to provide comfort and support to these peaceful protesters, and to stand in solidarity with them and the cause of racial justice. And then, before my eyes, the government brutalized peaceful protesters.
To be clear, the day was marked by peaceful protests. Our group of clergy was based on the “patio” of St. John’s Lafayette Square—an outdoor area regularly used by the church for gatherings and ministry. We were passing out water, snacks, hand sanitizer, masks, and trying to ensure that the patio area was a place of respite for the people gathered. It struck me that the patio had also become a deeply spiritual place that day—you wouldn’t think that Episcopalians do this, but we were praying with people, laying hands on people, and offering spiritual comfort. I would occasionally venture into the crowd to ask people if they wanted water. You could hear the people with megaphones shouting, “No Justice, No Peace, No Racist Police.”
Part of our purpose, as clergy, in going down to Lafayette Square that day was to be a presence of peace. And for nearly the entire day, peace is what we found there. By 6 p.m., it seemed clear that there was not a lot of tension, and many of my colleagues began to leave. We gave our extra water bottles to the Black Lives Matter medics who had also set up on the St. John’s patio. I resolved to stay as long as I could be useful. I could still pray with people and pass out the case or so of water I had left.
And then, sometime after 6:15, things changed in an instant. Suddenly, I saw protesters running from Lafayette Park, followed by clouds of acrid smoke billowing through the crowds. People began to run north on 16th Street and onto the St. John’s patio, some coming for eyewash, wet paper towels or water. The first flash grenade rang out, sounding like gunfire, and some people dropped to the ground, thinking the police were shooting. More people ran in our direction, crying from the smoke and from fear. I remember looking at my watch because I could not understand what was happening. It was 6:36 p.m.—well before curfew. I hadn’t heard any announcement or warning; there was nothing that I had seen or heard that could explain the police’s actions. People were running, crying, and dropping to the ground in terror. It was dehumanizing.
As the protestors ran from the park, I called out, “Water! Eyewash!” in an attempt to assist the fleeing protesters. A man knelt in front of me, coughing and terrified, his eyes swollen and red. He begged for something to help the stinging, and I began to rinse his eyes. Someone yelled “rubber bullets,” and I looked up to see a man holding his stomach, bent over. He moved his arms, and I saw marks on his shirt. I looked over his shoulder, and I couldn’t believe my eyes. A wall of police, in full riot gear, was physically pushing people off the St. John’s patio, maybe 15 feet away from me.
This scene was shocking, and the terrified faces of the protestors continue to haunt me. They were peacefully protesting the government’s use of violence against innocent people. And then the government used violence against them. That alone left me badly shaken. But when I later found out that the President had—just minutes later—stood in front of the church and held up a Bible, I was outraged. My colleagues and I were there in the name of those same Scriptures. We were praying with people, and giving them water and food and—after they were attacked by the police—first aid care. To hold up those same Scriptures after using tear gas and rubber bullets and flash grenades against innocent people was horrifying. I say this not to make a political point but to raise an objective truth—the scene I witnessed would have been equally devastating regardless of who occupied the White House.
I couldn’t sleep that night. I kept thinking about what had happened—and why. But then, with the dawn of a new day, I asked myself: How can I be a force for goodness today? I knew I had to return to Lafayette Square. The days that followed were trying in their own way. The following Wednesday, although there was no more tear gas or rubber bullets, police in full riot gear—not wearing any identifying information—blocked us from getting to a prayer vigil at the church. Let me reiterate this: we were not permitted to gather at our church to pray. This, like the earlier events of June 1, is antithetical to everything we hold dear in this country, and should be abhorrent to people of all faiths.
I will never forget what I witnessed in Lafayette Square, and I hope I never witness anything like it ever again. But as I look at the nation’s response—not only to the events of June 1, but more importantly, to this critical moment and the pursuit of justice—I cannot help but be filled with hope. I am here today to offer my account of these events, but more broadly, to add my voice to the chorus demanding racial justice, and to ensure that what happened in Lafayette Square that evening never happens again. I look forward to answering your questions.
Chairman Grijalva, Ranking Member Bishop, and members of the Committee, thank you for the opportunity to testify today. My name is Mariann Budde. I serve as Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington, which counts among its parishes St. John’s, Lafayette Square. I appear today to express my deep concern about the events of June 1, 2020, when our government resorted to acts of violence against peaceful protesters and prevented clergy and lay members of the Church from exercising their ministry on the grounds of St. John’s.
We in the Episcopal Church believe that the issues of racial and social justice are core tenets of the Christian faith. The Bible teaches that all human beings are created in the likeness and image of God. As children of God, all are to be treated with equal dignity and respect. Embedded in our nation’s history and institutions is the shameful abuse of Black Americans and other persons of color justified by the sinful notion of white supremacy—that whiteness is the human standard from which all other human beings deviate, and are therefore less than fully human, less worthy of equal treatment. As Christians, we are called by God to rectify that injustice. Our faith compels us to join those around the country and the globe who have engaged in non-violent protests to call for an end to racist policies and practices, and to say clearly, with one voice, that Black lives matter.
For Episcopalians, the issue of racial justice is a shameful part of our history, for we were once the church of slave holders. Like the White House, St. John’s Lafayette Square was built with enslaved labor. Yet throughout our history, our noblest members have fought for the liberation of the enslaved, full human and civil rights for all people, and to be a church that welcomes all, for indeed, as Scripture teaches, God shows no partiality. We continue to struggle to come to terms with our racist legacy, and that of American society as a whole. We strive to be a voice for peace and the fundamental dignity of all human beings, knowing that, at our most faithful, we stand on the side of justice.
And so we stand today, at this critical moment. When non-violent protestors began to gather at Lafayette Square, we decided to be present, to add our voice to the call for justice, to stand with and minister to all other peaceful protestors gathered there. This was, and is, for us an act of faith. Our ministry was suddenly and forcefully interrupted by government officials—first on June 1, when the government violently cleared protestors and clergy alike from the area surrounding St. John’s, and then in the coming days, when the government denied us access to the church to conduct a vigil.
These actions, and in particular the use of violence against peaceful protesters, were antithetical to the teachings of the Bible and what we stand for as a Church. When our government announced its intention to use military force against American citizens in the Rose Garden that day, it struck me as an escalation of violence that could cause unnecessary suffering. I was horrified to see the government carry out that threat moments later. The government’s action was dehumanizing and in violation of the protestors’ right to be in that space. Then when the President held up a Bible outside of our church, as if to claim the mantle of spiritual authority over what just transpired, I knew that I had to speak. Nowhere does the Bible condone the use of violence against the innocent, especially those who are standing up for justice. This was a misappropriation of scripture, and a usurpation of our sacred space.
I raise these issues to call attention to an abuse of power on the part of our government, which is also at the heart of the larger struggle for racial justice. While it is true that there have been instances of vandalism at St. John’s in recent weeks, we will not let these events and others overshadow the fundamental cause of justice. People across our nation are united as never before in recognizing that the way we police our communities needs to change. The way we treat people of color in this country needs to change. Yes, we care deeply about our churches. But in the end, buildings can be re-built. Windows can be replaced. Pillars can be repainted. We can never bring back the lives that have been lost due to horrific police violence. George Floyd. Breonna Taylor. Elijah McClain, and so many others. Their deaths are the true outrage, and I don’t want anything that has happened at St. John’s—either before the protests or in the weeks since—to distract us from that fact. Black lives matter, and our faith compels us to seek equal justice for all people.
Bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the way of Christ.
One of the more challenging realities of leadership is that we are simultaneously called to live fully in the present, evaluate our past efforts, and set a course for the future. While you, our parish clergy and lay leaders, are courageously leaning into the particular intensity of this moment, you’re also taking stock of how dramatically your congregation has been impacted by the pandemic. As summer begins, you’re planning for the fall and laying a foundation for ministry in 2021.
Small wonder you’re tired. But here’s a bit of good news to save you time and energy as your plan for the fall.
The Financial Resources Committee has once again produced an Annual Giving Toolkit for EDOW congregations, with materials needed for a thoughtful, inspiring pledge campaign. They’ve identified a theme, created a timeline, and drafted templates of key communication. You’re welcome to adapt any or all of these materials to best serve your congregation.
This year’s theme, Doing What Love Requires, invites each of us to accept the love Jesus offers and his call to live a way of love in Christian community. It harkens back to Presiding Bishop Curry’s question to all who seek to follow Jesus: what would love do? It creates space to have pastorally supportive conversations with those who are unable to support their congregation financially and inspire those who are able to give more, because that, in fact, is what love requires.
As a diocese, we’ve witnessed through the COVID-19 Emergency Relief Fund both the intense financial need of some in our diocesan family and the incredible generosity of those who have means to help. I pray that the same spirit of mutual concern will sustain our congregations at a time when their ministries are so very important.
May this resource lighten the burden of leadership for you and give you another experience of time this summer–that of rest and renewal.
On Sunday, June 14, the Episcopal Diocese of Washington and Bishop Mariann hosted an interfaith, ecumenical prayer vigil calling for concrete action toward racial justice at St. John’s Episcopal Church Lafayette Square, overlooking Black Lives Matter Plaza.
“We have an opportunity to change some things in our country and our world that have been crying out for change for a very long time,” said Bishop Mariann before the gathering. “Outrage is not enough. People of faith must unite in action to drive lasting change for justice and healing in our country.”
Calls for action on the fence surrounding the White House.
Bishop LaTrelle Easterling, head of the Baltimore-Washington Conference of the United Methodist Church, called for a rejection of the uses of “threats, unlawful detentions, extra judicial killings and other forms of coercion to try to silence political opponents and those objecting to unlawful and immoral policies and practices.”
Among the interfaith leaders who spoke were Dr. Rajwant Singh (pictured above), co-founder of the National Sikh Campaing; Imam Talib Shareef, president and imam of Masjid Muhammad, the Nation’s Mosque and chair of the IFC board; and Rev. Dr. James Victor, vice-president of the Baptist General Convention of Virginia. Dr. Singh said, “In the House of God, there is always justice. Justice may be delayed, but it will always come. And that is this moment, here.”
Rabbi Rachel Gartner, Jewish chaplain at Georgetown University and board member of Truth, the Rabinic Call for Human Rights, chanted from the Tanakh, the Hebrew Bible, “Do not hate one another in your heart. Rather love your neighbor as yourself.”
Mythili Bacchu, Hindu faith leader and Interfaith Council executive board member, chanted a prayer first in Sanskrit then translated the powerful words into English: “May all be prosperous and happy. May all be free from disease. May all see goodness in everyone and everything and may no one suffer from pain. Peace, peace, peace be with all of us.”
An EDOW young adult, Christian Omoruyi, active in campus ministry at American University, spoke with passion, quoting from the Book of Amos, “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”
Bishop William Barber addressed those gathered (watch the entire prayer gathering here), saying to the national media, “stop saying we’ve never seen multi-cultural, multi-racial movements before. It was multi-cultural, multi-racial movements that caused abolition.”
“As our final corporate gesture today, I’d invite you to raise a hand, if you can, as a blessing to those around you. You might just take a look to those around you. May God grant us strength. May God grant us courage. May God grant our hearts to be filled to the brim with love. May God make us restless for the cause of what is right and good and just in this time.”
The following statement was released by the Right Rev. Mariann Edgar Budde, bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington, and the Very Rev. Randolph Marshall Hollerith, dean of Washington National Cathedral:
Thanks to two rulings from the United States Supreme Court, millions of people in our land received news for which they long hoped and prayed and worked so hard to achieve.
On Monday June 15, the Supreme Court ruled that LGBTQ persons are now fully protected from workplace discrimination under the Civil Rights Act of 1964. No longer is it legal anywhere in this country to terminate someone’s employment simply for being gay or transgender.
Today, June 18, the Court ruled that young adult immigrants known as Dreamers, brought to this country as children, need not worry that the federal government can revoke their legal status under DACA, the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. Dreamers can keep their jobs and remain in school, and sleep at night knowing they are welcome and free of the fear of deportation in the only country they have called home.
We give thanks to God for these rulings and for all those who have dedicated their lives to ensuring the legal rights and status of those previously marginalized in this country. We are a better nation when we recognize the full humanity and the gifts of all our people. We must always remember that each person is a beloved child of God and made in the image and likeness of God — no matter who they are, who they love or where they were born.
While we give thanks for these rulings, events of the recent months make clear that our work for equity and justice continues. We celebrate and carry on.