Dozens in the United Church of Christ faith community in North Carolina are making a weekly pilgrimage to Raleigh, willing to be handcuffed as they advocate for change -- and speak out against the state legislature. UCC ministers and members alike have been active participants in "Moral Mondays," acts of civil disobedience from North Carolinians in response to a slew of proposed policies – from the state budget to education to voting rights – from a state legislature that they claim isn't representing the public interest.
Almost 500 people have been arrested over the course of seven weeks, including 84 on Monday, June 17.
United Church of Chapel Hill pastor the Rev. Jill Edens, the Rev. Susan Steinberg, and congregation members Dave Otto and Kira Frescoln were among those handcuffed and taken to jail Monday as they rallied inside the statehouse. The congregation has been sending about 25 people each week to participate in the protests, which started on April 29.
"I think everyone is looking for a faithful way of responding to the growing alarm of legislation moving through the North Carolina legislature," Edens said. "It's been a blizzard, and it makes it hard to focus on any one [piece of legislation] since everything is at stake. It seems like it's every day that something new gets submitted. There's a wholesale overturning of a lot of legislation from the past."
Among the proposed legislation that has led to the weekly protests; Changes to voter ID laws, refusal to expand Medicaid even though citizens are paying taxes for it, ending state unemployment insurance, and even a law that would permit carrying a firearm on a playground. Edens and the other protestors say those policies adversely affect everyone except the wealthy.
The Rev. William Barber, a Disciples of Christ minister and director of the state NAACP chapter, has been a key organizer and leader of the rallies, with congregations from a number of different denominations involved in the rallies. Moral Mondays has gained enough traction in UCC churches, the Southern Conference has created a Facebook page devoted to the movement, and Edens has allotted time during Sunday worship to offer blessing for congregants who plan to protest or be arrested the following day.
"We do a blessing of witnesses every week. It's become regular," Edens said. "At first it was five or six people, and on last Sunday, we've had about 30 people we blessed to go be arrested or supporters on the mall."
Edens' reason for participating in the rally, and her willingness to be among the arrested people, was "to exercise my constitutional right under the North Carolina Constitution for citizens to assemble and instruct the legislature about our grave concerns about the way its agenda was affecting children, the poor, those needing health care, the environment, voting rights and equal treatment under the law for all North Carolinians," she said. Edens felt that anyone from the congregation volunteering to be arrested shouldn't have to do so alone, so when Fescoln, 19, signed up, Edens decided to join her because "I didn't want her to go alone. As it turned out Susan and Dave also stepped up and we formed a nice group from United Church."
Early on, Andrew Short, a member of United Church of Chapel Hill, said about one-third to half of the crowd at Moral Mondays were members from their congregation. But they now make up a smaller fraction since the crowds grow larger by the week. Short was arrested with the second group on May 6, with about 30 other people.
"The hardest part was psyching myself up to do it," he said. "It wasn't a horrible experience. You're going in with people committed to the same thing, and it's an extreme situation and it felt like the right thing. But coming to terms with the idea of breaking the law on purpose? It took me a day and a half of working through it to become comfortable."
The rallies have been so large, numbering in the thousands, and the issues at the heart of the matter are so numerous and widespread that each Moral Monday has a specific theme. On June 17, it was all about the environment. Next week, the topic is labor issues.
Shirley Brit, chairperson of the Economic Justice Task Force at Community UCC in Raleigh, an Economic Justice Church, said that several people from the congregation are also involved in "Moral Mondays."
"Since it appears that the protests will continue while the legislature is in session — which could go into July — we have started weekly meetings on Sunday mornings at the church to share information and to plan for the next Moral Monday," Brit said.
"It's not always the same 2,000 people, and it's not the same people being arrested each week. It's a bigger movement than just saying it draws a thousand people a week, considering that different people are coming from such distances," said Henry Lister, the United Church of Chapel Hill member who's organizing the UCC-SOC Facebook page.
The Rev. Suzanne Lamport, a retired UCC minister and member of United Church of Chapel Hill, has attended the weekly protests "because what [the legislature is] doing is wrong and people need to stand together," she said. "We don't want to go backwards, or [show] that rich people are more important. We believe all people are important to God."
Said Edens, "This is going to be a long haul — until at least November 2014 for the next vote — and we're in it for the long haul."
"My view of how this affects that state is not that the legislature will listen, but the presence draws attention from across the state," Short said. "I think the people of this state, when they see the types of legislation being cast, they will react and call on their legislators to change."
For more information on the UCC involvement in Moral Monday, visit the UCC-SOC Facebook Page.