Place of Prayer Counters Museum Attack

By Colbert I. King
Saturday, June 13, 2009

During the very hour when a handful of worshipers, including yours truly and the wife, were at St. Mary's Episcopal Church in Foggy Bottom praying "for all who are in danger, sorrow, or any kind of trouble," 88-year-old James von Brunn was nine blocks away wreaking havoc at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.

So much for the peace which passes all understanding.

With von Brunn now in George Washington University Hospital, one block down the street, the St. Mary's anniversary celebration tomorrow comes with a sober reminder that the white supremacist yearnings of the era in which the parish was born 142 years ago are still alive in the hearts of some Americans.

James von Brunn is a living reminder that the survival of the city's first Episcopal church for African Americans is no assurance that bigotry won't survive right along with it.

Von Brunn was driven by a virulent kind of hatred as old as mankind. He is charged with shooting and killing a man he never knew -- someone who had done him no wrong, except perhaps to be black and to work as a special police officer at the museum in Washington that bears witness to the state-sponsored persecution and extermination of millions of European Jews and other groups during World War II.

In von Brunn's twisted world, being Jewish or black are offenses serious enough to warrant death. And so, eyewitnesses say, von Brunn entered the museum, aimed his rifle, pulled the trigger and took a black man's life.

Odd how things turn out.

Von Brunn, who was wounded by special police officers returning fire, was transported to GW, as was his victim, Stephen Tyrone Johns, 39. There, Johns was pronounced dead while the hospital's staff worked feverishly to keep von Brunn alive.

I don't know how that elderly white supremacist would take this but, according to a hospital spokeswoman, from the time von Brunn entered the emergency room, through his surgery in the operating room, to his placement in the intensive-care unit, he has been under the care of a diverse medical staff that includes blacks, Jews and Middle Easterners.

Landing near St. Mary's would probably be one of the last things on his to-do list. The church, like the holocaust museum, represents all that von Brunn despises. Formed shortly after the end of the Civil War, St. Mary's Chapel was donated by Abraham Lincoln's secretary of war, Edwin M. Stanton. A stained glass window is dedicated to Lincoln.

Generations of blacks, whites and people of all colors have sat together in its pews -- anathema to someone like von Brunn.

Racism -- opposition to ending slavery and giving voting rights to blacks -- formed the basis of John Wilkes Booth's hatred of Lincoln. Racist and anti-Semitic beliefs inform James von Brunn more than 140 years later.

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