By Kirk Petersen

Disaster was narrowly averted at the church where every president since James Madison has worshipped, after an arsonist’s fire was contained to a single room on May 31.

Early news reports said the blaze, at St. John’s at Lafayette Square, within sight of the White House, “did not appear to cause any significant damage.” But after assessing the building in the light of the following morning, the Rev. Robert Fisher told TLC, “it was just that one room, but it was really destroyed.”

Parishioners and others at St. John’s, the morning after the fire | Sharlyne Griffin

The room was a nursery in the basement of the parish house next to the church. Fire crews were able to break a window in an emergency door to gain access to fight the fire, Fisher said.

The nursery was “utterly destroyed, soggy of course, and all kinds of weird stuff on the ground, weird smells. And you can make out children’s books, a changing table, and toys, things like that,” Fisher said, adding that there is no estimate yet of the cost of the damage.

“I don’t know how close we were for it being a lot worse, but too close for comfort,” he said.

Bishop of Washington Mariann Edgar Budde is working with Fisher to arrange for a continuous daytime presence at the church as long as the protests continue. “If we’re there, and we’re present, and we’re handing out water, and we’re encouraging people,” it will be “a witness of engagement, rather than indifference.”

“It’s important for us as people of faith to stand in solidarity with those who are peacefully protesting,” she told TLC. She said they will respect the mayor’s curfew and leave the area before 7 p.m.

Washington is one of many cities where peaceful daytime protests have evolved into violent and destructive unrest after dark, in the wake of the death of George Floyd while in police custody in Minneapolis.