(RNS) — On Monday morning, the Rev. Erik David Carlson was relieved to see the historic Kenosha church he pastors was largely undamaged after fire engulfed the car dealership next door amid unrest following the police shooting of a Black man in the Wisconsin city.
But, Carlson said in a statement posted online on behalf of Bradford Community Church Unitarian Universalist, “we affirm that we would rather lose 100 buildings than one more life to police violence.”
That’s a commitment the pastor said comes from the congregation’s Unitarian Universalist beliefs.
The Unitarian Universalist Association welcomes diverse beliefs drawn from sources like science, poetry, scripture and personal experience. But the first of the seven principles that unite its congregations is a belief in “the inherent worth and dignity of every person.”
“We obviously care about the building, but we care about people way more,” Carlson told Religion News Service.
Protests calling for an end to anti-Black violence by police have continued in Kenosha since Sunday, when a police officer shot 29-year-old Jacob Blake seven times in the back. Blake remains hospitalized, and his family has said his injuries likely will leave him paralyzed from the waist down.
Bradford Community Church clergy and members are “outraged at the violence perpetuated in the name of law enforcement on our people of color throughout our nation’s history” and specifically in the case of Blake, according to the church statement.
They cannot condone violence, even in response to injustice, the statement read. But it also expressed understanding at the anger and frustration that have led to unrest in Kenosha.
“Any time there is great unrest and violence, it's an indication of deeper, systemic problems, and we are always trying to look at the ways we can effect positive systemic change that will help our community be better for everyone,” Carlson said.
The pastor said Bradford Community Church’s predominantly white congregation voted to display “Black Lives Matter” on the church’s sign on Sheridan Road — one of the main roads through downtown Kenosha — after the death of George Floyd, another Black man killed in police custody earlier this summer in Minneapolis.
The sign hadn’t gotten much attention from the community — until it was destroyed in the fire, according to the pastor.
Carlson said the fire started at the neighboring car dealership in the wee hours of Monday morning and spread quickly from car to car.
It destroyed the church’s sign and its affirming message, he said.
But the building itself was spared — thanks in no small part to two videographers who were documenting the protests as they moved down Sheridan Road and saw how close the fire was coming to the structure, according to the pastor.
The two alerted the fire department, then used the church’s rain barrels to dampen the ground between the cars and the building next door, preventing the fire from easily spreading. Another 10 minutes, and the church likely would have gone up in flames, Carlson said.
The church website praises the “heroic journalists” who saved the church, which the pastor said is on the National Registry of Historic Places and is a Kenosha Historical Society protected site that has significance for more than just its members.
Universalists first built a church on the property in 1868, he said, and the current building dates from 1907. Many Kenosha residents remember it as a children’s library before it became a church again in 1993, according to Carlson.
In the last few days, Bradford Community Church clergy and members have joined peaceful protests in downtown Kenosha, many happening not far from the church, said Carlson.
They have started hosting nightly vigils “in honor of victims and their families who have asked for peaceful protests” outside the building that end before the city’s curfew. They are also sharing information on the church Facebook page about legal resources for protesters, as well as fundraisers for Jacob Blake and to help damaged businesses.
“Indeed, all lives do matter to us (that’s what “Universalist” means), but given the overwhelming and disproportionate injustice suffered by Americans of color we are compelled by our faith to speak up and affirm that Black Lives Matter too,” according to the church statement.
“If this is not your faith, so be it, but it is most certainly ours and we ask that all folks be respectful in honoring our sacred calling to speak truth to power, protect the innocent, empower the disenfranchised and promote equity and compassion in human relations.”