WASHINGTON (CN) — Church bells tolled on the street leading straight to the White House on Friday, just moments before a heavy downpour of rain seemed to wash clean the site outside St. John’s Episcopal Church where police just days before fired tear gas on peaceful protesters.
The voice of Martin Luther King Jr. giving his final speech, “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop,” rang out across the newly christened Black Lives Matter Plaza, as protesters listened in heavy silence. For eight days, thousands have protested peacefully in the nation’s capital over the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
Barbara and David Kennedy, congregants of the Capitol Hill United Methodist Church, stood in the rain outside the historic church where on Monday President Donald Trump posed for a photo holding a Bible just minutes after law enforcement officers cleared the area with violent force.
The couple said they were disgusted by what many faith leaders have called a publicity stunt by the president.
“It was a prop,” Barbara said, her husband adding: “His evangelical base saw right through that. People of real faith saw right through that,” David said.
Holding a sign that read “Jesus is a person of color,” the Kennedys said you don’t have to attend a church to have the heart of Jesus.
“This is the greatest commandment: Love God with all your heart and soul and mind, and love your neighbor as yourself,” David said, quoting Matt. 22:37-39.
Explaining that his view on the peaceful protests that have turned the nation’s attention to the need for police reforms and racial justice, David said: “I think maybe this is a moment where we can rally around that [verse], where we love one another.” Nodding her head, Barbara said: “We need the leadership,” adding that demand is not met by the sitting president.
Houses of worship joined together for Friday’s “Black Lives Matter to God and to Us” vigil all along the road that runs from the White House to the Maryland suburbs.
The speech by King, “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop,” is heavy with Christian themes and linked the ongoing peaceful protest outside the White House to the vigil up the street.
As church members observed silence for eight minutes and 46 seconds, the length of time that a Minneapolis police officer knelt on Floyd’s neck, protesters near St. John’s shouted “Say his name! George Floyd!”
Ginger Gaines-Cirelli, senior pastor at Foundry United Methodist Church, said she views standing with people calling for social change — what she called “sacred resistance” — a core part of her role as a Christian.
“I think that at the core of at least the Christian faith is a call to love our neighbors,” Gaines-Cirelli said. “And part of what that looks like is standing in solidarity with the people who are under attack.”
The pastor said the week has been one of prayer and fasting, as she listens to people who are calling for change.
“I’m praying for a real change this time and not for just another big outcry and no one being willing…to persevere and push through and to make real substantive policy change that will provide safety and protection and real freedom for people who’ve never had it in this country,” Gaines-Cirelli said.
On the curb outside the church, members held signs and handed out snacks and masks to protesters making their way to the White House less than two miles down the road. Drivers in cars going by honked and shouted “Black Lives Matter” with the churchgoers.
Less than a mile down the street, Alyssa Aldape, the associate pastor for young adult and youth ministry at the First Baptist Church of the City of Washington, D.C., stood on the church steps with members holding signs calling for racial equality.
Aldape said they stood in solidarity with their historically black sister church and oldest black Baptist congregation in the nation’s capital — the 19th Street Baptist Church — three miles up the road.
“As a person of color who is a pastor, it is my role to bring our people alongside and say God and Jesus is asking us to join him in the streets with our siblings,” Aldape said.
Christina Suggs, a member of Aldape’s congregation, turned out for the vigil with her two children, Kara, 15, and Dylan, 8.
The church, Suggs said, is called to speak out against injustice and violence against people of color. She and her husband moved their family to Washington, D.C., five years ago from Columbia, South Carolina, in large part because they wanted their children to have a racially diverse upbringing.
“Eight minutes and 46 seconds, somebody on your neck,” she said, referring to the time that a Minneapolis police officer knelt on Floyd’s neck before he died of asphyxiation. “The church has the responsibility to protest and to speak out against lives lost and brutality.”
Washington Mayor Muriel Bowser ordered the street running outside St. John’s Church where protesters have gathered all week, day and night, renamed Black Lives Matter Plaza on Friday.
King’s words rang out Friday evening over the symbolic street as the crowd chanted “I can’t breathe” and “No justice, no peace.”
“Black humanity matters,” the mayor said in a statement on Friday. “And we, as Washingtonians, raise that up as part of the values of our city.”
An air of resolve hung in the square Friday afternoon, with protesters demonstrating respect and alliance to the movement both honoring Floyd’s memory and calling for nationwide police reform.
Protester Cassandra Wooten said the new street name was a good gesture, but in Washington, there is more work to be done.
“We have to keep going every day, don’t stop, because once we stop, look at what happened,” Wooten said. “I don’t want my grandbabies out here protesting, marching. I want education. I want housing. I don’t want this.”
As dark clouds billowed over the crowd Friday night and thunder sounded in the distance, protesters broke into applause at the final words of hope echoing out in King’s resonating voice. The crowd’s chants rang out loud as protesters held their ground along the White House barrier through heavy rain that fell after sunset.
“I just want to do God’s will,” King said the night before his assassination in 1968. “And he’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I‘ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not go there with you, but I want you to know tonight, that we, as people, will get to the promised land.”