Written by Barb Powell
WASHINGTON, D.C. The U.S. Attorney on Oct. 11 cleared a group of interfaith church leaders –– including a former president of the United Church of Christ and the director of the UCC’s Washington, D.C., office –– of charges stemming from their July 28 arrest for holding a prayer vigil in the U.S. Capitol Rotunda. The vigil was in response to the threatened shutdown of the federal government over the deadlocked legislation.
In exchange, group members agreed stay out of the U.S. Capitol Building for six months.
The "Interfaith 11" had been charged with intending to disrupt Congress, a misdemeanor, after praying for about 90 minutes and refusing to leave the Rotunda.
The 11 –– also known in the Washington, D.C., area as the "Rotunda 11" –– prayed for a budget agreement that protects poor, infirm and disadvantaged persons in the United States and abroad, and called on everyone in the country to bear a fair share of the nation’s financial burdens.
Prior to the status hearing at the U.S. Superior Court, the "Interfaith 11" gathered on the building’s steps for an 8 a.m. prayer press conference.
"Sovereign One, God of many names, you created a world of abundance, enough for all," prayed the Rev. Michael Livingston, director of the NCC Poverty Initiative and past president of the National Council of Churches of Christ (USA). "We fight and hoard, buy and sell what you intend for the whole human family, and creatures great and small. We plunder the earth beneath us and despoil sea and air for profit, empty gain.
"Bless this small sacrifice we have made and the precious friends who gather round us. May our witness be one spark among the many needed to ignite a still latent truth: we are one people sharing one destiny on the only planet we will ever call home."
The Rev. Jennifer Butler, executive director of Faith and Public Life, a strategy center for advancing faith, said, "Today I fear our leaders are turning away from freedom and back to enslavement to greed. They’re turning away from a God that tells us to love our neighbor as ourselves. And we have made false idols out of a false market."
Prior to today’s proceedings, Sandy Sorensen, head of the UCC’s Washington office, questioned cutting programs for vulnerable communities in order to decrease the deficit. "What about the deficit we’d be creating in the quality of human life and human community?" she said. "What's that going to mean for people who are already on the edge?"
While fines and community service were waived for the group, Sorensen noted that the treatment of the "Interfaith 11" seemed inconsistent and, at times, harsh. For example, all 11 were ordered to participate in a weekly drug test for three consecutive weeks.
"What was telling and poignant about going through the drug tests is that our prayer was intended to lift up the voices of the marginalized, and here we all are going into Superior Court three weeks in a row, standing with the people we’re praying for –– those caught in the criminal justice system," said Sorensen.
"You can tell that the people in that line are totally being let down by the political gamesmanship that's going on," she added. "If only members of Congress would come here and stand in this line for an hour and see what people are up against."
Nine of the 11 have completed the drug testing. "The cases of two members are being handled separately,” said Sorensen. One of the group, Rabbi Arthur Waskow, is currently being treated for throat cancer, but the government's attorney keeps reiterating that the drug-testing is non-negotiable, Sorensen added.
While describing Capitol Police as "generally very professional" during the arrest and detention process, Sorensen voiced concern over a recent trend in crackdowns on civil disobedience.
"We were handcuffed to a wall," she said. "I hadn't experienced this before in a civil disobedience action. The whole process, for all of us, seemed disorganized. They'd make one decision, then reverse it. It was unusually erratic. There's clearly been a turn in the way they’re handling that kind of thing."
"My concern is that I had resources to engage in that action [and deal with the legal after-effects]," said Sorensen. "What about people who may not have that, but want to be a part of the process, want to speak out? Civil disobedience is part of the history of this country."
"I think it is an opportune time to tap into the frustration that is welling up across the country –– time to reclaim the democratic process heading into the 2012 elections," said Sorensen.
Reflecting before the event, the Rev. Paul H. Sherry, former UCC president and current director of the Washington office of Interfaith Worker Justice, said, "Our nation's budget problems can be addressed, but only if all of us accept responsibility for the welfare of all."
In addition to Livingston and Butler, those speaking at the prayer press conference included the Rev. J. Herbert Nelson, director of public witness for Presbyterian Church (USA) and the Rev. Bob Edgar, president of Common Cause. Other members of the Interfaith 11 include: James Winkler, general secretary, General Board of Church and Society, United Methodist Church; Waskow, Shalom Center in Philadelphia; Jordan Blevins, director of Peace Witness Ministries, Church of the Brethren; Martin Shupack, Director of Advocacy, Church World Service; and Sister Jean Stokan, Sisters of Mercy and Pax Christi USA.
The 1.2-million-member United Church of Christ, with national offices in Cleveland, has some 5,200 local congregations in the United States. It was formed by the 1957 union of the Congregational Christian Churches and the Evangelical and Reformed Church.