Lancaster Mayor Danene Sorace can’t remember the exact time she made the request. But sometime in the first half of last Sunday, she put out an “all-hands-on-deck” call for clergy to be a presence at what was the second consecutive day of protests in downtown Lancaster.
“At that point it was any peacemaker we could muster into that space,” Sorace says. “And recognizing who are the peacemakers in our world and needing that calm in that moment was really key.”
Some faith leaders showed up as soon as they got the message. And a large group of them gathered at 4:15 p.m., forming a circle across the street from the city police station.
“I asked if we could pray first,” Sorace says. “To just center ourselves for a moment.”
Moments earlier, a large group of protesters had confronted a phalanx of helmeted, shield-wearing police officers during a tense standoff.
“It was a very frightened and angry environment,” says the Rev. David Peck, rector of St. James Episcopal Church in Lancaster city. “There was tension in the air, with dozens of police vehicles and many demonstrators. Things really felt ready to kick off.”
The protesters were angry about the May 25 police killing of George Floyd, an unarmed black man, in Minneapolis.
Similar protests had turned violent in other cities on previous nights; there was hope the same wouldn’t happen in Lancaster.
“We’re called not just to pray for peace but, being disciples of the prince of peace, we are trained to help build that peace,” Peck says. “That peace is most effective and most needed in times of potential violence.”
Sorace credits Blanding Watson for coordinating her request for the gathering of faith leaders. Watson is the president of the Lancaster County branch of the NAACP.
“We needed people who understood the moment,” Sorace says. “Many of them have participated in moments like this before and have been a witness to this kind of protest in a way like myself and younger people have not.”
One of those people was Watson’s sister, the Rev. Shayna Watson, associate pastor of St. James Episcopal Church. In a previous role years earlier as the hospice chaplain of the religious affairs committee of the Lancaster branch of the NAACP, Watson helped organize events in downtown Lancaster, such as the May 2017 rally that drew more than 300 people to Penn Square to support immigrants and refugees.
“For me personally,” Watson says “I felt the presence of faith groups provides a different energy to the crowd. By just merely wearing a collar and a cross, you can see how their demeanor will change.”
This includes protesters putting out cigarettes or stopping cursing, as Watson encountered.
“We are able to provide that type of Episcopal care because we have the training in de-escalation,” Watson says.
Other faith leaders, such as the Rev. Edward Bailey, of Lancaster’s Bethel AME Church, spoke to the crowd and shared a message of loving your neighbor.
Others, including the Rev. Jason Perkowski, pastor of Faith United Methodist Church and Oregon Community United Methodist Church, both of Lititz, put themselves as a barrier between police and protesters.
“I was looking for places where there were hot spots,” Perkowski said. “To just be there for both sides, to show solidarity with the young people protesting and hear their pain. And to let the officers know we’re there for them, too. ... Most of the officers are just doing their job. For me, it’s trying to help bridge the divide, hear people and let them express their grief.”
Even if that meant taking the hit in the form of being pepper sprayed, like Perkowski was when an officer dispersed the stinging eye irritant as a protester was being arrested.
“I’ll put myself in front of (pepper spray),” Perkowski says. “To protect the crowd.”
By the end of the day, five people were arrested. But police eventually pulled back, and there were no reports of violence.
In the days since, the protests in Lancaster city have taken a peaceful tone. Peck says, “It’s not an accident that Lancaster was able to bear the weight of suffering and protests without the escalation and violence.”
As a result, he’s hopeful for the future of the city.
“The tensions we have faced this week may go quieter next week,” Peck says. “But they’re not going away. The ongoing work we will have to do is how we support each other through the next six months with the election cycle and the end of the year. What are the tools to pray and live without violence while making painful, social changes? That is going to be the great challenge.”