June 5, 2020

‘I knew I was protected’

St. John pastor keeps prayerful watch over parish during unrest

A burned car sits on May 30 in the parking lot of St. John the Evangelist Parish in Indianapolis, set on fire by an arsonist the night before in violence amid protests related to the death of George Floyd. (Submitted photos)

A burned car sits on May 30 in the parking lot of St. John the Evangelist Parish in Indianapolis, set on fire by an arsonist the night before in violence amid protests related to the death of George Floyd. (Submitted photos)

By Sean Gallagher

“A beacon of light in Indianapolis.”

That is how Father Rick Nagel has described St. John the Evangelist Parish in Indianapolis, the faith community he has led since 2011.

On the night of May 30-31, however, Father Nagel had to put all of his faith—and, admittedly, all of his “German stubbornness”—to work to keep that light shining while darkness swirled around the historic faith community in the heart of downtown Indianapolis.

That was the second of two nights in which peaceful protests in Indianapolis descended into violence. The protests were in response to the May 25 killing of George Floyd, a 46-year-old black man, by a white police officer in Minneapolis.

Two people were killed in Indianapolis and more than 100 downtown businesses incurred millions of dollars of damage in the unrest.

(Related: Statement from Archbishop Charles C. Thompson | A ray of hope shines through amid the violence and unrest in Indianapolis and the country)

Father Nagel kept vigil all night on May 30-31, staying outside, watching over his parish while fires burned, windows were shattered and shops were looted in the surrounding neighborhood.

He kept the light of St. John shining through his efforts to protect its buildings from violence, but perhaps more importantly through prayer and the peaceful and sometimes profound conversations he had with protesters.

“I saw the very best of humanity and the very worst of humanity in a few hours,” Father Nagel said.

‘God was definitely watching over us’

Not expecting any violence in the city, Father Nagel had been away from St. John on the night of May 29-30, the first night of unrest in Indianapolis.

He returned the next morning after learning that a car in St. John’s parking lot had been burned by a protester the night before.

After the car was towed away, Father Nagel called his friend Rita Reith, a battalion chief and the public information officer for the Indianapolis Fire Department. His request for advice on what cleaning material to use in clearing away the debris left from the fire quickly turned into a trip to the parish by firefighters from the nearby Station 13.

“They cleaned it all up,” Father Nagel said. “It was a bright light in the middle of all of this.”

“St. John is in their district, and they feel very strongly about the businesses and community members that are in their district,” said Reith of the firefighters of Station 13. “It’s their neighborhood.”

She also noted how close St. John came to being severely damaged by the previous night’s fire. The car was parked under a stained-glass window that was covered by clear plexiglass.

The heat of the fire severely warped the plastic covering. If it had not been there, Reith said, the stained-glass window could have been shattered, allowing fire and smoke into the interior of the church.

“We all were very thankful,” she said. “Had it gotten in, we would have been in big trouble. We would have had a much different situation. God was definitely watching over us on that one.”

‘I knew I was protected’

Because he expected violence in the city for a second night, Father Nagel cancelled the Mass scheduled for

6:30 p.m. on May 30—the first weekend Mass for the parish in 10 weeks.

In its place, he quickly organized a livestreamed praying of the Divine Mercy Chaplet. More than 1,200 people viewed the prayer service.

“First, we prayed for victims of racial violence,” Father Nagel said. “We’re certainly aware of that injustice. We also prayed for peace in our city and nation.”

It was a hopeful way for Father Nagel to start his nightlong vigil over his parish.

“People were looking for a way to pray and make sense in the midst of it,” he said. “They saw what happened the night before, and it was pretty clear it was going to happen again. It was good for all of us to pray together.”

As day turned into night in the city and a peaceful protest once again became violent, Father Nagel continued praying as he walked on the parish grounds.

“I credit the Holy Spirit and the Blessed Mother [for keeping me safe], because I was praying through them through the night,” he said. “I was very aware that it was the vigil of Pentecost. I had to trust that the Holy Spirit was present in a very particular way.

“I knew that I was protected.”

He also knew of that protection by a flood of text and social media messages letting him know of the prayers of many people for him and the parish.

“The people were amazing,” Father Nagel said. “They took to prayer. I felt like I was surrounded by a great army of prayer warriors and faithful people.”

Many of those people offered to come to St. John to help Father Nagel. He politely declined, however, telling them that the police were blocking off access to the area and because many of them were parents of young children who needed to stay out of harm’s way.

‘One of the greatest gifts’

Owen Duckett came to the parish without contacting Father Nagel. He wrote about his experience in a Facebook post, saying that, while he knew it was dangerous, he felt “a very strong draw within myself” to go. Father Nagel recalled the encounter in his conversation with The Criterion.

Duckett parked his car in a location far from St. John and went the rest of the way by bicycle. There he saw Father Nagel in the parish’s parking lot, “doing the unthinkable—standing guard over his parish and the most Blessed Sacrament, rosary in hand.”

After unsuccessfully trying to persuade the priest to go indoors, Duckett, a member of Our Lady of the Most Holy Rosary Parish in Indianapolis, received a blessing from Father Nagel and began to ride away.

Then he heard shouting and turned around to see four protesters approaching Father Nagel, who had peacefully asked them to leave the parish property.

“One of the men stepped up to confront Father [Nagel], and appeared to be an instant away from striking him when I began shouting ‘Don’t touch him. He’s a Catholic priest,’ and ran into the scene,” Duckett wrote. “One of the group members had the sense to call off his companions from the confrontation and the young men walked on.

“ … This was single-handedly one of the most Christ-like acts I have witnessed from the priesthood in my life; a pastor standing guard over his parish and Our Lord in the Eucharist while hell was swirling around him.”

Father Nagel takes a more modest view of his witness that night.

“Any of my brother priests would have done the same thing,” he said. “We love our holy mother Church. We love the Eucharist, which is inside. We’re always going to stand by it and protect that which we love.”

While Father Nagel had a handful of combative confrontations on the night of May 30-31, most were positive. In many, he learned of the pain protesters had experienced from racism.

“That was one of the greatest gifts of the whole night,” he said. “I learned so much. You could see the brokenness, heartache and deep wounds of the people. Lord, show us how you want us to be a voice for that injustice.”

‘You’re welcome here, too’

The nightlong vigil ended peacefully. Father Nagel was unharmed and the only damage done to the parish was graffiti spray-painted by protesters on the wall of its courtyard and parking lot. After Father Nagel posted photos of the graffiti on Facebook, parishioners from St. John, Our Lady of the Greenwood in Greenwood and a homeless man living near St. John cleaned the walls by the middle of Sunday morning.

Father Nagel joyfully celebrated Sunday Mass with his parishioners at 8 and 10:30 a.m., after such liturgies had been suspended for more than two months because of the coronavirus pandemic.

“It was so good to be back together to worship and gather as the body of Christ,” he recalled.

The last Mass of the day began at 7 p.m.

The congregation was small because a strict curfew in the city was set to begin an hour later. Police were out in force on the streets as the Mass began.

“You could hear the sirens,” Father Nagel said. “You could hear the helicopters overhead. I told them, ‘You’re small, but mighty.’ We prayed for peace in our city, for a change of heart in all the grave injustices in our society.”

St. John parishioner Alexandra Makris was in the congregation. The violence of the previous two nights had at first made her anxious about going to the liturgy.

“There’s been a lot of fear lately,” she said. “I’ve definitely been feeling some of that fear, too. … But I was tired of letting evil have control over me in that way. Going to Mass is a good thing, especially on Pentecost.”

Makris has loved St. John Parish since she was a student at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis and was received into the full communion of the Church there. She is proud of how her parish is an active part of the broader community, a pride that has only increased by the way that it and Father Nagel responded to unrest that surrounded it.

“You can close off and be suspicious, or you can open up,” Makris said. “And St. John is a great example of how to open up so it can show people the Church. We’re not going away. You’re welcome here, too.” †


See also: A Prayer for Racial Healing

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