By Oz Cole-Arnal, former professor emeritus at Waterloo Lutheran Seminary
My wife Marian, my oldest boy Bill, three friends from my first parish (George and Julie MacLeod and their daughter Stacy) and,I chose to celebrate Christ’s resurrection at Shadyside Presbyterian Church in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. This congregation shares with East Liberty Presbyterian Church the distinction of being the church of the prominent, wealthy and respectable. At Shadyside Presbyterian worship some of Pittsburgh’s leading banking and steel magnates representing such corporate heavyweights as Mellon Bank, United States Steel and Dravo Corporation. There is an Alice in Wonderland quality to this neighborhood and church. The lawns are manicured and spacious, the houses made of stone and surrounded by trees and shrubbery which bear the mark of the finest in professional gardeners. And the church? It too has the stamp of breeding – large, reddish brown stone, an usher in tuxedo waiting to lead the stylish worshippers to their pews.
Yet less than one-half hour away by car lie the quiet mills of Pittsburgh’s dying steel industry. There they s-rt, corpses of corporate decisions made by some prominent members of Shadyside Presbyterian Church – good news for the profit seekers sending capital investment to the Third World but not “good news for the poor,” not good news for the almost 300,000 unemployed because of options chosen by some of the prominent folk of Shadyside Presbyterian Church.
But the jobless would not go away, and they chose the day of Resurrection to mingle with the mink coats and tailored suits. Marching up the sidewalk were the ranks of the unemployed. On their shoulders they carried pieces of scrap iron, the rusted droppings of the closed factories that no longer welcomed their toil. They had discarded steel for the offering plates of Shadyside Presbyterian Church, the only wealth they could afford when the mills ground to a halt. Led by a coalition of radical clergy and grass-roots union chiefs called the Denominational Ministry Strategy and the Network to Save the Mon-Ohio Valley, the unemployed decided to fight back by bringing the pain of their suffering and the Word of God to the doors of corporate Christendom. There they were met by police and paddy wagons – a phalanx of armed legality to protect the beautiful people from a Lutheran pastor, Bible quoting trade unionists and the scrap iron offerings of the unemployed.
Like Amos of old they cried out against the wealth of those who “trample on the needy and try to destroy the poor” (8:4). They read Scripture, asked to worship with their social betters and called for the opportunity to lay the pieces of their padlocked mills at the altar of Shadyside Presbyterian Church. But they could not; the police would not allow them to enter the portals with those who had decided without them to close down the mills in which they and their fathers had toiled for generations. “Why on Easter,” cried out Mike Bonn, a United Steelworkers’ union president, “the holiest day of the year, why on Easter, can’t I worship here?” It was already too late; it was time for Shadyside’s worshippers to be left in peace. Into the paddy wagons the four leaders were hustled to be taken down town, printed, processed and arraigned before a judge.
We turned away with the others. I walked to the car with my family and friends, feeling the weight of that piece of scrap iron in my hand. Jim Wiley, a steelworker had placed it there. “When you write your book about us,” he said, “tell them this piece of iron represents 8,000 unemployed in Alliquippa, Pennsylvania.” Where would we go now to celebrate Christ’s resurrection? “I can’t go in there and worship, not after this,’ said Marian, and my son said, “Dad, let’s go with the others to the jail. I want that to be our Easter worship.” And that’s what we did. We crowded into a grimy and dingy courtroom in that jail, about sixty people, to watch a seemingly bored and patronizing judge process the four prophet prisoners. There were wives, friends, workers (some barely knew English), other clergy fresh from their own Easter services and children. They came to show solidarity for their arrested leaders.
Out they came one by one to stand before the judge who monotonously
repeated the three charges: “disorderly conduct,” “defiant trespass,” ”failure to disperse.” There was Mike Bonn, quiet and dignified in his jeans and steelworkers’ jacket. “I will one day preach in that pulpit,” he told me. “They are afraid; they know there are people there who want prophetic ministry.” The Rev. Doug Roth came next, a Lutheran minister dressed in clerical black. He was ordinary looking, quiet, a man of few words. Rev. Roth was no stranger to the courts and jails. He had just spent 90 days in a cell for refusing to abandon his activist ministry for the unemployed at Trinity Lutheran Church, Clairton, Pennsylvania. “Happy Easter, Rev. Roth,” said the judge with a trace of amusement. Without a smile Roth replied, “He is risen!” Darrell Becker was next, the local union president of locked out shipbuilders. There he stood, neat and proud in his Sunday best, holding a Bible in his hands while waiting for the judge to pronounce the date of his hearing. Last of all came the actor David Soul, well-known for his role in “Starsky and Hutch.” For him the judge had a special wrinkle – pay $5,000.00 bond money in cash, not by cheque, or remain in jail until the hearing five days later. After an hour when we left for Canada David Soul had not been released with the others.
We stayed, we mingled and we saw the new life of faith and hope in a dirty courtroom. We experienced a gospel for “the least of these.” As Darrell Becker and I talked after his release, I remembered his words to me in that interview one month earlier in his local union office, shortly after he had served a thirty-day jail sentence: saw Pastor Roth get arrested from his altar, and I’m deeply convinced that he was doing it for the unemployed. I’m the president of a union. I have fifteen hundred people that have been thrown out of work by a corporation because we would not take a 38% wage cut while they were instituting long-range incentive plans for their corporate directors. What kind of person would I be if I could allow Pastor Roth to fight for the unemployed and so to jail while I stood back and said that I was fighting for the unemployed and not be prepared to run the risk of going to jail myself.”
I’m sure that the service at Shadyside Presbyterian church was a polished masterpiece – a combination of musical and oratorical artistry, indeed the very best that money could buy. But I could not help but remember the apostolic criminals of long ago who broke the law to preach the gospel of the resurrection. I remember Peter’s words to his accusers: “We must obey God rather than (Acts 5:29). Somehow, it seemed more appropriate to my family to hold a piece of scrap metal rather than an Easter lily, more proper to celebrate Easter in that police building with Mike Bonn, Doug Roth, Darrell Becker and David Soul than to sit in “the comfortable pew” called Shadyside Presbyterian Church.