Caught in a Spiritual Crossfire Former St. Dunstan's rector now at church used as Trump prop

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By Kathryn McKenzie 

An Episcopal minister who previously headed a Carmel Valley church has found himself in the middle of Monday’s biggest news story in Washington, D.C.

The Rev. Rob Fisher is now the rector at St. John’s Episcopal Church, the site of President Donald Trump’s photo op.

Earlier in the day, Fisher and other clergy were outside the church handing out water bottles and granola bars to protesters, but Fisher left to be interviewed about damage from fire set in the church basement during demonstrations the night before. After he left, the people who remained were forced to flee from tear gas used to clear a path for the president to walk to the church from the White House.

The President has been fiercely mocked and ridiculed for the move in the hours since.

The New York Times has reported that the widely-criticized move was ordered by Attorney General William Barr, who is managing the ongoing Federal Law Enforcement response to protests decrying racism and police brutality nationwide.

Citing an unnamed Justice Department official, the Times reports: “Mr. Barr was aware that those crowd control measures might be used, but it was supposed to have happened long before Mr. Trump decided that he, Mr. Barr and other officials would walk to the church.”

Barr has since issued a statement assuring that there will be “even greater law enforcement resources and support in the region tonight.”

Fisher’s fellow Rector Gini Gerbasi, who was passing out water and snacks with Black Lives Matter Medics in front of the church at the time, described the harrowing incident in detail just hours after it occurred in a since-widely-shared post:  “We were literally DRIVEN OFF of the St. John’s, Lafayette Square patio with tear gas and concussion grenades and police in full riot gear. We were pushed back 20 feet, and then eventually – with SO MANY concussion grenades – back to K street. By the time I got back to my car, around 7, I was getting texts from people saying that Trump was outside of St. John’s, Lafayette Square.

Fisher told the Washington Post he felt blindsided by the visit.

“It troubles me deeply that people were removed from a peaceful protest, right on our square, by tear gas” Rev. Rob Fisher on CNN

“We want St. John’s to be a space for grace, as a place where you can breathe,” he said. “Being used as a prop, it really takes away from what we’re trying to do.”

Trump’s posing for a photo with Bible in hand, Monday evening in front of the historic church, has been slammed by Episcopal church leaders who were not informed that this was taking place. Adding injury to insult was the use of tear gas on peaceful protestors and bystanders.

As it so happened, Fisher’s name is on the church sign that can be seen behind Trump, and so has appeared in just about every published photo of the incident.

Fisher appeared on CNN last night to speak about his experience and is now inundated with requests for interviews, according to his wife, Sarah Wood.

“It troubles me deeply that people were removed from a peaceful protest, right on our square, by tear gas,” Fisher told CNN. He told CNN anchor Don Lemon that he has not seen Trump in the church since he’s been rector.

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Rev. Fisher with Don Lemon on CNN

Fisher and Wood moved to Washington D.C. a year ago with their teenage daughter after Fisher was offered the prestigious job at St. John’s. Previously, Fisher had been at St. Dunstan’s in Carmel Valley, where, according to his bio on the St. John’s website, “both attendance and financial support for the parish increased dramatically; he oversaw the expansion of their school and its facilities; and he led the church through the design and construction process for a new pipe organ and sanctuary renovation.”

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Rob Fisher and Sarah Wood at the National Cathedral | Provided Photo

Fisher and Wood, a journalist, co-founded and published the regional food magazine Edible Monterey Bay for seven years.

It all began Sunday night, when protestors who were demonstrating over the death of George Floyd burned a section of the St. John’s basement, although as Fisher told Fox News, the burned portion was in a small part of a recently renovated section and did not affect the historic parts of the church, originally built in 1815.

“The smell and scene so reminded me of 911.” Sarah Wood

“I think it is really important to say that person does not represent the majority of the people that are out there peacefully protesting with an important message,” Fisher told Fox.

Wood said through Messenger that she and her husband visited the church just after the fire, when it was completely out. “We waited until it was safe before going,” she wrote, noting that “the smell and scene so reminded me of 911.”

“Most of the protesters are peaceful and we totally support them.”

Trump’s photo op caused another kind of firestorm. “It’s like I’m in some alternative universe,” Fisher remarked to Fox on the president’s visit.

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Rev. Fisher on Fox News

Episcopal Church Presiding Bishop Michael Curry sharply criticized Trump’s visit to the church, saying the President “used a church building and the Holy Bible for partisan political purposes.” The Right Rev. Mariann Budde, bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington, whose diocese includes St. John’s, said she was “outraged” and that the church was caught off guard by the visit, according to the Washington Post. She also decried the use of force to clear the way for the president’s photo op.

“Everything he has said and done is to inflame violence,” Budde said of Trump. “We need moral leadership, and he’s done everything to divide us.”

"...Strive for justice and peace among all people and respect the dignity of every human being." The Baptismal Covenant of St. John's Episcopal Church

The church has also issued a statement on the event on their Facebook page, where they’ve since invited community members to join them at the church daily to “stand in prayerful solidarity and witness for racial justice and healing.”

“We at St. John’s Church were shocked at the surprise visit from the President this evening and even more appalled at the violent cleaning of Lafayette Square to make the visit possible. St. John’s is a community that welcomes all — from powerful presidents to the homeless — to worship God. We fully espouse the words of our Baptismal Covenant, which says, in part that we ‘will strive for justice and peace among all people and respect the dignity of every human being.’

“Living that covenant, we stand with those peacefully protesting the tragic and unnecessary death of George Floyd, and the far too many who came before him.

“We pray that our nation finally confronts its history of racism and, as a result, can fully embrace the peace of God that passes all understanding.”

Less than 24 hours following the incident at St. John’s Church, Trump is facing criticism again for visiting a shrine to St. John Paul II in Washington, D.C.

Washington Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory added his voice to the growing outcry: “I find it baffling and reprehensible that any Catholic facility would allow itself to be so egregiously misused and manipulated in a fashion that violates our religious principles, which call us to defend the rights of all people even those with whom we might disagree.”

This story has been updated with relevant links and information since the time of its original publication.

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Kathryn McKenzie

About Kathryn McKenzie

Kathryn McKenzie grew up in Santa Cruz, worked for the Monterey Herald for 10 years, and now freelances for a variety of publications and websites.