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Religion: Outward, Christian Soldiers

4 minute read
Richard N. Ostling

On a normally quiet hillside street in Clairton, Pa., a detachment of 44 sheriff’s deputies armed with billy clubs arrived last week at Trinity Lutheran Church. After pushing waiting reporters off the church lawn, Allegheny County Sheriff Eugene Coon pointed a chrome bullhorn at the gray stone building and snapped, “Those of you inside the church, do you hear me? You have a court order to vacate. Open the doors and come out!” There was no response. Half a dozen of the deputies then broke down the rear door and arrested four men and three women occupying the church in defiance of a court order. Since some of the squatters had brandished baseball bats earlier in the week, Coon explained, “a show of force had to be made so there wouldn’t be any resistance or bloodshed.”

In court, the seven protesters, and an eighth ally picked up later, appeared defiant. Four of those arrested were sentenced to 60 days in jail. The other four face the judge this week, and one of these must answer an added contempt charge for refusing to halt a courtroom harangue.

All are ardent supporters of Trinity Church’s controversial pastor, D. Douglas Roth; their arrest marks the latest episode in an extraordinary series of events at his parish. Roth, who was appointed pastor of Trinity Lutheran in 1978, is a member of the Denominational Ministry Strategy, a social activist group of Pittsburgh-area clergy. D.M.S. is allied with a militant group of local labor leaders and unemployed workers, which has accused banks and businesses of undermining the local economy by investing funds and shifting jobs overseas.

The complaints of conservative parishioners about D.M.S. partisanship were relatively restrained until last year, when members of the contentious group began disrupting worship services at area churches attended by executives of targeted corporations. As a result, 71 of the 145 members of Roth’s church petitioned the Lutheran regional synod to investigate their pastor’s conduct. The parishioners accused him of devoting more attention to D.M.S. than to his flock’s spiritual needs. In October the synod’s executive board and Pittsburgh’s Bishop Kenneth May, applying rarely used provisions of the Lutheran Church in America’s national constitution, decided that Roth would have to give up his pulpit.

When Roth refused to comply and barricaded himself inside the Clairton church, Bishop May won a court order to oust him. Roth eventually surrendered, and on Nov. 13 was sentenced to 90 days in prison for contempt of court. A special Lutheran panel will soon consider whether Roth should be defrocked.

Meanwhile, the synod moved to take over the property of the deeply divided church. Roth’s supporters occupied the building on Dec. 27, turned away the bishop’s agents and produced the edgy standoff that ended last week. The group inside the church included Roth’s wife Nadine.

Another arrested squatter was Lutheran Pastor William Rex, a D.M.S. activist who faces additional troubles. Pittsburgh police accuse him of conspiring to plan a protest at Shadyside Presbyterian Church, where suspected D.M.S. members hurled balloons filled with dye and skunk spray at participants in a family Christmas pageant. In addition, members of Rex’s parishes in Monroeville and Trafford, Pa., have petitioned Bishop May to investigate the parson’s conduct.

At week’s end, Helen Ondich, a 30-year member of Trinity, who avoided services during the dispute, said, “Praise the Lord, it’s over.” But it is not. The activists plan new protests, defiance of the courts and, says one, “tougher” tactics. Ondich will also need a new place to worship. Bishop May has shut down Trinity “for an indefinite period” until the turmoil is over.

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