AP National Writer

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) _ The story of how the First Unitarian Church of Louisville flung open its doors to protesters who marched for justice for Breonna Taylor began years before the helicopters swirled overhead, before police in riot gear began marching up the alley.

It began with much quieter moments, in the hearts of congregants like Pam Middleton.

She came to First Unitarian in 2012, at her darkest hour. Her husband had died, and she’d fallen into despair, and the First Unitarian community helped her begin again. She found joy; she joined a dance group.

But when one dancer, a Black woman, posted online that she was terrified of being brutalized by police when she walked outside, Middleton was stunned, and also ashamed. In the 1960s, she’d fought for women’s rights. She protested the war in Vietnam. But she did not march for racial justice. She had tried to atone ever since.

First Unitarian, like Middleton, had humbled itself with the hard self-reflection she believes all white Americans must undertake: Congregants considered their church’s progressive actions throughout history, the times they rose to the moment, but also the times they had failed.

The church has for months played a background role in the protest movement in a downtown square a mile away that demonstrators have occupied in honor of Taylor, the 26-year-old emergency medical technician killed in her home when police burst through her door in the middle of the night in a botched drug raid. This was an opportunity to quietly drop off ice, to bandage wounds, to listen to Black voices.

In the background is where they wanted to remain. But then, a string of serendipitous events thrust them into the spotlight and into history.

When the church told protest leaders that people could seek refuge there as needed, they assumed small groups might need shelter from time to time. But demonstrators were marching nearby as curfew fell. There was a small fire at the public library across the street, and police in riot gear with guns and batons closed in. A flurry of phone calls were made and the church declared itself a sanctuary and welcomed all to come inside.