Across a small park from the White House, St. John’s had been known for decades as the “president’s church” for its elite congregation, but in June made news worldwide. As protests against police brutality and racism boiled across the country, someone threw a flammable substance through a basement window at the church, igniting a small fire. Then, after federal law enforcement officers used gas and horses to clear protesters, President Donald Trump walked to the front of the church to pose for cameras, holding a Bible aloft. Soon local Episcopal leaders slammed Trump for the use of force and the Bible as, in their view, a prop.
The Rev. Rob Fisher, the church’s rector, and the region’s bishop, Bishop Mariann Budde, became national figures as they watched the elegant building graffitied, squatted at and set fire to during protests while holding firm that their sympathies rested with the protesters and those opposing racism and police brutality. Within a few weeks of Trump’s appearance, fencing went up around the entirety of the steepled, yellow church, along with concrete barriers and rows of police.
In the weeks that followed, crowds often swelled at the corner outside St. John’s, where the roads were closed and filled with protests, a tented city and, sometimes, violence. The corner also became a high-profile speaking spot for Black Lives Matter activists and clergy. A pop-up restaurant even opened there.
The tiny slice of St. John’s congregation of 400 that could come in for services each Sunday during the pandemic had to weave through armed police and an opening in the fencing, making them feel isolated.
The National Park Service and Mayor Muriel E. Bowser’s office didn’t immediately respond Monday to requests for comment about why the fencing came down now, but much has changed at St. John’s — and in the city and in the country — since the fencing appeared.
Fisher told The Post last summer that St. John’s leadership had given the city permission to put up the fencing with the understanding that the entire block was being cordoned off; they didn’t want to be the only structure outside the barrier. They also wanted to help lower tensions between city officials and protesters, he said.
Later in the summer, Bowser demanded that H Street be reopened and protests waned, but St. John’s remained surrounded for months by high fencing.
But the church community found a different way to cope with its new borders, partnering with an arts collective aimed at youth in underserved communities and brought in artists to remake the huge boarded-up windows around the church. More than 20 artists from P.A.I.N.T.S. (Providing Artists with Inspiration in Non-Traditional Settings) Institute created striking, bright murals.
The artists, Fisher said Monday, “covered the plywood with beauty and with messages of God’s grace and calls for justice.”
As St. John’s gained nationwide attention, an online congregation grew where previously there was none.
“This is one of the bright spots of this whole era, because we have become a church without walls,” Fisher said. The congregation has grown to include people who pay tithes and consider themselves members of St. John’s but have never been there. Some are close by and some are hundreds of miles away. About 700 people might now watch a typical service.
The racial, policing and political issues at the heart of the initial conflict outside the church led to discussion among congregants of St. John’s, said Budde, which took up a 10-session study of race and religion.
“They embraced this moment in the country and in the city and also tried to discern what it meant for them right there on Black Lives Matter Plaza,” she said. Although they were physically at the center of 2020 protests, St. John’s members typically “come with significant privilege.” They choose to be there. “They’re not the ones normally bearing the brunt of racism. But they’ve shown up big time. They’ve committed to the incredible witness to the gospel given where they are.”
Soon another milestone will pass: The murals will come down, Fisher said, and will be donated to the National Museum of African American History and Culture. St. John’s hopes to expand its in-person worship to 100 people by the last week of Lent.