By G. Jeffrey MacDonald
News of George Floyd’s death under the knee of a white Minneapolis police officer had barely reached North Minneapolis when the community began to brace for what could happen next: vandalism, looting and shortages of essential goods in the neighborhood.
Unrest did erupt, but effects were mitigated with help from churches, including the Episcopal Church in Minnesota, which is headquartered in the neighborhood. By offering to put their infrastructure to use, faith communities helped residents of this largely African-American part of the city keep neighbors fed and properties protected as unrest and chaos churned.
What North Minneapolis urgently needed was a hub where community leaders could safely gather with social distancing, store heaps of donated food, operate a makeshift pantry and coordinate groups of armed volunteers to protect neighborhood businesses. With permission of then-Bishop of Minnesota Brian Prior, they created one at ECMN offices. The diocese’s building occupies a former bank space where the lobby can accommodate up to 100 people.
“We were actually using the gathering space as kind of like a headquarters,” said Shyvonne Johnson, an active member of the NAACP’s Minneapolis chapter. “We had been threatened by white supremacists that they were going to come and shoot up the businesses, and we were just making our presence known.”
As protest events engulfed big cities and small towns across America in the wake of Floyd’s death, local conditions cried out for infrastructural support. With public spaces closed, large indoor gatherings prohibited and community resources damaged or destroyed, crowds demanding justice and worrying about safety had to navigate a host of unfamiliar restrictions. Just finding water, public restrooms, or first aid supplies could be difficult due to all the logistical hurdles.
Spotting needs for pragmatic help, faith communities have marshaled infrastructure that had been hibernating during the pandemic. From indoor sanctuaries to outdoor tents and sprawling grounds, church infrastructure came to play a key role in fueling public responses to Floyd’s death, starting in late May and continuing throughout June.
“When this began, I met with the head of the Black churches and said: ‘What would you like us to do? We’ll follow you’,” said then-Bishop of Minnesota Brian Prior, who is now transitioning to Assisting Bishop in the Diocese of Olympia. “This is what they asked us to do: if you can be a part of a distribution place where people can bring things in and help us to take it out.”
The role of faith-based infrastructure in the new push for racial justice has varied with local needs. In Minneapolis, it’s been a lifeline to recovery from destructive unrest. In Washington, D.C., it’s provided a springboard for sustaining thousands of protesters as they converge on the White House. And in Boston’s suburban small towns, where demonstrations on this scale haven’t been seen in decades, it’s offering a relatively high-profile stage for a fresh call to action.
Nowhere has church infrastructure been more urgently needed than in South Minneapolis where Floyd was killed on May 25. As stores burned and police in riot gear fired rubber bullets and tear gas into crowds, a makeshift first aid clinic sprang up at Minnesota Interfaith Power & Light. After encroaching fire threatened the MIPL site, the clinic moved to Holy Trinity Lutheran Church.
“It was quite a remarkable shift because we had been taking the COVID-19 restrictions seriously,” said Holy Trinity Senior Pastor Ingrid Rasmussen. “We went from having no one in the building, apart from our regular custodians and maintenance staff, to flinging open the doors to whoever needed to come in.”
Immediately the church sanctuary became a refuge for meeting all types of physical needs. Medics treated protesters for burns, rubber bullet wounds, and other injuries. Volunteers gave out clothing, food and water — none of which could be found elsewhere as the Lake Street neighborhood was going up in flames.
After 48 hours of providing first aid, Holy Trinity’s infrastructure was needed for a new purpose: distribution of food and essential supplies. The neighborhood had become a food desert overnight, Rasmussen said. Indoor spaces that once accommodated groups were suddenly storing everything from diapers and menstrual pads to plywood. Trucks now arrive with donated food for three distributions per week. As many as 2,000 people line up to receive each time.
“There are no stores currently open around us,” Rasmussen said. “The public library was severely damaged in the wake of George Floyd’s murder. In my conversations with the city and the county about — ‘are we the best place for all of this to happen?’ — our conversation revolves around the fact that we are the only option for the community.”
The church’s infrastructure is all that’s left because those who destroyed adjacent and nearby properties left the church untouched. That’s likely not by accident, according to Johnson.
“People know that the churches are good to them,” Johnson said. Churches “walk with people. They journey with people. A lot of people have a different relationship with churches than they have with shop owners that treat them like crap 365 days a year, and if they get an opportunity to burn your building down, they might.”
In Washington, D.C., the infrastructure challenge had less to do with recovering from violent upheaval and more to do with handling all the demonstrators flooding into the capitol area. In response, the U.S. Secret Service closed Lafayette Park, where protesters routinely gather. That left many needing somewhere to meet, organize, rally, and pray. St. John’s Church, Lafayette Square, was glad to assist with a portion of its infrastructure, even while keeping the building locked, with plywood over the windows.
“Opening the building was not an option for us” because of coronavirus, said St. John’s Rector Robert W. Fisher. “But we have some steps and these old columns, and right in front of that is this place that’s perfect just for people to gather. We decided it would be important to be present and to claim that space as a place for healing, witness, love, and solidarity.”
On the patio, the Diocese of Washington organized a daily “ministry of presence” by joining fellow protesters for prayer and encouragement during the week of June 1. The effort didn’t end after the controversial clearing of the square that allowed President Trump to pose for photos with a Bible in front of the church. St. John’s went on to host a rally with the Rev. William Barber on June 14. It also served as terminus for a June 19 march in honor of Juneteenth, the day in 1865 when slaves in Texas learned they were free.
Five blocks away in Logan Square, Luther Place Memorial Church struck a chord days after Floyd’s death when it experimentally set up a hospitality tent for protesters. Beneath a yard tent that the church keeps for street festivals, volunteers handed out water, snacks and basic first aid supplies.
“Frontline organizers communicated their appreciation for this support stationed a few blocks from the White House, especially as law enforcement escalated violence,” said Luther Place senior pastor Karen Brau in an email. “Based on these conversations, the church provided 16 consecutive nights of support (mostly outdoors), with over 50 volunteers signing up for shifts.”
As word of the ministry spread, Luther Place became a nightly destination where anyone could get a mask and sanitizer, charge a cellphone or use a port-a-potty. The church’s call on Twitter for more supplies got a retweet from Black Lives Matter, which led to what Brau calls “a massive outpouring of donations.” Among the donated items were 12 wagons that now allow volunteers to fan out and equip protests blocks away with essential supplies.
Calls for police reform and dismantling of racism have rippled from big cities to small towns, including many unused to hosting large public demonstrations. To keep these events safe and enhance their visibility, churches in town centers have been offering to host.
Across the suburbs of Boston, for instance, thousands have turned out at small town vigils wearing masks on church grounds. The silent vigil has become a staple of small-town weekends in the region as church infrastructure, which had been underutilized in the pandemic, got redeployed for the racial justice cause.
On June 7 in Winchester, Massachusetts, about 400 converged on the Winchester Unitarian Society grounds on a hill near the town center. Participants holding signs in support of Black Lives Matter spread out across four street corners and a traffic island. For 90 minutes, they talked quietly and chanted occasionally. Near dusk, they fell silent for 8 minutes and 46 seconds to mark how long George Floyd bore the officer’s knee on his neck until he died. During the silence, the majority took a knee and virtually no one moved. Area churches joined in ringing their bells. Familiar hymns — e.g., “The Old Rugged Cross” and “We Shall Overcome” — could be heard in chimes.
Winchester police chief Peter MacDonnell joined the vigil in plain clothes. Born in 1959 and having lived his whole life in Winchester, MacDonnell said the event was the largest demonstration he’s ever seen in town. That it happened on church grounds, he said, meant it would have maximum visibility. He said he was heartened to see the large turnout in a prominent spot.
The officer who pinned Floyd “was sworn to protect the public — that’s what his oath was — and he kneeled on that man’s neck for eight minutes and killed him,” MacDonnell said. “It’s disgusting. That’s why people are here.”
In Hingham, Massachusetts, the Church of St. John the Evangelist drew 1,000 to its grounds for a similar vigil on June 3, according to Rector Tim Schenk. Police closed an adjacent street to accommodate the spillover crowd. After eight minutes and 46 seconds of silence for George Floyd, church infrastructure went to work in the form of bell-ringing.
“The vast majority of participants took a knee” during the silence, Fr. Schenk said in an email. “I’ve never heard so many people be so quiet for so long a period of time. The sense of prayer and reflection was palpable.”