Community rallies around ‘sanctuary’ church during Brooklyn Center protests
By Tim Speier, Freelance Community Journalist
While community members mourned the loss of Daunte Wright last month, a nightcap of teargas and flashbangs shook the neighborhood around the Brooklyn Center Police Department, compelling Pastor Dan Haukos at Lutheran Church of the Master to keep the church doors open to all.
After a Brooklyn Center police officer shot Daunte Wright on April 11, protests erupted around the city’s police department. Protesters and medics found sanctuary at the nearby LCM as the congregation offered a place to warm up and grab snacks.
Even as police pressure escalated near the church, they held their doors open providing “hospitality ministry” to everyone from undercover police to wounded protestors.
Church leadership eventually feared that the building was helping to facilitate further violence, and they shut the doors after nearly a week of acting as a space for community healing and growth.
A ‘holy pause with the chaos’
On that Sunday, Haukos, the head pastor, began to grow concerned after hearing about the police killing of Daunte Wright. He decided to keep the church open late into the night to support everyone in the community in a time when healing was most needed.
After his last meeting on Sunday, Haukos was walking through the parking lot when he was approached by a street medic.
“When I got there, I had an asthma attack,” said A.H., a protester. “It was nice to be able to sit there and not have to worry about [police] coming over there and just breathe, which you don’t really get to do when you’re up there [at the protest].”
The church initially stayed open for a few medic teams, providing a warm and clean facility to operate out of. LCM was close enough to the protest to provide emergency care, yet far enough to work without interference.
“We were talking to some of the medics, and they were kind of level-setting that it’s gonna get pretty intense,” Haukos said. “So, that night, we let a few of them in.”
LCM went live on Facebook that evening to say the church was providing safety and help to those who were injured or needed assistance.
The next day, Pastor Jim VerBout, LCM’s new community outreach coordinator, began his first day working at the church. He soon found himself immersed in a community that had been torn.
“I thought to myself, you know, if I’m going to do this, what better time than now? … I felt like this is what God wanted me to be,” VerBout said. “Pastor Dan said to me, ‘I think you got a year or two of ministry in one week.’”
Word of a “sanctuary” begins to spread
As the rain turned to snow on Monday, the pastors announced on Facebook Live that they would start offering coffee and hot chocolate to “warm the hearts of people” starting the next night.
“Our kitchen coordinator was watching [the video] and early Tuesday morning, she said ‘I’m going shopping and I’m buying cookies and all of this stuff,’” Haukos said. “Before I knew it, we had all of that stuff set up and all the other pastors joined in.”
A few hundred people walked through the doors that evening.
During one of Haukos’ walks around the parking lot that night, he saw a person standing outside in the snowstorm without a jacket on. They had left it in their friend’s car. Unable to get the jacket before being pushed out of the lot by the police, Haukos invited them into the church to warm up.
“His statement to me, ‘I’ve never been in a church before,’ and I said, ‘well, no time like the present,’” Haukos said. “[After they warmed up], I sat down beside him and talked with him and I said, ‘How you doing?’ He goes, ‘Is this what it’s like in a church? I’ve never experienced this level of care and love and nonjudgment before.’”
Donations started pouring into the church, inspiring the pastors to keep providing support.
On Wednesday, police pushed the protest down North Humboldt Avenue towards LCM church.
A few people were able to escape the initial kettle through a hole in the fence behind nearby apartments.
“I just [hid] under somebody’s deck for 40 minutes because they had officers surrounding us,” A.H. said. “At some point a guy got tackled right in front of me and the way they handled him, it was just so — I cried. He looked at me and he knew that I was under there, he didn’t say anything. It broke my heart [when] I saw how aggressive they were.”
Law enforcement eventually surrounded church property.
“Wednesday night, that’s when the National Guard and [police were] out front on the berm, … 15 or so squad cars in the back of the church, and they were in our apartment parking lot,” Haukos said. “They were everywhere. We had probably close to 100 people, either right outside the church or inside the hallway.”
Both pastors tried to keep the peace and began funneling protesters inside the church as they became more agitated by the officers surrounding the property.
Eventually, the pastors prayed for help. During that time, another pastor had been pulled over by officers and told them what he saw by the time he left LCM: just a handful of people in the church.
“They were looking for five kids or young adults that had thrown bricks at the police, and then ran to the church for safety, for sanctuary,” Haukos said.
After a few minutes, the law enforcement presence thinned out.
Thursday came and went without direct altercations with police. The church offered more coffee and hot chocolate, providing ample opportunity to minister to the community. However, not everyone in the congregation was pleased to see what the church was doing during the protests.
“From the congregation itself, I received only one phone call and this particular person had served as a police officer,” Haukos said. “At first, [he] was appalled that we would give sanctuary and refuge to criminals … who were destroying the city, and now we’re just going to give them a cup of coffee, let them retire, and then let them go out again and do more damage.”
Haukos said he spent some time on the phone with him explaining that Jesus went in where the sinners were — the prostitutes, the tax collectors, the untouchables, the lepers. Without fear, he ministered to them, bringing the message of hope, peace and love.
“That’s what we were called to do,” Haukos said. “As I explained that to this gentleman, I sensed his heart softening.”
Friday night followed the same path as Wednesday, except “it was Wednesday night on steroids,” VerBout had told Haukos. Dozens of people were eventually kettled and detained.
“Friday night, everyone started asking me ‘is this a sanctuary?’ like can the police come in here,” VerBout said. “The thing is, there’s an old tradition that law enforcement usually respects, saying that they cannot come into a church [unless] there’s probable cause. But legally … an air freshener was the probable cause with Daunte Wright.”
After some time, the police left without entering church property, giving no explanation about why they withdrew from the property.
“I didn’t want people running into the church, feeling like the police could not get in, and then they’d be stuck in the church with a police presence coming in,” VerBout said. “I felt like it was creating a false narrative. I did not want to give people that false narrative.”
Shutting the doors
At 12:33 a.m. Saturday, LCM made a post to their Facebook page stating that they “will not be open to provide this space as we have the last 6 evenings.”
VerBout said the decision to close was twofold and they knew they “would upset some people” with their decision to close but “everyone on our staff was just so exhausted working night after night after night.” LCM also felt that the church was being used as a sanctuary for a few individuals that would throw bricks then hide in the church for safety.
“Now, we’re not just going to be a place that people can run after you do damage, that’s not what we’re about,” VerBout said.
Throughout the week, church leadership called for prayers for both Daunte Wright’s family and the family of Kim Potter, the former officer who killed Wright. They said that their role is not to step into politics, but to simply care for those who needed it — protesters, medics and police alike.
“It was a lot of just straight treating people like humans, treating people like they matter,” VerBout said. “Our job is just to be that presence of God for people.”