TODAY’S FOCUS: Despite Jail Terms, Activist Clergy Continue Struggle
CLAIRTON, Pa. (AP) _ Every Sunday morning, they gather quietly to pray, break bread and sing hymns of praise - God-fearing people bent on helping the unemployed by wiping out ″corporate evil.″
It’s a show of solidarity as much as a religious service, a testimonial to the controversial campaign by a handful of activist clergy and unionists that began in earnest in this stagnant steel valley two years ago.
It’s also evidence that the struggle, though much diminished, lives on.
″As always, it seems the prophet is least understood at home. The farther away we get, the more we seem to be understood,″ D. Douglas Roth, 34, told 13 worshippers in a sermon delivered last Sunday in the dining room of his Clairton home.
His four children, aged 2 to 10, sat, squirming, in the first of three rows of folding chairs. His wife, Nadine, 34, stood in the back near the kitchen.
″All we want is for all to work and live honorable lives and to have a church that is really a church,″ the defrocked Lutheran pastor said.
Although no longer a minister, at least in the eyes of the Lutheran church, Roth dons his white cassock and green stole every Sunday at 9 a.m. for the hour-long service at his modest, frame home on a hillside overlooking a string of smoky steel mills along the Monongahela River.
He’s been preaching at home since last March, when he finished serving a 112-day jail term for defying his court-backed firing as pastor of Clairton’s Trinity Lutheran Church. About half his 145-member congregation had sought his dismissal. He was expelled from the ministry three months later.
The 58-year-old stone church has been chained shut since January 1985, when sheriff’s deputies stormed the building and arrested seven Roth supporters barricaded inside.
Until a new pastor is hired, the church will remain closed and its congregation disbanded, according to the Rev. Edward Kappeler of the Western Pennsylvania-West Virginia Synod of the Lutheran Church in America.
So far, about 20 people have been interviewed for the job, but ″we’ve not found anyone who has wanted to go there,″ Kappeler said.
Roth’s guiding light is the Denominational Ministry Strategy, a small group of ministers and labor activists who blame Pittsburgh corporations for contributing to the area’s high blue-collar unemployment by investing overseas.
Although unemployment currently totals 8.8 percent in the Pittsburgh area, the jobless rate has pushed past 24 percent in surrounding mill towns hit by plant closings.
Since Easter 1984, Roth and the approximately dozen other DMS leaders have disrupted services at churches attended by corporate executives. They’ve also sprayed synthetic skunk oil in local stores and banks to draw attention to the plight of laid-off steelworkers and others.
Such confrontational tactics, condemned by many, even the unemployed, have prompted some DMS supporters to abandon the group.
″I question the focus. And I never did like the tactics. That just wasn’t my style,″ said the Rev. John Yedlicka, 45, pastor of Lutheran Church of Our Redeemer in nearby McMurray.
Yedlicka joined the DMS about four years ago, when its primary aim was job training and leadership development. He dropped out early last year.
″I do feel they are raising some questions that need to be addressed. But unfortunately, because of the history and development of DMS, their voice is no longer being heard,″ he said.
Mike Bonn, 45, a former United Steelworkers local president who led the DMS in its first church protest, left the group last May for similar reasons.
″I don’t fault them for what they do. They’re good people and all, but in looking at the results, the results are not what I wanted to happen,″ Bonn said. ″In order to win the battle, to bring jobs to Pittsburgh, we’ve got to find some way to bring the majority of people together on this issue.″
DMS supporters contend, however, that their job is to highlight the unemployment problem, not solve it.
″We’ve never had the power economically to create any kinds of jobs. The only power we have is to bring the situation to the forefront,″ Mrs. Roth said.
Roth currently is traveling to universities as far away as North Carolina, presenting a 57-minute documentary entitled ″Fighting Ministers″ which depicts DMS’ efforts. The film is narrated and largely financed by actor David Soul, brother of the Rev. Daniel Solberg, a Lutheran pastor and DMS supporter.
Soul was placed on two years’ probation and fined $1,000 last month for his role in a demonstration last Easter at a Pittsburgh church.
The DMS, as the documentary shows, has had its share of casualties.
Since his dismissal, Roth and his family have been forced to subsist on food stamps and donations. Solberg has been fired as pastor of his Pittsburgh- area church and also faces defrocking. Bonn credits his involvement for losing his bid for the presidency of a USW local and consequently losing his mill job.