ON A RECENT JUNE night, a score or more of federal authorities and D.C. police officers rushed without warning into All Souls Church, a durable red brick building at 16th and Harvard streets NW, from whose pulpit many wise persons have spoken. The lawmen's numbers and stomping feet startled the desk clerk and choirmaster, and it was as if their bodies, charging into basement meeting rooms, had battered a tradition that goes back 200 years or more.
They had come to arrest members of the Black Hebrew Israelites, a religious sect that was meeting in the church and that has attracted the attention of investigators probing alleged fraud schemes.
I have no inside knowledge about the Black Hebrew Israelites or their alleged illegalities, but I think this raid was a gross violation of the sanctity of a church.
Granted that the tradition was somewhat weakened during the Vietnam War years when local and federal authorities went into churches that had been declared sanctuaries and made arrests, but the shared impression there is that in most cases, the police waited outside the church doors for conscientious objectors, who most often left the churches voluntarily. And even during the civil rights movement when churches were being bombed and burned, law enforcement people generally showed respect.
So the specter of a mob of cops rushing into a church during peaceful times to arrest and search stunned an unsuspecting people and seems more in character with the sacking of Rome by the Goths or the Vandals in the fifth century than with the maintaining of order in the U.S. capital in 1981. Why couldn't they have apprehended the suspects outside, after they had left the sanctuary, or found some other way?
"I don't think it was proper," Mayor Marion Barry responded the other day in answer to my question about the incident. "It's been a whole history of religious freedom where people took refuge in church. The church has been viewed as the last place of refuge. They ought to get a search warrant and wait until they come out." (He might have added that even in the wicked West, the posse waited for the mob to emerge from the monastery before mowing it down.)
So why hasn't Mayor Barry done something more about it, spoken out, condemned it more fully?
He says he wants to know the degree of D.C. police involvement first. By Thursday, he was still awaiting a report he had requested from Deputy Police Chief Rodwell of Catoe of the Third District (where the church is located).
But the Rev. David Eaton, minister of All Souls, says that District police were very involved.
What's going on here? Should police be able to invade a church sanctuary in the capital of the Free World, drag people out, and the police official in charge of the district not know about it in advance? Is this considered so casual an act that clearance is obtained at some low level?
As alarming as the incident may be, the general silence on the issue in this town of rock-ribbed, church-going folk may be of more concern. It's as though we now have a climate in this country where nobody feels that there is a moral force great enough to stand up against police state tactics. And when churches are casually raided, the message is sent out that law and order bow to no God.
A few persons addressed the issue soon after it happened. The Rev. James K. McCants of Mount Zion United Methodist Church in Georgetown asked on behalf of his congregation:
"What desperate situation existed which justified the invasion of a church in a manner reminiscent of SS troops in the German Third Reich? There was none."
Two days ago, some 40 persons, including 15 clergymen, called a press conference at the Washington Urban League to deplore the raid, blame it on "the repressive tactics of the Secret Service of the Reagan administration," upbraid the press for not having deplored it earlier, and to serve notice that "this should not happen again."
Anne Turpeau, director of the Citizens Advisory Committee to the D.C. Bar Association, denounced the raid as "excessive police force," a view echoed by Dr. Douglas Glasgow of Howard University: "It represents an escalation of police action."
The atmosphere around town, somewhat giddy with the uncertainty generated by the conservative Reagan administration, makes this Fourth of July already less festive than many I can recall. To casually shatter old traditions in a time when few remain only gives the community one less reason to celebrate.