A look at damage inside historic St. John's Church, which burned during protests

The church's rector says he forgives whoever set the church on fire.
Image:
A police line forms by St. John's Church as demonstrators gather on May 30 to protest the death of George Floyd.Alex Brandon / AP
/ Source: TODAY

Officials are taking stock of the damage after a fire broke out in St. John’s Church, located across the street from the White House in Washington, D.C., during weekend protests.

The Rev. Robert Fisher, the church’s rector, gave TODAY’s Craig Melvin a tour of the fire damage in the church’s lower level. The fire broke out amid protests around the country and the world over the death of George Floyd in police custody in Minneapolis.

Much of the nursery in the church's basement was burned.TODAY

The fire destroyed much of the church’s nursery, Fisher said.

A changing table in the nursery was burned in the fire.TODAY

“As we know many of you have already heard, there was a small fire in the parish house basement,” Fisher wrote in a letter to parishioners. “Thankfully, it appears to have been contained to the nursery — though, as you might imagine there is smoke and water damage to other areas of the basement.”

Toys in the nursery were also burned.TODAY

He added that “the rest of the church and parish house is untouched except for some exterior graffiti, which the city’s graffiti team has already covered up.”

The message "God is still watching" was spray-painted on the church during the protests.Carolyn Kaster / AP

Despite the damage to the church, Fisher says he is approaching the situation from a place of forgiveness.

“I don't think those who did the defacing are representing the protesters that we have no problem standing with,” he told Melvin.

As for his message for those who did set the fire, he said, “I have no idea. But I don't think it's right for me to speak on behalf of every parishioner. But I can speak on my own. I forgive that person. ... They know not what they do.”

After the fire over the weekend, St. John’s Church made headlines once again on Monday, when police fired tear gas and pepper spray and used horse-mounted officers to clear a crowd of peaceful protesters demonstrating near the church.

Not long after, Trump made a surprise visit to the church, walking over from the White House and posing for photos in front of the church as he held up a Bible.

President Trump held up a Bible as he posed for photos outside the church.Patrick Semansky / AP

His visit “outraged” Bishop Mariann Edgar Budde, who oversees the church.

"Consider the context," Budde told Melvin on TODAY on Monday. "After making a highly charged, emotional speech to the nation where he threatened military force, his officials cleared peaceful protests with tear gas and horses and walked on to the courtyard of St. John's Church and held up a Bible as if it were a prop or an extension of his military and authoritarian position, and stood in front of our building as if it were a backdrop for his agenda.”

She added that she was “deeply disappointed” that Trump did not enter the church to pray or “offer condolences to those who were grieving.”

St. John’s Church, often referred to as "the Church of the Presidents," has a historic connection with the presidency. Starting with James Madison, every U.S. president has attended a service at the church. There’s even a special seat, Pew 54, reserved for the president when attending a service.

Fisher pointed out the pew where Abraham Lincoln came to sit and reflect late at night during the Civil War.

“You can imagine what he was thinking about, what was on his heart,” Fisher said.

Now, Fisher hopes Americans will reflect as well, and focus on communicating with compassion.

“We have to learn how to talk again in this country,” he said. “One belief I have about conversation is that you're not really listening unless you're willing to have your opinion changed by what you're going to hear.”