A former minister at the church President Donald Trump used as the backdrop for a photo Monday evening slammed the move as “a sacrilege for all people of all faiths.”
Following a speech from the White House Rose Garden, the President walked to St. John’s Episcopal Church, a house of worship used by American presidents for more than a century. Peaceful protesters just outside the White House gates were dispersed with tear gas, flash grenades and rubber bullets. It was all, apparently, so Trump could visit the church.
“I couldn’t believe it,” the Rev. Gini Gerbasi, who was among the people cleared away from St. John’s Church, told CNN’s Jake Tapper on “The Lead” Tuesday.
“When I realized that people had been hurt and terrified for a political stunt, I – like, offended hardly begins to describe how I feel. I feel – it was a sacrilege for all people of all faiths – faiths that are grounded in peacefulness and loving, compassion, reconciliation, wholeness, healing, forgiveness, peace, love, compassion.”
The move, she continued, “was a sacrilege. An absolute sacrilege.”
The photo-op followed nearly a week of protests across the country that at times have turned violent over the death of George Floyd, a 46-year-old black man who died at the hands of a police officer in Minneapolis.
Trump had been angered by news coverage depicting him holed up in an underground bunker amid protests in Washington. He told aides on Monday he wanted to be seen outside the White House gates, according to a person familiar with the matter, which is part of what drove the decision to stage the photo-op at St. John’s Church.
Recounting how authorities began charging the crowd in lockstep, Gerbasi said she was “helping wipe away tears in people’s eyes and try to tend to them and help them on the grounds and suddenly the police were pushing us back.”
“And the people were dropping to the ground, afraid. And they were – when they’d hear those flash sounds, they thought they were being shot, and people were running at us. And literally at some point, when I looked up and the police were so close, I had to just grab some things and run.”
Bishop Mariann Edgar Budde of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington said Monday she was “outraged” by the move and called the President’s message “antithetical to the teachings of Jesus.”
“The President did not pray when he came to St. John’s, nor as you just articulated, did he acknowledge the agony of our country right now,” Budde told CNN’s Anderson Cooper on “AC360.”
And while the photo-op also promoted a visceral reaction among Democrats, top Republican senators – for the most part – aligned squarely with the President, saying it was his right to take such action.
But Gerbasi stressed Tuesday that the clearing of peaceful protesters shouldn’t be viewed through a political lens.
“For that man to take that witness of presence and peacefulness and shoot tear gas or pepper spray or whatever those canisters were, and those little exploding things and rubber bullets and the show of force, was not the kind of faith that I have.”