KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (Aug. 30, 2017) – Madeline Wimmer was curled up with her textbook on a sofa at the Wesley Foundation. She was safe with her friends on a Saturday afternoon, yet a half-mile away, thousands of protesters were gathering around a Confederate monument.
In the wake of a deadly protest on a Virginia university campus just two weeks earlier, Wimmer was troubled.
“It’s too close to home,” the University of Tennessee senior said. “Why is it happening here, now? There’s no need for it.”
When the protests concluded later that day on Aug. 26, Knoxville police reported no violence had occurred.
The peaceful conclusion happened the day after Second United Methodist Church hosted a Friday-night service for about 100 people who came to pray for peace. The protest concluded peacefully after students at the UTK Wesley Foundation had prayed and offered a place of safety and comfort for the community.
“I realize people in the Body of Christ feel called to respond in different ways, but I feel called to offer pastoral support and a place of refuge,” said the Rev. Tim Kobler, Wesley Foundation director.
“If it gets to be too much or if anybody is injured or scared, we’ve got a space here for people to come and decompress, talk, pray, have a cold cup of water, whatever," Kobler said on Saturday morning.
In the end, nearly 3,000 people turned out to protest a rally in support of the Confederate memorial near the UT campus, according to the Knoxville News Sentinel. About 35 people attended the rally that was reportedly organized by persons with ties to white separatist groups.
Prior to the protest, Kobler prayed and shared Holy Communion with other campus pastors at the Tyson House Episcopal/ Lutheran Campus Ministry.
Wimmer and about 10 other Wesley Foundation students stepped away from their books and laptops to pray at 1 p.m., when the protests were scheduled to begin. The students also laid out first-aid kits and food and waited for any guests who might respond to invitations issued on social media.
'MY HEART WAS THERE'
A block away from the monument and in the thick of the protests, the Rev. Stephanie Parrott was stationed at the Ronald McDonald House to support families whose children are undergoing cancer treatment.
“When I heard about the protest, I was concerned about the families seeking rest and respite while their kids are in the hospital,” Parrott explained. “My heart was there.”
Parrott currently serves as the Wesley Foundation’s director of discipleship and outreach. Previously, she worked as a nurse at East Tennessee Children’s Hospital for 22 years.
While most families staying at the Ronald McDonald House took advantage of the special quarters prepared for them at the hospital during the protest, Parrott said she tried to offer a comforting presence to the few who remained in the house.
“The tension around the house was scary,” she said, referring to the shouting and “horrible language” from the protest crowd. “That took its toll on all of us.”
Parrott said an unexpected ministry took place as she opened the back door to allow police officers to use the restroom inside the air-conditioned house on the hot and humid day. She shared words such as, “We’re praying for you,” “Hope it ends soon,” and “Make sure you stay hydrated” as she handed out water bottles.
“I could not commend the police or sheriff's department enough,” she said. “They are incredible men and women. They were very protective of us, and we felt totally safe in that house.”
Parrott said she also felt blessed as she learned of ways that Wesley Foundation students could minister to the Ronald McDonald House, such as cooking meals and eating with the families, preparing and freezing casseroles for future meals, and cleaning up litter on the property after UT football games. She plans to immediately begin working with the students on these projects.
“We’re so proud of our students, what they are doing and what they want to do,” she said.
Church prays for peace in response to planned supremacist protest (Knoxville News Sentinel, 8/25/17)
Contact Annette Spence at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Annette Spence is editor of The Call, the Holston Conference newsletter.