From Riots to Repentance

June 8, 2020

They were the biggest gatherings, by far, but in Washington, D.C., where one reporter said it "felt as if the entire city had emptied into downtown," the atmosphere felt different. Calmer. Despite the steady stream of crowds outside the White House, there were some signs of summer nights from simpler times. By dusk, there were ice cream trucks and little children playing on the grass. Strollers were parked outside restaurants where families were eating under umbrellas. In some places, people held hands and danced to street musicians -- a far cry from the sounds of sirens and shattered glass the weekend before.

There were still mobs of people chanting and holding signs, others joining protests that snaked through city streets. But by Sunday, some demonstrations took a different turn. For once, it was pastors and faith leaders holding the bullhorns, as riots turned into rallies for reflection and repentance. Hundreds of evangelicals in the D.C. area led a long march across the Anacostia River, stopping, periodically, to pray. Together with different generations and races, they called for the church to rise up and help heal our nation. "Our protest needs to be different," Pastor Thabiti Anyabwile urged the crowd -- not rooted in hatred or bitterness, but in Jesus.

Across the city -- from the Reflecting Pool to hot asphalt sidewalks -- people knelt to pray. Other congregations walked in long columns, singing songs like "Amazing Grace," quieting the crowds as they walked by. It was the same serene picture in other parts of the country, where Christians met up in parking lots and city centers to offer an alternative to the violence and anger. In Tulsa, former police officers like Don Ailsworth joined the local faith rally, insisting that people in this country "shouldn't have to choose sides." "We're all in this together," he said. "One God. One faith. One Baptism."

In places like New Jersey, it was the young believers who led the charge. Bishop Frederick Jerkins in Pleasantville said he was proud when his granddaughter asked him if they could host an event called "Prayer for Change." "True change comes from God," the 21-year-old insisted. He enthusiastically agreed. "Whatever God leads you to do," he told her, "let's do it." By Sunday, his church was full of people his granddaughter's age, who wanted to make a difference in a positive way. "I believe God is using young people," Bishop Jerkins told reporters, who came to see the outpouring for themselves. "We need change in this world," he insisted. And a lot of it, he agreed, starts with them.

And it wasn't just Oklahoma or D.C. All across America, churches were opening with a new purpose: to bridge the divide. And as far as Vice President Mike Pence is concerned, that's exactly what this country needs. At a special listening session with black faith and community leaders on Friday, he, our good friend Bishop Harry Jackson, and the White House's Scott Turner talked about what needs to change. Pence reiterated what so many of us have said -- the place for our country to start this conversation "is a place of worship." "It's the wellspring of our nation's strength. It's been the wellspring of our national unity and our steady march toward a more perfect union," he said from the stage at Maryland's Hope Christian Church.

Pastor Brian Gibson, who traveled all the way from Kentucky to host a prayer rally on the National Mall, echoed those words with Sarah Perry on "Washington Watch." He talked about his initiative called "Peaceably Gather," which, ironically, he started to deal with coronavirus, not the riots. When churches were being singled out and called "nonessential," he launched a website calling churches across the country to exercise their First Amendment rights and get their congregations "safely and sanely" back to church.

Now, weeks later, he's hoping that movement can be useful for something else. "We're organizing prayer meetings. We're calling together pastors. We're getting it done in six different cities this week, where pastors of every race are coming together and praying, standing up against this injustice, praying for revival, praying for restoration and forgiveness." At the end of the day, Pastor Brian urged, "The Republicans can't fix this. The Democrats can't fix this. The government can't fix this. But Jesus can fix this. And if we get [churches] doing what they're called to do, we can change this."

Maybe, Pastor Brian said, this is an opportunity to open our eyes and realize the real issue is a nation falling away from God. "And if it can drive us to our knees and make people cooperate with one another [in a way that our hardened hearts might not have before]... maybe this can bring about a godly repentance that can change our country. And that's what I'm praying for, a godly repentance that can change our country."

For more on the situation, don't miss Ken Blackwell's new Townhall column, "Race, Justice, and Religious Liberty in the World."