(RNS) — As curfew took effect at 9 p.m. Thursday night (Sept. 24) in Louisville, about 100 protesters sought refuge from police in a church.
The protesters were demanding justice after Wednesday’s announcement that no police officers would be charged in the death of Breonna Taylor, a Black medical worker who was shot in her bed by Louisville police in March during a botched raid of her apartment.
And First Unitarian Church — exempted from the city’s curfew, along with all houses of worship — had a “Black Lives Matter” banner outside.
“This is what churches are supposed to be,” the Rev. Dawn Cooley of Thomas Jefferson Unitarian Church Justice Center told Louisville NBC station WAVE 3 News.
“They’re supposed to be sanctuaries and havens for people who are in need. So this is absolutely what all the churches should be doing,” she said.
A post at 10:30 p.m. on First Unitarian’s Facebook page confirmed the church had welcomed and “given sanctuary” to protesters in its courtyard.
Cooley told a local news outlet the church had planned to offer food, water, medical treatment and a safe place to protesters.
As police surrounded the church Thursday evening, journalists on the scene reported that many protesters were afraid to leave, worrying they’d be arrested as soon as they left church property. Rumors spread on social media that police were considering clearing the property.
“Imagine that police officers are surrounding a church, waiting for anyone to step off of the property so they can arrest them for breaking curfew,” tweeted Kentucky State Rep. Charles Booker Thursday night. “Now imagine the ministers working to get everyone inside the sanctuary to keep them safe. This is a reality in my city right now.”
First Unitarian previously had hosted a small rally in June demanding justice for Taylor and for George Floyd, a Black man killed this summer in an encounter with police, and its website confirms its commitment to anti-racism.
“With the unjustified killing of Breonna Taylor by police breaking into her apartment in the middle of the night, our racial justice efforts have moved into the forefront … as the entire nation was rising up against police brutality and racism,” it said.
The Unitarian Universalist Association welcomes diverse beliefs drawn from sources like science, poetry, scripture and personal experience. The seven principles that unite its congregations include beliefs in justice and in “the inherent worth and dignity of every person.”
First Unitarian could not immediately be reached for comment by Religion News Service.
But Pastor Tim Findley Jr. of The Kingdom Fellowship Life Center, who watched the standoff unfold on social media, told Religion News Service it was an “unfortunate scene.”
“It just shows the lack of wisdom and compassion our police department has that surrounded that church,” Findley said.
People in Louisville are feeling frustrated, he said, and “what has really compounded the issue is that we’re constantly seeing aggressive provocative sort of moves from our police department, who has been extremely antagonistic to what has been mostly peaceful protest.”
Findley said he experienced that himself when he was arrested this summer at a protest in suburban St. Matthews, Kentucky.
That’s why, he said, it’s important for people of faith to act, as First Unitarian did.
His own church has hosted direct action trainings with Until Freedom and a “kids protest,” an opportunity for its youngest members who wanted to participate to make signs and stand outside the church, he said. The Kingdom Fellowship Life Center isn’t affiliated with Black Lives Matter, but it has let the group use its building for trainings.
“I think those are the kind of things that churches can do, and I think it helps in providing and bolstering support more for these correct things — these things that need to happen,” Findley said.
The protesters at First Unitarian reportedly dispersed around 11 p.m. Thursday after police left the area.
In a statement to WAVE 3 News, the Louisville Police Department said officers were in the area to investigate an arson and address broken windows at the library across the street. Police never planned to “storm” church property and did not arrest anybody for being there, according to the statement.
Reuters reported at least 24 people were arrested Thursday night in connection with the protests in Louisville, including State Rep. Attica Scott, the sponsor of “Breonna’s Law.” It was a largely peaceful night after two Louisville police officers reportedly were shot and wounded the night before.
The Rev. Lee F. Shafer, rector of Calvary Episcopal Church, told RNS in an email that protestors likely will return Friday.
Calvary, which shares its parking lot with First Unitarian, is allowing protestors to take refuge on its property, although its sanctuary remains closed because of concerns about spreading the novel coronavirus, according to its rector.
“I anticipate folks being back in the parking lot and on the grounds for safe sanctuary tonight and hope and pray that they are treated better than last night,” Shafer wrote.
A number of Christian denominations and leaders across the country have condemned the Kentucky grand jury’s decision in Taylor’s death.
They include the Rev. William Barber and the Rev. Liz Theoharis of the Poor People’s Campaign; the Rev. Alvin Herring, a Louisville native and executive director of Faith in Action; and the Rev. Kelly Brown Douglas, dean of the Episcopal Divinity School at Union Theological Seminary.
“This is more than a political or police issue, it is a moral issue,” Douglas said in a statement sent to Religion News Service.
“This strikes at the heart of who we are as a nation. The senseless murder of our Black children by police needs to end so that we can move towards a more just and moral society that values all of God’s children, including Black children.”
On Friday, the National Council of Churches released a statement calling the decision “unconscionable and unjust.”
The grand jury charged one of the officers involved with wanton endangerment — not for Taylor’s death, but for the bullets fired into her neighbor’s apartment.
“We grieve for her family and loved ones who have borne the burden of fighting for justice for her. We call on all people of faith and conscience to continue the fight for justice and to end systemic racism so that this kind of tragedy never happens again,” the National Council of Churches’ statement read.
The council is the country’s largest ecumenical group of Christian churches, conventions, meetings and denominations, including the United Methodist Church, American Baptist Churches in the USA, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Episcopal Church and African Methodist Episcopal Church.