Gerbasi went on Monday to St. John’s Episcopal Church, near Lafayette Square across from the White House, to deliver water and snacks to demonstrators who had gathered to protest the killing of George Floyd. She was there, she wrote later on her Facebook page, to help make the patio of the church “a place of respite and peace.” A little after 6 p.m., it became anything but.
In her post, Gerbasi, who is the rector at St. John’s Episcopal Church Georgetown, described a peaceful day that erupted in mayhem and terror as federal law enforcement officers sprayed chemical irritants and shot pellets at nonviolent demonstrators before President Trump walked over to the church and held up a Bible in front of cameras.
“Around 6:15 or 6:30, the police started really pushing protestors off of H Street . . . the street between the church and Lafayette Park, and ultimately, the White House,” Gerbasi wrote. Gerbasi then described gas filling the area, sending people running toward the church for eyewashes, water and paper towels.
“At this point, Julia, one of our seminarians for next year (who is a trauma nurse) and I looked at each other in disbelief. I was coughing, her eyes were watering, and we were trying to help people as the police — in full riot gear — drove people toward us.”
Gerbasi, who once served as assistant rector at St. John’s in Lafayette Square, was stunned by the police aggression and how quickly it escalated. She and others, including clergy members and volunteer medics from Black Lives Matter, were soon overrun.
“Around 6:30, there was more tear gas, more concussion grenades, and I think I saw someone hit by a rubber bullet — he was grasping his stomach and there was a mark on his shirt,” Gerbasi wrote in the post, which had been shared more than 125,000 times on Facebook by early Tuesday afternoon. “The police in their riot gear were literally walking onto the St. John’s, Lafayette Square patio with these metal shields, pushing people off the patio and driving them back. People were running at us as the police advanced toward us from the other side of the patio.”
According to a U.S. Park Police statement, protesters were issued three warnings over a loudspeaker to disperse.
“As many of the protestors became more combative, continued to throw projectiles, and attempted to grab officers’ weapons, officers then employed the use of smoke canisters and pepper balls,” the statement said. The Park Police said it did not use tear gas or other law enforcement to close the area around the park.
After being driven from the church by police, Gerbasi, 56, made her way to her car on K Street NW. There she began receiving texts from people saying the president was standing in front of the church holding a Bible and having his photo taken.
The White House later issued a short video of the president’s walk past a phalanx of officers in tactical gear and through the park to the church.
“I literally COULD NOT believe it,” Gerbasi wrote. “WE WERE DRIVEN OFF OF THE PATIO AT ST. JOHN’S — a place of peace and respite and medical care throughout the day — SO THAT MAN COULD HAVE A PHOTO OPPORTUNITY IN FRONT OF THE CHURCH!!! PEOPLE WERE HURT SO THAT HE COULD POSE IN FRONT OF THE CHURCH WITH A BIBLE! HE WOULD HAVE HAD TO STEP OVER THE MEDICAL SUPPLIES WE LEFT BEHIND BECAUSE WE WERE BEING TEAR GASSED!!!!”
The outrage of her first-person account of the attack on the clergy and peaceful protesters struck a chord with tens of thousands of readers, Gerbasi said in an interview Tuesday afternoon, because it “tapped into something that was so universally offensive. That church people got driven off of church grounds by riot police for a photo op for the president in front of a church holding a Bible is offensive to the core.”
In her account, Gerbasi, who is married and has two grown sons, wrote that the crowd had been peaceful all day and had not thrown anything at the police until after they began deploying flash-bangs and chemical irritants. The incident, she wrote, was deeply troubling.
“I am DEEPLY OFFENDED on behalf of every protestor, every Christian, the people of St. John’s, Lafayette square, every decent person there, and the BLM medics who stayed with just a single box of supplies and a backpack, even when I got too scared and had to leave. I am ok. But I am now a force to be reckoned with.”
Federal officials offered conflicting reasons for the forcible removal of the protesters, seeking to separate the move from Trump’s visit to the church. The White House asserted Tuesday that the crowd was dispersed to help enforce the city’s 7 p.m. curfew. Meanwhile, two federal law enforcement officials said the decision had been made late Sunday night or early Monday morning to extend the perimeter around Lafayette Square by one block.
On Tuesday, Gerbasi said most of the responses to her post have been positive. Young adult parishioners at her church have asked how they can join the protests or support its goals.
“It almost makes me cry thinking about that,” she said.
But there have been threats and hateful messages as well. She said she has learned to expect those. They will not deter her. Gerbasi said she plans to continue showing up at the church near Lafayette Square and supporting the protesters.
“I know that I’m standing on firm ground. I’ll be out there every day,” she said. “That’s my life now. How can it not be my life now? People were unbelievably harmed for this. People were terrified. People dropped to the ground thinking they were being shot at for this. Maybe God has called me to this whole wacky world of being a priest for just such a time as this.”
She has also thought about what message she would like Trump to receive.
“I would say I ache for him to live his life according to that book that he held up in front of the church. I ache for him to live his life that way than rather literally use it as a photo op or a prop,” she said.
“The stories in that book are about finding ways to love your neighbor. And your neighbor is everyone, and we are all made in the image of God. And you don’t charge at innocent people and fire tear gas at them and rubber bullets when you’re living a life based on being grounded in wholeness and reconciliation and love and kindness and care for the least. I ache for him to live that life.”
Some earlier versions of this article gave an incorrect title for Gerbasi.