Sanctuary for Change

Sanctuary for Change

In the struggle to transform America’s violent and discriminatory system of policing, First Unitarian Church of Louisville offers sanctuary and support.

Elaine McArdle
Religious leaders gather outside First  Unitarian Church in Louisville on September 25, 2020, in support of protesters.

Religious leaders gather outside FirstUnitarian Church in Louisville on September 25, 2020, in support of protesters who had sought sanctuary at the church the night before while protesting the state’s failure to indict police officers in the killing of Breonna Taylor. © 2020 Jon Cherry/Getty Images

© 2020 Jon Cherry/Getty Images


With the 9 p.m. curfew fast approaching and heavily armed police all around, Kentucky State Rep. Attica Scott and her teenage daughter had one goal: to reach sanctuary at First Unitarian Church in downtown Louisville.

That Thursday night in September 2020, after months of marching in nightly protests over the police killing of Breonna Taylor, Scott and her daughter rode in a car behind the throngs of Black Lives Matter protesters in order to keep them safe from any counter-protesters who might try to run them over, as they had at dozens of protests in the summer. Scott had no intention of getting arrested, she says; indeed, she’d never before been arrested. But as their car approached First Unitarian, police twice blocked their way. With fifteen minutes to curfew, they decided to park and walk the four minutes to the church.

As Scott and her group headed up a ramp at the library across the street from the church, police yelled at them to turn around, ordered them to the ground, and zip-tied their hands. “I said on livestream, ‘They want to kill us,’” says Scott, who was particularly worried about her daughter. “Guns were pointed in our faces.”

Even though there were two minutes left until curfew, Scott and sixteen other women, including her daughter, were arrested and jailed overnight. Police would not tell them what they were charged with. Almost all of the women were Black, Native American, or Latina, Scott says. “This is what we talk about when we say the over-incarceration of Black, [Indigenous], and people of color [BIPOC],” says Scott, who is the sole Black woman legislator in Kentucky. “There have been a lot of white protesters, but disproportionately the ones arrested are BIPOC.”

There was bitter irony in Scott being unable to reach sanctuary that night: she was one of the women who had identified First Unitarian as a safe zone for protesters.

All summer, people had been demanding justice for 26-year-old Breonna Taylor, who was shot to death by Louisville police during a botched raid in March, and for George Floyd, killed by Minneapolis police on May 25. Despite the coronavirus pandemic, millions joined nonviolent protests around the country in what scholars say was the largest protest movement in U.S. history.

Louisville’s protests had been especially tense. Scott and her daughter had been tear-gassed by police in June. One person was killed and several others were injured by civilian gunfire at a protest June 27. Police had arrested more than 500 people at seventy-five protests by mid-August. On September 23, the Kentucky attorney general announced there would be no criminal charges against two officers who fatally shot Taylor; a third officer was charged with reckless endangerment. The city declared a state of emergency, anticipating an escalation of the protests, and state and federal law enforcement flooded into Louisville.

State Rep. Attica Scott talks to reporters after spending a night in jail.

Kentucky State Rep. Attica Scott talks to reporters after spending a night in jail. Police arrested her outside First Unitarian Church with other protesters seeking sanctuary; charges were later dropped. (© 2020 AP Photo/Darron Cummings)

© 2020 AP Photo/Darron Cummings

“A lot of folks who’d been organizing on the frontlines were extremely nervous about the kind of violence that would be heaped upon us,” recalls Scott. She and other leaders were trying to identify a church or mosque willing to serve as sanctuary, and her fellow legislator, Rep. Lisa Willner, a member of First Unitarian in Louisville, offered to call her minister. But first Willner asked if Scott was familiar with the congregation.

“I laughed and said, ‘Everybody in the justice movement is familiar with First Unitarian. They’ve been there for everything,’” recalls Scott.

The Rev. Lori Kyle, a white woman who named racial justice as a top priority for the congregation when she arrived as minister in 2019, immediately agreed. For five nights, September 23 to 28, with the support of UUs from other area congregations, First Unitarian gave sanctuary to hundreds of protesters and provided food and pastoral care. It also served as a supply center for medics tending to protesters.

Saturday night, September 26, was particularly tense. Around midnight, Kyle got a call at home alerting her that there was a strong possibility police would storm First Unitarian to arrest the protesters in sanctuary if they could find a judge to issue a warrant. Under police escort, Kyle moved past police in riot gear surrounding the church. For the next five or six hours, Kyle huddled with Black community leaders, an attorney, and leaders from First Unitarian as they spoke on the phone with Louisville’s interim police chief, Yvette Gentry, to try and stop police from entering the church.

“Kentucky is an open-carry state, and some protesters had guns, and the cops have guns,” says Kyle, “so for this safe space to have been invaded by law enforcement, who were seen by many at that point as the enemy, would have been horrible—horrible.”

Earlier that night Reena Paracha was walking with protesters toward First Unitarian when they were surrounded by police and armored vehicles. As helicopters hovered above, Paracha took a bullhorn and urged protesters to move quickly onto church property. Though confident that police would fail in their efforts to get a warrant, Paracha worried they might take matters into their own hands. “I have seen LMPD [Louisville Metro Police Department] go rogue so many times, so especially when we heard they were thanking the National Guard for [a] water cannon, I thought it could go sideways pretty fast,” she says.

After many stressful hours, police finally dropped the plan to storm the church.

“I am more proud of the church now as an institution and what it’s done supporting sanctuary here and the movement for justice than I’ve ever been,” says longtime church member Bill Allison, a white civil rights attorney who led a ten-year court battle that integrated the Louisville police department in the 1980s to reflect the city’s demographics. Bitterly disappointed that First Unitarian declined to serve as sanctuary for Central American refugees in the 1980s, he says, “at least on this one we answered the call.”

“One of the things I think is really important and don’t ever hear in these conversations is that many of us on the frontlines are driven by a deep sense of faith and spirituality and a calling for justice,” says Scott. “It meant something for us to be able to have sanctuary, a safe place to go to be in community with one another when we were literally running for our lives from police violence.”

Many in Louisville witnessed attacks by police against peaceful protesters last summer, which confirmed calls to drastically change policing in America.

“If a person is asleep in her apartment and the police come busting in and shoot her six times and then leave her there to die because of a botched drug raid, if . . . no one according to the system can be charged for wrongdoing, then the system is flawed,” asserts Kyle.

Pam Middleton, a retired physician and member of First Unitarian, saw police deploy tear gas against protesters and says they tore up medic tents and destroyed supplies. “That’s been part of the problem with LMPD: they have been unnecessarily aggressive,” says Middleton.

In June, Paracha was livestreaming a protest when she was tear-gassed and pepper-bulleted by police. The man next to her was hit by a rubber bullet that a police officer aimed directly at him. “That live-stream changed a lot of minds because how can our police, that we pay for, do this to one of their citizens who are just documenting them?” she says. Paracha supports defunding the police—the LMPD budget is $190 million this year—and reallocating monies into mental health services, public education, and other traditionally underfunded areas.

“We love the UUs. They are always on the side of justice, even if it’s at their own expense, and that’s not just in Louisville,” says Paracha, a Muslim leader who wears a hijab. When protesters learned First Unitarian would be a sanctuary church “we relaxed,” she adds.

Willner is working on three bills. One would prohibit military-style tactics by police. Another would preserve the public’s right to livestream police in public settings. The third would define “rioting” to prevent what Willner describes as the “shocking” abuse of power when police charged Scott with rioting for merely attempting to get to sanctuary. (The charges were dropped in November.)

In August Scott filed “Breonna’s Law” to prohibit no-knock warrants statewide. She is co-sponsoring all three of Willner’s bills, as well as legislation to empower civilian review boards to oversee police, and supports reallocating the LMPD’s budget to “meet the economic and social needs of our neighbors so people can thrive instead of merely surviving.”

When asked what “defund the police” looks like, the Rev. Dawn Skjei Cooley, coordinator for the Kentucky UU Justice Action Network, quotes U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez: “She says it looks like the suburbs,” with “after-school programs and kids’ soccer leagues and mental health support” and other services “you don’t have in these over-policed urban areas.”