In This Episode
Recently, President Trump received massive condemnation when law enforcement officials used gas and flash bombs to remove peaceful protestors … all so that he could be pictured in front of a church. Phil Picardi will speak to the Reverend Gini Gerbasi, the Rector of St. John’s Episcopal Church, who was there at the time, about the incident, and how religion is used by politicians.
Phillip Picardi: From Crooked Media, this is Unholier than Thou. I’m your host, Phillip Picardi. By now, you’ve probably seen the image of Donald Trump awkwardly brandishing the Holy Bible for news cameras as he stands in front of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Washington, D.C.. He looked like he’d never held a Bible before in his life.
[voice] Is that your Bible?
[clip of President Trump] It’s a Bible.
[voice] Your Bible?
Phillip Picardi: Even though Trump undoubtedly intended for these photos to be the story, what happened before was what dominated the headlines. Trump, allegedly cranky about the news coverage, which revealed he’d retreated to a bunker during protests outside the White House—#Bunkerboy—wanted to show himself to the American public. It was decided he would appear at the church as a show of strength. The only problem, of course, was that protesters were peacefully assembled in nearby Lafayette Park, the square where the church is located. So Attorney General William Barr allegedly ordered the police and National Guard to clear them immediately. They attacked the demonstrators, launching tear gas, pepper balls and flash bang grenades into the crowd. Trump, for his part, stood outside of the church for his photo. He never even went inside. For many of us, myself included, his photo op was actually the epitome of religion in America. It was how I’ve known religion my whole life. And by that I mean an ideology that’s been morphed into a political weapon used to oppress marginalized people by any means necessary—even violent ones. Even outside of a church! The former Assistant Rector of St. John’s Episcopal Church, Reverend Gini Gerbasi, was there to aid the protesters that day.
[news clip ] Reverend Gini Gerbasi spoke to us over the phone after the defining image of the day: President Trump at her church projecting an air of triumph.
[clip of Gini Gerbasi] I was coughing with tear gas in my clergy collar and my grey hair and my old lady reading glasses.
Phillip Picardi: She would later write about the experience for The Washington Post, calling the whole episode a sacrilege. But she insists God was absolutely there that day, maybe just not in the photo op. We caught up with her shortly after the event.
Phillip Picardi: Thank you for being here with us today. I really appreciate it. Obviously, it is such a complicated and emotional time. It is lovely to be able to be in community with you, to laugh with you, to smile with you, to see your face. And I wonder if maybe by getting started, I would love to learn a little bit more about you and what called you to the faith.
Rev. Gini Gerbasi So what called me to the faith, as a kid, my family didn’t go to church unless grandma was with us, and then it wasn’t so much to fake Grandma into thinking we were church-going people, which would have been completely authentic, right? But because she loved to go to church and we would go with her. And I loved church, so sort of ironically, or because God has such a great, good sense of humor, there was something about church, the presence of it, the smell of it—and again, I’m a complete WASP, so this was the Episcopal Church. And then, and then this is also, I’m going to say, relevant for our conversation, was what I call the “all Jesus all the time channel.” The, you have to do a Jesus prayer and believe that Jesus died for your sins, that God was so mad that Jesus had to die, somebody had to die, and Jesus was the only one good enough. And that was so abhorrent and sickening to me that I assumed there was no faith for me. So it was years, I was in college before I felt one morning, literally, I could just walk down the street and go to my own church because I felt the need to find a place of respite that wasn’t all about studying for finals or partying or whatever. And I felt drawn to church again. And I went to this church, Bruton Parish Church in Williamsburg, Virginia, and I suddenly felt like I had a place that I belonged. I had a people. So that’s how I came to the faith. The story about the priesthood, I was a lawyer by then, working in public policy relating to poverty and hunger, and I I loved my work and yet every day I would think to myself, I feel like God is calling me to something more. And also around that time, so I was working for the food stamp program as a lawyer during the welfare reform legislation that, like back in the ’90s. I was working very hard to soften the edges of the welfare reform legislation that was kicking people off of food stamps. And there was also this idea out there about family values and the Christian position on this and the Christian position on that, which bore no resemblance to my experience of Christianity. And I would drive home saying there’s something more I should be doing, and a thought would pop into my head: you should go to seminary. And I would be like: pfft, like, that’s ridiculous. I swear, I’m irreverent, I didn’t go to church growing up. Like, that’s not me and after years of that, I was, took a year leave of absence when my second son was born and I did this quiet day up at what I call the Natty Cat and the rest of the world calls the National Cathedral, and during that time, I had, I had not like sort of had that thought pop into my head for a while, and that thought popped into my head: you should go to seminary. And for the first time, I sort of said back to it, why? And I had this full on sort of epiphany—not sort of epiphany, it is the meaning of the epiphany: light, like a vision of something you didn’t have before. And it was instead of my life flashing before my eyes of what I had had before, it was my life flashing before my eyes of what would come. And it was me being a priest. And I could see it out of my eyes. And then it was so funny, I sort of thought to myself, well, this is hilarious. I mean, I’m snarky and I’m irreverent. And then I had this idea that God was not calling me to be some other kind of priest. God was going to use my regular-ness and my snarky, irreverent sense of humor and the fact that I’m a mom and a wife and a lover of people, that God would use those things to smuggle God’s self into the world. And so here I am.
Phillip Picardi: That was so beautiful. I am choking up because of that testimony.
Rev. Gini Gerbasi I’m not crying. You’re crying.
Phillip Picardi: That was so powerful. To get us back, I think we need to set the scene of what we’re here to talk about today, which is I’m wondering if you can take us to the time when you were the Assistant Rector at Lafayette Square. And if you can explain why this location, this parish is important, and what it meant to you. .
Rev. Gini Gerbasi OK. So I was the Assistant Rector, which just means one of the staff priests, not the head priest, from 2012 to 2014. This church is directly across Lafayette Park from the White House. And it has, its sort of name, really—I mean, it’s St. John’s after John the Gospel—but it’s referred to as the Church of the Presidents, because every president since 1815 or something, 1818 has worshiped there, has prayed there because it’s, I don’t know, the closest church to the White House, because it’s right across the park. And I was an assistant there for two years. And during that time, President Obama was president and he would come to church and walk across the street and so part of what I got familiar with was the whole protocol when the President walked across the park and came to the church. We were also, it’s also important because it’s also, since it’s right across from Lafayette Park, it’s a place where protesters gather. And there were some funny things where the sometimes bullhorns would cut into our church broadcast system, you know, there’d be a church service and suddenly you’d hear, like the bullhorn would have cut into our microphone. So there were some funny things about that. But the church has, especially for large gatherings on the mall, large protests, has been a place where that patio right out front could be a place of respite, where church members, clergy leaders would hand out water, you know, tend to people’s needs, that sort of thing, because of its proximity to the White House and to places where people gather in protest.
Phillip Picardi: So with that history in mind, can you tell me what you saw this week?
Rev. Gini Gerbasi Oh, my gosh. So Monday, my diocese, which is headed by Bishop Marrian Budde—#womanbishop—had invited, had organized an event that was, we were invited to come ourselves as clergy people, but bring our lay friends, our members of our parishes, there were other denominations invited. I mean, people were invited to come to that patio of St. John’s Lafayette Square to be a presence of peace because for two nights in a row, that particular church had been vandalized. There was spray paint one night and the second night there was a small fire set there. And so we were moved to provide a peaceful presence of support and in support of Black Lives Matter, in support of the protesters, but also in tangible support and care, and to make that patio holy ground a place of respite. And it was that all, pretty much all day. And I’m going to say sometime around six o’clock or so, maybe a little after, people—you know, so quiet. Now when I say quiet, I mean like such a peaceful protest, nothing, you know, nothing happening here, folks, that most of the clergy had left. And, you know, we’re sort of still making their way through the, through the protesters and things. But I stayed and said, I’m going to stay as long as I can be useful. And then at some point around 6:15 suddenly there was like movement and people were being, like the police started pushing people out of Lafayette Park. Because suddenly people were like filling up the street and running. And then that’s when I started hearing, and hearing, like, these flash grenades and people started like yelling and running. That’s when we got our first people coming to us, like running to us with, like, swollen eyes and red. And you could smell it and like around this time, people are just like running at us. And there are those flash grenades things that sound like gunfire. And people were dropping to the ground, like in terror because they thought the police were like—remember, the context of this is this is a protest because people have been brutalized by the government for centuries, and suddenly there’s the sound of gunfire. The terror was real and the smoke was real and the the burning of people’s eyes was real. And I was rinsing out somebody’s eyes and I heard somebody say rubber bullets and I looked up and there was a man in front of me clutching his stomach and sort of bent over. And I look up and he moves his arms and there are these marks all over his shirt. And I look up over his shoulder and the police are on the patio, shoulder to shoulder in like full-on riot gear, all-black, shields that look like they are Captain America shields, except they’re all black, literally pushing people, driving them off the patio, driving them off. And people are just like rushing toward us and screaming and all around, are these like flash grenades. And the, I saw with my own eyes the sort of trail of smoke as things were thrown from the depths of Lafayette Park into the crowd with smoke. It was a war zone! A peaceful protest, protesting the government’s brutalization of people and here we were. It’s not even curfew. Like what is this? There was no, nothing to precipitate it, there was no announcement “you need to move back” you know, there was nothing. And I was just overwhelmed and I started to walk back to my car and I don’t know, half a block later, my phone just started that, like ping, ping, ping, ping of like my clergy friends and one of my sisters. “Oh, my God, are you still there?” And I, like I thought they were just like, are you safe? And I’m like, I’m fine. I’m OK. I’m walking back to the car. And then they start saying, is he really going there? And I’m like, what? What do you, what do you stay? Like, and they’re like, we see him on the news. Trump is walking across the park. And I, and I was like, oh, no, no. Because remember, I was familiar with what it was like, like what, what it was like when the president crossed the street. Right? Like, no. What I hear behind me is still a frickin war zone. Like I hear the flash grenades, I can still smell that like acrid smell. People are running and screaming. No frickin way could the president be coming there. And I got to my car and my sister says—and I say, one of the things I say is, like as if I’m such a sophisticated media person: I’m sure it’s just stock footage. Like, where did I get that, like, out of this? Like, and I get to the car and my sister says, no, it’s real. And I just shut down and I was like, I drove home. I like, I sat in my driveway and cried because I saw people terrorized for a photo op. And then to stand on church property and hold up a book that has in it right at the beginning, “We are all made in the image of God” was sickening. And the cross on the front of it, so going to the New Testament, like Jesus was all about loving, and to hold up a book with those stories, having driven people out of it with weapons of war, was sacrilege.
Phillip Picardi: I think that’s a really poignant analysis of that moment and the hypocrisy of that moment. But a cynical part of me saw this moment, Reverend, and was reminded of everything that I dislike—.
Rev. Gini Gerbasi Oh!
Phillip Picardi: When it comes to faith. And it almost felt to me, based on what I know about religious institutions and the suppression of civil freedoms of many of the people who fought for them, right, that is my experience with religion. So seeing Trump hold that Bible in front of that church, I thought: that sounds about right. What do you say to the people who felt the same way?
Rev. Gini Gerbasi So I have a couple of things to say. And one is, I totally get why you would have seen that image and been like, yeah, that’s about right. And then I want to tie that to the second thing that comes to my mind, which is: so this past Sunday was Pentecost Sunday, which is the day that the church—so it was a Jewish holiday originally, I mean, still, it’s a Jewish holiday, but Christians see Pentecost as the day that the Holy Spirit was given to God’s people, and the Holy Spirit came as a mighty wind and tongues of fire. I mean, this is no, like, subtle fluttering of angel wings thing. This is mighty and powerful and fiery. And one of the things I said yesterday was the Holy Spirit is here and she be pissed. And one of the things she’s pissed about is it took the church 400 years to try to show up. And I preached this past Sunday on a video reflection, because that’s how we do church now, and I literally said talking about Black Lives Matter, the church as a whole needs to stand up for something worthy of that gift and, and then what I have seen in the last few days—which is why when you ask me, tell me about this week—what I saw Tuesday was more people show up there. And people were peaceful and kneeling and it was beautiful. And then you know what I saw yesterday? More people. And you know what else I saw? I saw the police had changed their tactics and moved step-by-step, forcing people away from the White House. That is what I saw. And that is what the Holy Spirit looks like when she is unleashed.
Phillip Picardi: Let’s take a break right now. We’ll be right back after this.
Phillip Picardi: Picking up our conversation with Reverend Gini, I asked her about politicians who use religion and faith for political motives. Here’s what she thinks about that:
Rev. Gini Gerbasi So I would say we see a lot in our culture. So let me just step aside from that particular moment for a minute and say we see a lot in our culture of people really trying to signal things about who they are with, with different symbols. Right? So, you know, the flag, which now says something different than what I would have thought it meant for decades. The label, even the label Christian and Christianity has been used in a way that I think is, it’s supposed to be shorthand for something and what it’s shorthand for, what it’s signaling to people, is an idea of a religion that’s all about who God does not love. And, and I have always found that just offensive. And what comes to my mind when I think of that, is that Jesus warned us that there would be false prophets. So part of it is trying to trying to capture something that I think is just false and offensive and that, Trump with the Bible there having driven people out, falls into that sort of category. But he’s not alone in it. It’s like saying family values, and family values to me are, you know, are we having pizza? And like, who do you love? Like, be kind to people and, you know, love people. And family values to me are not what they were that I was hearing on the radio, that like, you know, anti-gay people and all that. Like whose family is that? Like, that’s got nothing to do with Christianity for me. So there’s a whole set of those responses that I’m deeply offended by, one of which was using force to drive people off of a church and out of a peaceful protest when what they are protesting is government violence, and using the church and holding up the Bible. And the Bible is all about peace and love and healing and wholeness and forgiveness, and what you just did was just antithetical to that. There’s also sort of a lesser but also dangerous superficial Christianity, like a superficial signaling of like a prayer breakfast, sort of, oh, well, we had a prayer breakfast, or we had a vigil, or like people showing up at vigils or whatever. And all I have to do is show up once and then like I’m a person of faith. And that is not, I find that sort of sad but I also think, you know, maybe you’ll hear something that will actually crack you open and change you. But I think too often people think if they just label themselves Christian or they just said the Jesus prayer or whatever, then they’re good. And my thing is Jesus told us to follow him, live like me. And living like Jesus means loving people. Doesn’t mean going to church. Jesus was Jewish. Jesus was Jewish! Following Jesus is not about going to church, going to church is about learning how to follow Jesus. And so when I see superficial Christianity, I think, you know, God can do all kinds of things, so I hope God works through you. I hope this is a good-faith effort on your part and not some cynical political stunt. And God can work through that. Hopefully it does, but you need to be deeper.
Phillip Picardi: So, Reverend, I wonder you’ve made it very clear where you think faith lies on all of this and what side of justice you think faith is on. I wonder, can you tell me what your faith is calling you to do now?
Rev. Gini Gerbasi So, I will say that, here I said in my sermon—I mean, God has a great sense of humor, let’s be clear, a great sense of humor—and I said in my sermon the church as a whole needs to stand up for something worthy of the Holy Spirit, and it’s like the Holy Spirit said, hold my beer. Like, this is me now, right? Like I, I came home, I cried in my driveway, I came home, I took a shower, washed the tear gas out of my hair, as one does, and texted my bishop to say, I hope I don’t embarrass you, but I said “fucking outraged” to a reporter, and there’s a chance that might show up and I hope it doesn’t embarrass you and here’s what happened. And then I sat down and wrote this Facebook post that was mostly directed to my friends, my like, clergy friends, my other friends, my family members, all of whom knew I was down there. And part of what came to me was this sense of I am a mom and you have fucked with my children. Step aside. Like that was what was deep inside when I said I am now a force to be reckoned with. Now, the Holy Spirit is the real force to be reckoned with, but I see that Holy Spirit sweeping across the country, across the world. I, it is awakened and found a place in people’s hearts where maybe they, like you, looked at that picture and thought, yeah, that’s about right, and instead began to hear God’s presence in it and began to see the church. And I don’t just mean me, but I mean like the church, the white church as a whole, standing up in a way maybe we haven’t. So I’m going to show up—except for the fact that I’m supposed to be in quarantine for 14 days—so I have to show up in other ways for the next 14 days. Not 14 days, I’m on day 4, so only 10 more days and then I’m there again. Like and so I got up and put on my now protest gear and put my water bottle and my sunscreen and my medical, like my mom medical kit and went downtown Tuesday. And then I did the same thing yesterday. And I will do it again. And I saw a sign that said, “See you tomorrow” and I was like, yeah, I’m going to make myself one of those.
Phillip Picardi: Reverend, thank you so much for taking the time, this was beautiful.
Rev. Gini Gerbasi Oh, my gosh, bless you, my friend.
Phillip Picardi: It goes without saying that the best way to honor Reverend Gerbasi is to support the efforts of the movement for Black Lives. That could mean joining your local protest—they’re happening in all 50 states, calling your local representative to help divest police funding, or making a donation to help the people on the ground. Please check out the National Bail Fund, a national bailout network. It’s a Black-led and Black-centered collective of abolitionist organizers, lawyers and activists devoted to ending mass incarceration. Or you can visit the Crooked Media website devoted to taking action ahead of the election. Go to votesaveamerica.com/save-america. That’s votesaveamerica.com/save-america. Unholier than Thou is a product of Crooked Media. Our producer is Stephen Hoffman, with production support from Camille Petersen and Alison Falzetta. The theme song is by Taka Asuzawa, and our executive producer is Sara Geismer. Thanks for listening.