The next episode in my faith journey occurred in Denver, Colorado. I was serving there for a two year period from 1967 to 1969 as director of Core City Ministries, later the Ministry of Urban Concerns of the Colorado Council of Churches.
My work led me into close contact with the minority poor who were experiencing unrest because of how they were being treated by the political and economic power structure.
The particular incident I wish to relate occurred in the Spring of 1969 toward the end of the 47th session of the Colorado State legislature. Both houses of the legislature were dominated by conservative Republican representatives who, under the influence of lobbyists of the wealthy, had flagrantly avoided dealing with six crucial issues:
Police and Justice
Persons suffering from the denial of just treatment in these fields and advocates working with them had exhausted every possible means of presenting their cases before the various committees of both houses of the legislature, but all the progressive bills had been killed in committee.
Those of us in the forefront of the various churches who were directly working to empower the people with whom we related were acutely aware of this unrest. Meetings were held and different means of expressing the anger and frustration of the people were considered. The idea was formed to hold a funeral procession to call public attention to the intransigence of the legislature.
Ill never forget our "carpentry session" in the garage of a Mexican Methodist pastor(who happend to be a furniture maker,) serving one of the core city churches. There we constructed six life-size wooden and cardboard coffins, painted black, each labeled with one of the six crucial issues. The next day, May 5, 1968, we joined with the other protesters marching from the Greek Amphitheater to the State Capitol and placed the coffins on the floor of the rotunda, after which we stood quietly in a prayerful circle, experiencing the jokes and sneers of the state representatives who were passing by.
Though the demonstration had good visual impact, and a press photographer was present, the frustration was high, especially among the more militant, who felt that peaceful demonstrations were achieving nothing. Some of the marchers were ready to use molotov cocktails and other destructive actions. Those of us concerned to keep the movement nonviolent felt the need to plan a stronger, yet nonviolent action in order to give expression to the valid frustration of many. We convened across the street in St. Pauls Lutheran Church to plan our next move.
First, we asked all who were violently inclined to leave our meeting. Fourteen people remained: two Catholic priests, one Catholic nun, several other Catholic social workers, a few Protestants, a 63 yr. old Chicano man, a faithful attentant of Mass who was also a long term member of the communist party (a fact which the press made much ado about). Together we mapped a strategy for the following day.
The morning of May 6, we fourteen convened at St. Pauls. Following a short period of prayerful reflection, we crossed the street, went into the capitol and entered the Senate chambers by a back entrance near the podium. All but four of the senators hurriedly left the room in anger and confusion even though we tried hard to communicate with them about our intentions. We had a prepared statement to read. We waited patiently and quietly at the front of the Senate Chamber for them to return. Rather, they sent a contingent of state police who arrested us and carried us bodily from the building and into waiting police cars. None of us resisted or cooperated in any way.
We were charged with disturbing the peace, retained in custody for a short period of time and then released. Our trial was set for January of 1970 and we were all acquitted. George Brown, African American Senator who later became Lieutenant Governor, testified on our behalf. He was one of the few senators who had not fled the Senate chambers.
The press gave good coverage to this action of the "Denver Fourteen." We could only hope that it did alert the general public to the conditions we were trying to correct, and we do believe it did. On the other hand, the "establishment"--political, economic and ecclesiastical--was in outright opposition, or at least very cool. The Catholic bishop strongly reprimanded the two priests and sister. I was fired from my job with the Colorado Council of Churches. Even so, those who did come to our defense enheartened us greatly. One Mennonite pastor wrote this creative piece to the Denver Post which he circulated to potential supporters of the legal expenses:
It came to pass that on a certain day Jesus walked into the legislative halls of Colorado. Overturning all the rules of protocol he grabbed the microphone and said:
"Woe to you, senators and representatives, hypocrites! These halls are intended to be halls of justice, but you have made them perpetrators of injustice! You spend hours and hours talking about many things and passing many laws but day after day you refuse to act on behalf of the needy and close your ears to the pleas of the poor.
And the senators were angered, some walked out. And the police came and arrested Jesus. After some hours, they let him out on bail.
And the senators hastily passed a bill seeking to still the voice of Jesus and make certain he and his kind would never again disrupt their hallowed meetings.
But the voice of Jesus was not stilled, and is not stilled.
And Jesus says:
"Woe to you, senators and representatives, hypocrites! You let important bills die in Committees by saying, We dont have time, and then in one day you initiate and pass a punitive law to kill prophetic protest!
And woe to you, reporters and editors of THE DENVER POST, hypocrites! You speak much of objectivity, and then use a lead sentence to label a protester as Communist, thus feeding all the prejudices of your readers!
And woe to you, all you preachers who pound the pulpit for law and order but who never put your life on the line for love and justice--hypocrites!
And woe to you, comfortable Christians, who criticize my action in the senate chambers, but who have never stood with the oppressed in their distress--hypocrites!"
And Jesus said: "If only you had known the way to peace!"
And Jesus wept.
from Roots and Fruits, a publication of the Stanislaus Peace-Life Center and the Stanislaus Safe Energy Committee
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