News & Features
Statement of the Rev. Virginia (Gini) Gerbasi Before the Subcommittee on Civil Rights and Civil Liberties, Committee on Oversight & Reform, U.S. House of Representatives
June 29, 2020
Chairman Raskin, Ranking Member Roy, and members of the Subcommittee, thank you for the opportunity to contribute to today’s briefing. My name is Gini Gerbasi, and I serve as the Rector at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Georgetown. Before assuming my current role, I previously served on the clergy staff of St. John’s Lafayette Square.
I would like to begin today by acknowledging the millions of Americans who have participated in peaceful protests in response to the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tamir Rice, and so many others. I believe this is a defining moment in our nation’s history, and I would be remiss if I did not give appropriate attention to these brave Americans who have experienced, witnessed, or recognized injustice and have decided they must take action and make their voices heard. It is their pursuit of justice—by the thousands and even millions across the country and across the globe—that has brought us here today. In fact, the only reason I am testifying before you is because I witnessed, firsthand, what happened when this movement—a profound force for good—was met with the arbitrary and brutal force of its government, quashing the ability of protesters to peaceably assemble and demonstrate on the defining issues of racism, racial justice, and the respect and dignity to which every human being is entitled.
My ministry brought me to Lafayette Square on June 1, 2020. The day before, during my sermon, I looked directly into the camera on my laptop—because that’s how we preach these days—and called the church to account for its lack of leadership in dismantling systemic racism. That Sunday was the feast of Pentecost, when Christians celebrate receiving the gift of the Holy Spirit, and I lamented that for centuries the church has squandered this mighty gift, and has not had the courage to stand up and cast out the evil of racism from our civic body in the name of love.
Throughout my career, I have been committed to standing up for those on the margins. These convictions drew me to Seminary, and they likewise drew me to Lafayette Square almost a month ago. Racial justice, rooted in Scripture, is a critical ministry of the Episcopal church in the Diocese of Washington.
As I previously served at St. John’s Lafayette Square, I am intimately familiar with that church, its surroundings, and the unique role it has played in American history as the Church of Presidents. While enjoying historic proximity to power, St. John’s Lafayette Square has also been a constant witness to those who would speak truth to power, on issues across the political spectrum and as diverse as our great country. That Monday, I was there on behalf of the Church to provide comfort and support to these peaceful protesters, and to stand in solidarity with them and the cause of racial justice. And then, before my eyes, the government brutalized peaceful protesters.
To be clear, the day was marked by peaceful protests. Our group of clergy was based on the “patio” of St. John’s Lafayette Square—an outdoor area regularly used by the church for gatherings and ministry. We were passing out water, snacks, hand sanitizer, masks, and trying to ensure that the patio area was a place of respite for the people gathered. It struck me that the patio had also become a deeply spiritual place that day—you wouldn’t think that Episcopalians do this, but we were praying with people, laying hands on people, and offering spiritual comfort. I would occasionally venture into the crowd to ask people if they wanted water. You could hear the people with megaphones shouting, “No Justice, No Peace, No Racist Police.”
Part of our purpose, as clergy, in going down to Lafayette Square that day was to be a presence of peace. And for nearly the entire day, peace is what we found there. By 6 p.m., it seemed clear that there was not a lot of tension, and many of my colleagues began to leave. We gave our extra water bottles to the Black Lives Matter medics who had also set up on the St. John’s patio. I resolved to stay as long as I could be useful. I could still pray with people and pass out the case or so of water I had left.
And then, sometime after 6:15, things changed in an instant. Suddenly, I saw protesters running from Lafayette Park, followed by clouds of acrid smoke billowing through the crowds. People began to run north on 16th Street and onto the St. John’s patio, some coming for eyewash, wet paper towels or water. The first flash grenade rang out, sounding like gunfire, and some people dropped to the ground, thinking the police were shooting. More people ran in our direction, crying from the smoke and from fear. I remember looking at my watch because I could not understand what was happening. It was 6:36 p.m.—well before curfew. I hadn’t heard any announcement or warning; there was nothing that I had seen or heard that could explain the police’s actions. People were running, crying, and dropping to the ground in terror. It was dehumanizing.
As the protestors ran from the park, I called out, “Water! Eyewash!” in an attempt to assist the fleeing protesters. A man knelt in front of me, coughing and terrified, his eyes swollen and red. He begged for something to help the stinging, and I began to rinse his eyes. Someone yelled “rubber bullets,” and I looked up to see a man holding his stomach, bent over. He moved his arms, and I saw marks on his shirt. I looked over his shoulder, and I couldn’t believe my eyes. A wall of police, in full riot gear, was physically pushing people off the St. John’s patio, maybe 15 feet away from me.
This scene was shocking, and the terrified faces of the protestors continue to haunt me. They were peacefully protesting the government’s use of violence against innocent people. And then the government used violence against them. That alone left me badly shaken. But when I later found out that the President had—just minutes later—stood in front of the church and held up a Bible, I was outraged. My colleagues and I were there in the name of those same Scriptures. We were praying with people, and giving them water and food and—after they were attacked by the police—first aid care. To hold up those same Scriptures after using tear gas and rubber bullets and flash grenades against innocent people was horrifying. I say this not to make a political point but to raise an objective truth—the scene I witnessed would have been equally devastating regardless of who occupied the White House.
I couldn’t sleep that night. I kept thinking about what had happened—and why. But then, with the dawn of a new day, I asked myself: How can I be a force for goodness today? I knew I had to return to Lafayette Square. The days that followed were trying in their own way. The following Wednesday, although there was no more tear gas or rubber bullets, police in full riot gear—not wearing any identifying information—blocked us from getting to a prayer vigil at the church. Let me reiterate this: we were not permitted to gather at our church to pray. This, like the earlier events of June 1, is antithetical to everything we hold dear in this country, and should be abhorrent to people of all faiths.
I will never forget what I witnessed in Lafayette Square, and I hope I never witness anything like it ever again. But as I look at the nation’s response—not only to the events of June 1, but more importantly, to this critical moment and the pursuit of justice—I cannot help but be filled with hope. I am here today to offer my account of these events, but more broadly, to add my voice to the chorus demanding racial justice, and to ensure that what happened in Lafayette Square that evening never happens again. I look forward to answering your questions.
June 18, 2020
On Sunday, June 14, the Episcopal Diocese of Washington and Bishop Mariann hosted an interfaith, ecumenical prayer vigil calling for concrete action toward racial justice at St. John’s Episcopal Church Lafayette Square, overlooking Black Lives Matter Plaza.
“We have an opportunity to change some things in our country and our world that have been crying out for change for a very long time,” said Bishop Mariann before the gathering. “Outrage is not enough. People of faith must unite in action to drive lasting change for justice and healing in our country.”
Calls for action on the fence surrounding the White House.
Bishop LaTrelle Easterling, head of the Baltimore-Washington Conference of the United Methodist Church, called for a rejection of the uses of "threats, unlawful detentions, extra judicial killings and other forms of coercion to try to silence political opponents and those objecting to unlawful and immoral policies and practices."
Among the interfaith leaders who spoke were Dr. Rajwant Singh (pictured above), co-founder of the National Sikh Campaing; Imam Talib Shareef, president and imam of Masjid Muhammad, the Nation's Mosque and chair of the IFC board; and Rev. Dr. James Victor, vice-president of the Baptist General Convention of Virginia. Dr. Singh said, "In the House of God, there is always justice. Justice may be delayed, but it will always come. And that is this moment, here."
Rabbi Rachel Gartner, Jewish chaplain at Georgetown University and board member of Truth, the Rabinic Call for Human Rights, chanted from the Tanakh, the Hebrew Bible, "Do not hate one another in your heart. Rather love your neighbor as yourself."
Mythili Bacchu, Hindu faith leader and Interfaith Council executive board member, chanted a prayer first in Sanskrit then translated the powerful words into English: "May all be prosperous and happy. May all be free from disease. May all see goodness in everyone and everything and may no one suffer from pain. Peace, peace, peace be with all of us."
An EDOW young adult, Christian Omoruyi, active in campus ministry at American University, spoke with passion, quoting from the Book of Amos, "Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream."
Bishop William Barber addressed those gathered (watch the entire prayer gathering here), saying to the national media, "stop saying we've never seen multi-cultural, multi-racial movements before. It was multi-cultural, multi-racial movements that caused abolition."
"As our final corporate gesture today, I'd invite you to raise a hand, if you can, as a blessing to those around you. You might just take a look to those around you. May God grant us strength. May God grant us courage. May God grant our hearts to be filled to the brim with love. May God make us restless for the cause of what is right and good and just in this time."
June 17, 2020
United Thank Offering (UTO) announced the grant recipients for the 2020 granting year, and we are excited to share that the Episcopal Diocese of Washington will receive a companion grant of $66,868 with the Diocese of Masasi, Tanzania. The grant will fund the completion of St. Catherine’s School for Girls in Namasakata, Tanzania. The focus of this year’s granting process was ‘Bless: Share faith, practice generosity and compassion and proclaim the Good News of God in Christ with hope and humility.’
St. John’s Episcopal Church in Olney, Maryland and the Diocese of Masasi have worked together for over forty years to improve the lives of people in the region by meeting basic needs for water, health care, agriculture, and education. Bishop James Almasi, of the Diocese of Masasi, believes the greatest need in the region is the education of girls in a safe Christian environment. This $66,868 grant will support the new boarding school owned and operated by the Diocese of Masasi. Providing a safe and healthy school climate for girls will enable them to improve their lives and enrich their families’ futures.
After visiting the planned site of St. Catherine’s in August 2019 and meeting with numerous villagers, a group from St. John’s Olney and African Palms, USA, a ministry of St. John’s, felt strongly called to become involved in this specific project. The school will be the region’s first boarding school for girls. This UTO grant will allow the Diocese of Masasi to complete construction and obtain operational status in 2021.
The UTO Board received almost $3.4 million dollars in requests in 2020. With gratitude for the generosity of those who contributed through Blue Box donations, UTO awarded over $1.5 million in grants. The UTO is a ministry of The Episcopal Church for the mission of the whole church. All UTO collection supports innovative mission and ministry throughout The Episcopal Church and Provinces of the Anglican Communion.
The Diocese of Washington with St. John’s Olney and African Palms, USA are honored to partner with UTO to improve the lives of families in Masasi, specifically girls who have a great deal of talent and potential. As The Right Reverend Mariann Edgar Budde wrote, “This grant will support the 2020 UTO focus by sharing our abundance and compassion for the lives of very vulnerable girls. The school will be a blessing for the lives of girls who have not been able to successfully pursue a secondary education due to unsafe living accommodations near their schools… The school’s curriculum will teach Christian principles, ethics and morals and share its faith, generosity and compassion. Thus providing the girls opportunities to know personally the Good News of God in Christ.” With so many critical global issues right now, the Episcopal Diocese of Washington team feels there has never been a better time to invest in the education of young women.
June 04, 2020
"Oh Dios nuestra ayuda en tiempos pasados;
Nuestra esperanza para los años venideros
Nuestra refugio de la tormenta feroz
Y nuestro eterno hogar !"
Escrito por Isaac Watts (1708)
Dios de Amor,
Venimos ante ti como un pueblo necesitando refugio. Un refugio que nos defiende de las tormentas del racismo y de la injusticia. Y un refugio que tranquiliza nuestras almas en medio de un mal desenfrenado.
Anímanos para poder unir a las comunidades con una armonía de dignidad y respeto. Muévenos para difundir tu mensaje de amor a través del mundo comenzando con nosotros.
Has estado presente a lo largo de nuestro pasado doloroso y nos mantenemos firmes en nuestra fe revolucionaria que continuarás otorgándonos la esperanza de soportar las tormentas de este tiempo para finalmente conducirnos con alegría a su eterno hogar!
April 09, 2020
Diocesan staff during a morning check-in and following Jesus' teaching to love one another.
Like you, those of us on diocesan staff have spent the past several weeks trying to figure out “the new normal” and, boy, it feels like that changes every day. Like you, we’ve pivoted from in-person meetings to All Things Zoom--with plenty of texting, phone calling and emailing to fill in the gaps. We’ve figured things out by trial and error; laughing, crying, worrying, and finding joy in precious moments of connection. We’ve done a lot of that together each weekday morning during our staff check-ins. During this Holy Week, like you, we’ve followed Jesus’ walk to Jerusalem in our daily Bible study. Each Scripture passage grounds us, reminding us why we’re here, why we serve the good people of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington, and why we love God.
Sharing Faith cards can be printed (double sided) from the document located here: Faith Cards Avery 8387. They are on Avery 8387 postcard stock and need to be cut in half once printed.