By Melissa Lauber
Last December, a widely distributed video showed members of the Proud Boys, a far-right group with a history of violence, protesting the results of the presidential election and celebrating as they set fire to a Black Lives Matter banner torn off the grounds of Asbury UMC in Washington, D.C.
On Aug. 23, Henry “Enrique” Tarrio, a Proud Boys leader, was sentenced to five months in jail. He will also serve 125 days for possession of two high-capacity magazines, and 30 days for the destruction of Asbury’s property.
While she acknowledged the importance of accountability, especially in our judicial system, Bishop LaTrelle Miller Easterling’s reaction to the sentencing moved beyond retributory justice to focus more on restorative justice.
“Seeing another person incarcerated brought me no joy at all,” she said, noting that the U.S. incarcerates more people, per capita than anywhere else in the free world. Instead, the bishop envisions a time when people on both sides of a case might sit down, have meaningful conversation about the harm inflicted, listen deeply to one another, and begin to bring about a sense of restoration that allows the parties to begin seeing one another as created in the imago dei.
“When we get proximate to one another, when we sit down and look one another in the face, it is hard to continue to spew hateful, derogatory rhetoric,” Easterling said. “When you sit down and see another flesh-and-blood human being before you, when you open your heart and your mind and you listen to what they really have to say, it might open the possibility for understanding and even create the initial steps of unity.”
The impact of hate
Asbury UMC, one of the oldest African-American churches in Washington, was able to submit a victim’s impact statement to the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia.
“To be silent in the face of injustice is to consent to it,” said Asbury’s pastor, the Rev. Ianther Mills. “For Asbury, this was about much more than the destruction of a material possession that is easily replaced. It was about intimidation, abuse and disregard for people of color.”
In the impact statement, Mills shared that Tarrio’s “careless acts of violence and hatred” were “targeted against a congregation of individuals with a lived history of social and racial injustice. … Asbury was forced to reckon with the very tangible evidence that we continue to live in a world where people feel free to exhibit and direct aggression and animus toward others simply for being different, looking different, or having different opinions or values. However, we are hopeful that we also live in a world leaning toward justice and accountability.”
In the aftermath of the desecration of the banner, Asbury recommitted itself to Jesus’ Great Commandment to love God and neighbor as they strive for personal and social holiness and focus, through their witness of worship and service, on wholeness and salvation.
Bishop Easterling applauds Asbury UMC and the other churches in the BWC who, especially over the past year, have chosen to join the We Rise United antiracism initiative. She sees their new studies, initiatives, conversations, and equity-focused outreach as “hopeful acts” that lead to “new understandings and broader perspectives.”
Other banners draw response
Other churches in the Baltimore-Washington Conference have also had signs vandalized. Community UMC in Crofton is now displaying its fifth Black Lives Matter banner since 2020. Four were destroyed in acts of vandalism.
This summer, members of the congregation met within hours after the fourth banner had been destroyed to talk and pray together about the vandalism. They put up a new one and the following Sunday, together with members of Wilson Memorial UMC (who share their building), re-dedicated the banner.
“For me, displaying the Black Lives Matter banner is a sign of solidarity with people who have been systematically oppressed in this country for more than 400 years,” said Community’s pastor, the Rev. Erik Alsgaard. "The banner, which is displayed at a very busy intersection in Crofton, is a silent witness to my belief – and that of the church – that all people are created in the image of God.”
The church has ordered five more banners and members insist that if someone tears this one down, they’ll “put up another one. And another. And another…”
“I wish we didn't need to order more. It’s disheartening, in a way, that simply displaying a banner that states our belief that all people are created equal in the sight of God causes people to react with hatred and violence,” Alsgaard said. “But we’re putting on the full armor of God (Ephesians 6) and continuing to stand up for justice.”
A similar experience happened in June at Linden-Linthicum UMC in Clarksville, where a sign with rainbow colors that said, “Everyone is welcome here,” was defaced. Vandals wrote graffiti on it saying, “God is not mocked,” and adding citations for Bible verses used to justify the exclusion of LGBTQ people.
The vandalism brought “a feeling of deep sadness,” for Linden-Linthicum UMC’s pastor, the Rev. Gayle Annis-Forder. She did a devotion beside the sign the day after it happened.
The congregation continues its work with justice and inclusion. For other churches wrestling with voices of opposition with their witness, Annis-Forder shares a few thoughts.
“Be who you are, lovingly, boldly, and unapologetically,” she said. "Identify your values and remind yourselves of them often so that you can live into those values in your life together. As an individual, be prepared to speak into situations when unacceptable things are said. … Make sure to find your people, those who will walk with you as you grow, learn, and lead into God’s kind of world. Not everyone welcomes the news of God’s expansive love or treats the herald of such news with kindness and respect. Do it anyway, but make sure you have a support system.”
Offering meaningful forgiveness
As people consider their responses to vandalism and other hateful behavior, Bishop Easterling encourages them to draw wisdom from some of the basic principles and values of their Christian faith, like the Lord’s Prayer, the Beatitudes, and living with a forgiving and merciful heart.
She notes that the first two words of the Lord’s Prayer are “our Father.”
“We begin by confessing that we are related to one another, that we are joined to one another, we’re connected,” Easterling said.
The prayer also teaches us that if we don’t forgive others, we ourselves should not expect to be forgiven. This doesn’t mean a rush to forgiveness when one is in the midst of feeling harmed, the bishop said. But when we have hearts of mercy, forgiveness will be a foundational part of our faith formation, and “we will be reminded of what it is that God, through Christ, is teaching us and who we are supposed to be as disciples.
At Asbury UMC, part of their witness also includes working with forgiveness. For Mills, “The Book of Forgiving” by Bishop Desmond Tutu has been helpful.
Bishop Tutu, Mills shared, outlines a fourfold path to forgiveness:
- Step 1: Tell the Story of what happened in all its rawness and ugliness, to begin to understand and meaning of the hurt.
- Step 2: Name the Hurt, not to be a victim or martyr, but to find freedom from resentment, anger, and shame.
- Step 3: Grant Forgiveness, recognizing that this is how we find freedom and keep from being trapped in an endless loop of naming our hurts. We are able to forgive because we are able to recognize our shared humanity. We are able to recognize that we are all fragile, vulnerable, flawed human beings capable of thoughtlessness and cruelty; and that we are all more than the worst thing we have done in our lives.
- Step 4: Renew and Release the Relationship and wipe the slate clean of all that caused a breach in the past. No more debts are owed. No more resentments fester. Only when we renew or release the relationship can we have a future unbound by the past.
“This fourfold process is what Asbury has sought to do in this case,” Mills said. “We are satisfied that we have completed steps 1, 2, and 3. Step 4 is still a work in progress.”
Bishop Easterling acknowledged that the building of Beloved Community is always a work in progress. “Beloved Community doesn't mean that we're all exactly the same,” she said. “It doesn't mean that we all have to have exactly the same outlook, but we have to be humble enough to realize that we all are a part of this. We all have a right to be seen in our full personhood; we all have a right to be loved. We have a responsibility to one another.”