Sanctuary Church – Part One

This series of four posts is my best, brief recollection of the first 24 hours of St. John’s as a sanctuary church after the Michael Brown grand jury decision. It is a bit jumbled and definitely incomplete, but you will understand why once you read them.

About a month before Nov. 24, The Rev. Teresa Danieley was approached by a couple of organizations about St. John’s being a “sanctuary church” in the event of demonstrations after the Michael Brown grand jury announcements. The Tower Grove neighborhood had been the scene of demonstrations after the VonDerritt Myers Jr. shooting, with angry mobs being confronted by local police. Word had circulated afterwards how Teresa+ had opened the doors of St. John’s as a sanctuary for anyone who needed to get off the streets for a while.

“I was watching all these demonstrators and police brawling in the street,” she said later on, “and I suddenly saw all of them as my parishioners. All of them – both demonstrators and police. They were in need of safety and security, and I just opened the doors around midnight. People came.”

Now St. John’s was approached by clergy coalitions and social justice organizations to be an official sanctuary church – one designated as a safe space, free from conflict, and staffed with trained personnel to provide emergency medical assistance, food, water, toilets, phone recharge stations, chaplaincy, rest, etc. It is a practice in keeping with the great tradition of Christian hospitality. After a brief discussion with the vestry, Teresa+ got their permission and St. John’s became one of four sanctuaries in the metro area.

Medical aid kits, food stuffs, and camping equipment started arriving by the basketfuls over the next several days, and as word spread about our role as a sanctuary, reporters began to show up at the front door, looking for interviews and photo ops. Fox, NBC, BBC, and dozens of ‘net news sources appeared at the door or in the hall, and after a while we had to politely turn them down – we were not getting a thing else done.

They all seemed to be curious that St. John’s was willing to be a sanctuary church, but Teresa+ patiently explained, “But that’s what a church is about – sanctuary. We’ve always been a place a sanctuary. What else could a church possibly be?”

On decision day, Nov. 24, Teresa+ had scheduled a prayer vigil for that evening. We spread the word via social media that it would be held at 8:00 PM, after the announcement, and several of us prepped the church sanctuary for a candle-lit service. While we prepped the main worship sanctuary, other people prepped the dining hall as “sanctuary central” – med stations, food, communications.

The main sanctuary was a quiet, holy place to be, after the past few days. I felt like we had been on “war footing” for over a week, awaiting le deluge. Just three days before, I had been ordained with my five classmates at our annual diocesan convention, a joyous event that struck me as a cross between a graduation and a marriage ceremony, yet clouds of war seemed to hang heavy overhead throughout the convention.

By 8:00 PM, some 30-40 people had filled the pews, and Teresa+ appeared from the vestibule in black cassock and white surplice, with a red tippet to match, normally the robes worn at a funeral service. Other clergy and lay ministers arrived and took places in the pews, ready to serve that evening in capacity as chaplains and workers. There were 3 priests, 4 deacons, and 3 lay ministers among the worshipers.

+Teresa turned on a radio, we listened to the announcement exonerating the police officer of any criminal acts, and Teresa+ knelt at the prie-dieu and led the congregation in The Great Litany. It is a long litany of lament and petitions, which she later said “covers about everything you could ask of God”.

As we finished the litany and sat in the silence of the candle-lit sanctuary, we could hear through the open red doors the chant of the marching mob and the beat of drums. It had begun.

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