At Protests, Some Clergy Pray, Others Put Their Bodies and Souls on the Line

Ordained United Methodist elder the Rev. Laura Young, center, receives care from bystanders after being pepper sprayed by police during a anti-racism demonstration in Columbus, Ohio, Saturday, May 30, 2020. “I was pepper sprayed in the face, intentionally, with no warning, by police,” she said. “We as clergy need to be standing with the marginalized … If we’re going to put our faith into action, which is a phrase a lot of Methodists like to use, what better way to do it than when it’s really needed?” Photo by Monica Lewis

Many religious traditions call on believers to stand with the marginalized, an axiom often interpreted as a broad command to defend the rights of others.

Sometimes this means pushing for new laws or marching in streets to demand action.

Other times it means getting pepper-sprayed in the face.

This past weekend the Rev. Laura Young said she decided to take the edict literally, which is why she spent most of Saturday afternoon (May 30) recovering after police sprayed her in the face with noxious chemicals.

“I had it in my ears, in my eyes,” said Young, describing the moment an officer sprayed her while she was standing — wearing clerical robes and a red Pentecost stole — at the front of an anti-racist protest in Columbus, Ohio.

Young, a 50-something United Methodist minister who describes herself as a “tentmaker pastor,” was one of many clergy around the country who took part in the demonstrations that sprang up in response to the death of George Floyd.

They often took different approaches in their protesting.

Some preferred to express solidarity from afar — from their pulpits or social media accounts. Others organized their own faith-based demonstrations. A few activist-minded believers decided to, as they described it, “use their privilege” to put their bodies on the line in confrontations with police.

For Young, a longtime liberal activist, the best way to carry out her ministry was to leap directly into the fray. Her close encounter with police was recorded on her Facebook livestream, which showcased images of an armed officer pointing the canister at her and releasing a stream of pepper spray.

Young said the experience was painful, likening the burning sensation in her eyes to “touching a hot stove.” But when strangers carried her to the safety of a nearby church, things took on a more spiritual dimension.

“I felt like I was on the Jericho road,” she said, a reference to the biblical parable of the good Samaritan. “I think we as clergy need to be literally standing with people in the margins.”

Other clergy had similarly harrowing experiences.

The Rev. Alan Dicken, a Disciples of Christ minister, told Religion News Service in a phone interview that he was tear-gassed while participating in a demonstration in Louisville, Kentucky, on Friday. The next day, he was shot with nonlethal projectiles in Cincinnati.

Dicken said he was attempting to de-escalate tensions between an advancing line of police and demonstrators in Ohio when officers opened fire, striking him several times.

The Rev. Al Sharpton, center, speaks at Greater Grace Church in Florissant, Mo., on Aug. 17, 2014, during a rally for justice for Michael Brown, an unarmed teen shot by Darren Wilson, a Ferguson police officer. Photo by Christian Gooden/St. Louis Post-Dispatch

“I’m wearing a clergy collar and a stole with my Disciples of Christ logo on it,” he said, noting that he also participated in anti-racism demonstrations in Ferguson, Missouri, after the 2014 shooting of Michael Brown. “I’ve never seen such aggressive action unprompted.”

Dicken spoke to RNS while participating in yet another protest, raising his voice to be heard over the sounds of chanting.

Like Young, he said his activism is a matter of faith.

“In my reading, Jesus was very clear about what his ministry is, and how following him means taking up that cross,” he said. “It doesn’t lead to acceptance or being loved all the time. It often leads to being scorned, to being shot at, tear-gassed, whatever. To follow that Jesus means to love in a way that sometimes puts you in harm’s way, and that’s not something to be afraid of.”

The bold — and often unsung — activism of faith leaders such as Young and Dicken echoes the work of clergy who participated in anti-racism demonstrations in Ferguson and in Charlottesville, Virginia, when white supremacists stormed the town in 2017.

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Source: Religion News Service