Inside the church at the heart of the Louisville protests

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) — The story of how the First Unitarian Church of Louisville flung open its doors to protesters who marched for justice for Breonna Taylor began years before the helicopters swirled overhead, before police in riot gear began marching up the alley.

It began with much quieter moments, in the hearts of congregants like Pam Middleton.

She came to First Unitarian in 2012, at her darkest hour. Her husband had died, and she’d fallen into despair, and the First Unitarian community helped her begin again. She found joy; she joined a dance group.

But when one dancer, a Black woman, posted online that she was terrified of being brutalized by police when she walked outside, Middleton was stunned, and also ashamed. In the 1960s, she’d fought for women’s rights. She protested the war in Vietnam. But she did not march for racial justice. She had tried to atone ever since.

First Unitarian, like Middleton, had humbled itself with the hard self-reflection she believes all white Americans must undertake: Congregants considered their church’s progressive actions throughout history, the times they rose to the moment, but also the times they had failed.

The church has for months played a background role in the protest movement in a downtown square a mile away that demonstrators have occupied in honor of Taylor, the 26-year-old emergency medical technician killed in her home when police burst through her door in the middle of the night in a botched drug raid. This was an opportunity to quietly drop off ice, to bandage wounds, to listen to Black voices.

In the background is where they wanted to remain. But then, a string of serendipitous events thrust them into the spotlight and into history.

When the church told protest leaders that people could seek refuge there as needed, they assumed small groups might need shelter from time to time. But demonstrators were marching nearby as curfew fell. There was a small fire at the public library across the street, and police in riot gear with guns and batons closed in. A flurry of phone calls were made and the church declared itself a sanctuary and welcomed all to come inside.

Protesters crammed into the courtyard and front lawn as police marched down the alley and set up a perimeter. Journalists from all over the world captured this conflict, the church rising up in the background of the photographs, its Black Lives Matter sign tied high above the stained-glass windows.

Inside, Middleton and other congregants were scrambling, many of them white women, many in their 70s, like her. They set up a triage unit in what moments earlier had been the lobby of the sanctuary, to tend to the sick or wounded. They scrounged through the kitchen cabinets to try to find food for all these people.

“Just breathe,” they told each other as their church became the epicenter of one of the tensest moments in their city’s history. The downtown streets all around them were blocked with barricades and military vehicles, as marchers filled the streets to protest the attorney general’s announcement that no charges would be filed against the police officers who shot and killed Taylor.

They had just happened to be in exactly the right place, at the exactly the right time, when the movement needed them most.

Protesters returned every night as long as they citywide curfew stayed in place. It became, for several days, the heart of this movement. Donations poured in: people dropped off water, snacks and toilet paper. So, too, did invective. One called them the “devil’s church.” Someone emailed Rev. Lori Kyle and said they’d looked at the website and found no evidence of God.

Middleton has for months spent several days each week at the protest site downtown. As a retired doctor, she has offered her skills to protesters injured by police. One young woman had a bruise the size of cantaloupe from being pelted with a tear gas cannister. She was tear gassed herself.

Her fellow congregants did what they could to help. The church welcomes all people of all faiths, including atheists and agnostics because they believe church should be about love and service and community, and less about a specific creed.

It has long been at the forefront of civil rights movements. But congregants had also heard that decades ago ushers used to quietly suggest Black families who came in ought to find a different church. And before that, some of their members were slaveowners.

“We’re no different. I like to say that if we’ve been here since 1832, we are going to have reflected what’s going on in the county,” said Kathy Kremer, 70, who serves as the church’s archivist. “It was always difficult and it was never perfect. But the thing is we grappled, we struggled with it.”

Parishioners here said they found incredible beauty in what happened during the church’s time as a sanctuary. That first, chaotic night, they tracked down enough boxes of macaroni and cheese to make 16 pounds of it. Over time, meals got better. A chef in the crowd made enough chili and chicken to feed the whole group. People opened their wallets and handed over every bill to keep the meals coming.

A toilet broke; a protester announced he was a plumber, and got it working again. People started sweeping and mopping. One woman swept the alley. Middleton said the parking lot was cleaner than it’s ever been.

Middleton doesn’t like the word “proud,” because if you become proud, she said, you might stop searching. But she feels something close to that about what her church has done.

“It’s not enough, let me make it clear, anything that I can do is not enough,” she said. “But it is necessary. It is what needs to be done.”

___

Follow Galofaro on Twitter at @clairegalofaro

Copyright © 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, written or redistributed.

Related Categories:

National News

More from WTOP

Log in to your WTOP account for notifications and alerts customized for you.

Sign up