UCC Executive Council supports boycott of Cincinnati
Written by Jimi Izrael
July - August 2002

But did the process fail Cincinnati's local churches?

Sometimes the way things are planned aren't the way they turn out.

Take the recent UCC Executive Council vote to support the boycott of Cincinnati, for example. Meeting on April 22 in St. Louis, the Executive Council, composed of 76-78 laity and clergy from all over the country, endorsed the boycott sparked by the shooting of 19-year-old Timothy Thomas. Thomas, an unarmed black man, was killed by Officer Stephen Roach in the "Over the Rhine" area, inciting three days of social unrest.

On June 5, the UCC held press conferences in Cincinnati and Cleveland announcing support for the boycott. Within 24 hours, word came back from Cincinnati-area churches about the resolution's impact, but it wasn't the word that was expected.

"Disastrous," says the Rev. Thomas Eisentrout of Immanuel UCC. "The impact in local churches has been disastrous. [The press release] made it look like all the churches agreed with the boycott, but most don't. We feel like there was a breach in the covenantal relationship between the local church and the national setting. My church is thinking about dropping our UCC standing."

Consensus opinion?

Local church pastors were disturbed by the proclamation, saying it lacked substance on many levels, including the lack of a theological foundation. The Rev. Pat McKinney of Fleming Road UCC says it's another example of how process fails in the UCC. "I'm dealing with very strong feelings from my members, from a shrug of the shoulders to those that want to leave the denomination," he says. "This is another example of something handed down by the church that people don't feel represents a consensus opinion."

However, Executive Council resolutions are not intended to reflect a consensus of local church opinion. In accordance with UCC Bylaws, they come to the Council from many different bodies of the church—in this case, from Ministers for Racial, Social and Economic Justice—and are discussed and voted on. If passed, they speak to and not for the church, as local churches are autonomous entities.

Local churches agree on one thing. As the Rev. Howard Storm of Zion UCC puts it, "None of the white UCC churches supports the boycott." That is to say, none of the UCC churches in Cincinnati supports the boycott—except one.

Systemic evil

The Rev. William Land of La Amistad UCC led the effort to pass the resolution. Land has had a long time presence in the area of the city known as Over the Rhine. First settled by German people who thought the area looked a lot like home, with a canal resembling the Rhine River, they gave it this name and it stuck.

Today the predominately black region is plagued by low birth rates, 83 percent poverty and rampant crime. Mere blocks from downtown's new development, human feces, broken glass and crack addicts litter the dismal streets lined with abandoned buildings, pawn shops and liquor stores. Every corner appears to have a drug dealer, a prostitute, or both.

Nevertheless, Land drew criticism from church and community leaders of all stripes who wonder if a boycott is the answer. "This resolution speaks to the systemic evil of the city," says Land. "[Cincinnati] is not only racist but homophobic. Issue 3 says gays and lesbians don't have any rights. It's a city that is based on privilege of the upperclass, because downtown development is in the charter, but neighborhood development is not. Something is not right. We have to speak to these issues."

"A boycott is an extreme measure," counters the Rev. Steve Steiner of Immanuel UCC. "It's a last resort, as I understand the civil rights movement. Many black Africans don't support it, many black clergy don't support it, let alone the Caucasian folks. I did some marching and all that, but I feel the boycott is unrealistic." He accuses Land and others of grandstanding on a movement that is short on specifics and long on rhetoric, with no apparent end in sight. Land disagrees.

"The boycott has all sorts of specifics," he says. "We want neighborhood development, we want the repeal of Issue 3, we want the community to be able to hold the police accountable, we want amnesty for a lot of young people that were caught up in the rebellion." When asked why the language of the resolution contains no theological rationale, Land smiles.

"Look," he says, "Maybe we should have put some God-talk in there, but we know we are God's people and we know what we are called to do. To those that need everything spoon-fed, that are still 'drinking milk,' as Paul said, I apologize!"

Different perspectives

However, Robert D. Sandman, a member of Lakeview UCC in Maineville and Ohio Conference delegate to the Board of Directors of the Office of General Ministries and the Executive Council, submits that a faith statement is an important addendum. "The standard rule for Synod does require theological rationale for resolutions, and resolutions before the Executive Council should require the same," he says.

Whether the process failed, says Sandman, has to do with different perspectives.

"There are people that feel that the suffering has gone on long enough, and that the time to respond is now," he says. "Those people feel like the process worked. Others feel like a slower and more deliberative process is better, and people with that perspective believe the process failed."

The national boards have the right in their own autonomy, says Sandman, to pass a resolution without consulting other settings of the UCC. In this sense, the process functioned in an allowable way. Local church pastors question both the resolution and a boycott, and there is no shortage of voices in the pews eager to register an opinion as well.

"A lot of people don't think the boycott makes sense," says Wes Iiames, a member of St. Peter/St. Paul UCC. "Most of the people that work in the hotel kitchens downtown are black...How do you help them by threatening their livelihood?" Iiames suggests that the 19 police shootings and the shooting of Timothy Thomas that sparked unrest and a subsequent boycott last year may be addressed by better home training.

"My mother taught me that when a police officer tells me to stop, I stop," he says. "And you know what? I've never been shot. That was a lesson that these young men's mothers apparently left out. If those young men had played by the rules of society, they'd be with us to help make our community better. A boycott is not an effective vehicle for achieving change."

Do boycotts work?

According to Dorothy Salem, Professor of African American History at Cleveland State University and author of several textbooks, history does not support that assertion. "The Cincinnati boycott can be effective if pressure comes from both inside and outside," she says. "A great example is the boycott of South Carolina because of the state government's refusal to remove the Confederate flag. That boycott brought a compromise that wouldn't have happened without the boycott. The boycott of South Africa also put pressure on the government to change."

What about the economic hardship facing those people in the Over the Rhine neighborhood, many of whom may lose employment and suffer further hardship as the result of the boycott?

"You can't have a boycott where some people don't get hurt," says Salem. "During the Montgomery bus boycott, people walked miles to work, were fired from their jobs, lost medical benefits, and had to worry about physical confrontation, yet they chose to boycott for a higher good."

Boycotts are effective because they are the least confrontational form of social action, she says. They don't bring opposing forces into direct contact that could provoke violence.

"But," says Salem, "make no mistake. Boycotts work."

Institutional racism

While the need for change is clear to some, some think there are other reasons behind the response to the resolution.

"White people don't understand the institutional aspects of racism," says the Rev. Randall Wade of Trinity UCC. "If you grow up in an all-white community like many white people do, you know that whites tend to isolate and insulate themselves from black people. The way I grew up, as a naive white kid, I'd hear about riots and go, 'Gosh, why are they so mad at us?' I'm not excusing white people, but you have to understand that this is all absolutely foreign to us. We don't get it. I think, by and large, we are the comfortable. We are the haves, and it's hard for us to give any ground."

"I believe the boycott calls for the white community to have to give up something, to be uncomfortable," concurs the Rev. Carol Wright of Price Hill UCC. "When people are uncomfortable, they begin to scream."

Where does the church go now?

"What the UCC churches need is to pray and study scripture in order to discern God's will for how we should respond to questions about our values," says Sandman, the Executive Council delegate, "autonomy vs. covenant, our own economics vs. economic justice for our entire community, and our actions regarding issues of power and privilege."