The Rev. Michele Morgan was at home recovering from a coronavirus vaccine shot Friday when she got a disturbing call from an employee at her church, St. Mark’s Episcopal on Capitol Hill. He told her there was a green-roped noose, dangling from a branch of a large tree in the courtyard.
“It looked from the photo [he had sent] like a slipknot. But when I got here, I could see the coils. It’s such a symbol of racialized hatred — it’s shocking to see it where I gather people to talk about more love and more God and more light in the world,” Morgan said Friday afternoon, as D.C. police gathered evidence and television reporters interviewed other staff. On the unseasonably warm, sunny early spring day, birds chirped and cherry trees blossomed.
St. Mark’s, a stately, historical church a block from the U.S. Capitol, has had two Black Lives Matter banners stolen off the red brick building in the past year, Morgan said. The first, put up after the death of George Floyd in police custody, said: “All Lives Matter Only If Black Lives Matter: Let’s take seriously the injustices and wrongs that are right in front of us.” The second read: “Our Witness Remains The Same: Black Lives Matter.” The third, which is still up, is the same as the first.
A D.C. police report says the incident is being investigated as a suspected hate crime. In a statement, police said “these types of offenses are taken seriously and are entirely unacceptable.”
Multiple anti-racism banners have been stolen from city buildings in the past year, including from several Black churches. The leader of the Proud Boys, a far-right group with a history of violence, is facing charges of burning one of the banners. St. Mark’s is majority White and relatively high-profile, with an idyllic public courtyard with benches and pathways and a dramatic wood-and-brick nave inside where arts groups hold events.
A vocal ensemble has for the last two weeks rented out St. Mark’s to rehearse a performance about the crucifixion that features a Black Jesus. “Passion Transfigured,” is a two-hour show that remakes Bach’s “St. John Passion,” which narrates the Gospel of John and was written to be played in church. The remake aims to tell the story of Christ’s suffering through the lens of systemic racism, said Matthew Robertson, the artistic director of The Thirteen, the group performing it.
Robertson was among those outside the church on Friday. He said his colleagues are wondering if they were the target of the noose. Friday afternoon was their final rehearsal.
“The person playing the role of Jesus is feeling not great,” he said. The group’s rehearsal was pushed back by two hours so the police could gather evidence and remove the noose before performers came.
“We’re going to go forward in spite — or maybe because of this. If anything, this makes it more urgent,” he said of the show.
Before the parade of police, religious and political officials came to the courtyard Friday, Morgan was there alone, waiting and looking at the noose, which was made of a green-yellow kind of climber’s rope. A group of preschoolers who are taught inside the church started to come out to play in the courtyard, like they do every day, she said. She headed them off.
“I said to a teacher: 'There’s something in the tree. It’s not something they should see.’ ”
The teacher, an older African-American woman, said: “I suspect it’s not a birdhouse,” Morgan recalled.
“I said: ‘No ma’am, no, it’s not.’ ”
“It’s so frustrating because it’s so extraordinarily intentional. Or maybe it’s someone who doesn’t understand the full symbolic nature. But I’m in the business where symbols matter,” she said. Every time one of the incidents has happened in the past, she has bought a new banner and made donations to Black Lives Matter and a Jewish group in Minneapolis, where Floyd was killed.
Peter Hermann contributed to this report.