LOUISVILLE, Ky. — The First Unitarian Church of Louisville has received criticism and threats for offering itself as a safe space to protesters, church leaders said Saturday.

What You Need To Know

  • Louisville’s First Unitarian Church has served as a safe space for protesters

  • The church has received threats and criticism for its role

  • On Friday, a group of armed men intimidated church volunteers

  • Pastor Lori Kyle says she’s undeterred

“There certainly has been some negative feedback,” said Pastor Lori Kyle. She said criticism has been “largely rhetorical,” but on Friday, at least two church volunteers felt concerned for their personal safety when a group of gun-toting men drove back and forth down the alley behind the church. 

Peggy Muller, president of the church's board of trustees, said the men made sure the volunteers — one a mother, the other a woman in a wheelchair — knew they were armed.

“They scared the hell out of our volunteers,” said Muller, who described the threat as “very aggressive and very scary.” 

“They were thinking ‘Those people are going to kill us,’” she said of the volunteers. Mueller also said she’s received several emails from people who “hate everyone.”

“One said that we would go to 'hell in a handbasket' because we’re supporting ‘bad’ people,” she said. 

Kyle explained that the church began opening its doors to protesters on Thursday after the “congregation decided people needed to have the opportunity to be out, to be able to express themselves, and to have a voice in this important time.”

Under Mayor Greg Fischer’s curfew, people must be off the streets by 9 p.m, but there’s an exception for church services. That loophole resulted in more than 100 of people gathering on First Unitarian property Thursday night as curfew began. After a nearly three-hour standoff, and the arrest of some who didn't make it to the church in time, police left the area, Muller said, allowing protesters gathered there to go home.

Kyle said the church is serving as both a place of rest and a place of refuge for demonstrators. On Saturday, six hours before curfew, donors dropped off bottles of water and grocery bags full of food. Another brought pots of home-cooked food. The church also hosts shuttle services and provides assistance for those who have been arrested. “It’s been very gratifying to receive such outputs of generosity,” Kyle said. “People just wanted to contribute in some way.”

The church's membership is largely white, Kyle said, but the fight that the protesters are engaged in goes beyond racial lines. “It’s about a love of justice and recognition of the need to fight for it, especially after Wednesday’s announcement,” she said, referencing the grand jury decision to charge one of the three officers involved in Breonna Taylor’s killing. 

Chris Wells, a protest leader who was at the church Saturday afternoon, said he’s aware of the threats made against it and is not surprised by them. “It just shows you our nation,” he said. Wells said he’s never received any threats personally and invited anyone unhappy with the Louisville protest movement to come to him. “Don’t threaten out white allies,” he said. 

For her part, Kyle said the negativity coming the church’s way has not swayed her from her mission. “There hasn’t been anything that for a moment that has had us consider stopping,” she said.