Radical ministers make waves over joblessness in Pittsburgh
Pittsburgh — THE Rev. Daniel Solberg lashed chains inside the doors of Capital Nativity Lutheran Church outside Pittsburgh, where he had preached for six years. He built a shower in the janitor's closet, lined shelves with canned foods, and stayed put. A week later, two local policemen, sent by Nativity's governing council, smashed a window and entered the church. They chased the Rev. Mr. Solberg through the pews and arrested him.
That incident occurred four months ago, but until last week Mr. Solberg sat in jail awaiting trial on criminal-trespass charges. Officials offered to release him if he promised to stay away from Nativity. An administrative judge dismissed those charges in a three-hour trial Tuesday, declaring there was nothing ``surreptitious,'' as the court requires, about the pastor's stay in the church.
Mr. Solberg's release ends the latest chapter in the story of a self-conscious industrial city pressing forward into a new economy and renegade pastors who have told it to wait. ``Unemployment,'' the pastor declared on the jail steps, ``is still the issue in Pittsburgh.''
Such, at least, is the agenda of the Denominational Ministry Strategy (DMS), a network of activist ministers and unionists whose activities have bitterly divided the depressed mill towns of the Monongahela Valley, decrying corporate evil as the cause of widespread unemployment in a region that once led the world in steel production. Group-confrontational tactics have split congregations and pitted bishop against pastor, union representatives against rank-and-file workers.
When Mr. Solberg, whose actor-brother David Soul still faces trespass charges for an Easter demonstration, emerged from the Allegheny County Jail to the arms of his wife and applause of a dozen friends, many wearing cleric's collars, he did not talk about his ordeal. He spoke of ``the lies of corporate Pittsburgh.''
Pittsburgh had heard this before. Just 10 months ago the Rev. D. Douglas Roth, also a Lutheran pastor, drew national attention by holing up in his church. He was jailed and later defrocked by the Lutheran Synod, the regional ruling body for the 3 million-member United Lutheran Church in America.
Ironically, the DMS was founded in 1978 with the blessings of the Lutheran Synod ``to penetrate the lives'' of the unemployed, as declining steel production forced layoffs of tens of thousands of workers. While the ``Mon'' Valley's dominant employer, US Steel, was shearing its work force by nearly 80 percent over the last seven years, the DMS forged what may be the largest coalition of activist ministers in the country.
``We're doing evangelism at its roots, and we're doing it in dying communities,'' said the Rev. James D. Von Dreele, an Episcopal minister and DMS activist.
The way DMS activists see it, the city's large steel and investment concerns have turned their backs on the communities that made them wealthy, opting to invest in and modernize facilities in other states and abroad, where demand is greater or labor is cheaper. Steel producers contend that finding less costly means of production in a competitive market is simple economics. Sacrificing people for profits, DMS pastors counter, is evil.
DMS ``evangelism'' has taken both nasty and humorous forms. Last Christmas a DMS group burst into a children's party at Shadyside Presbyterian Church in Shadyside, an affluent neighborhood on the northeast side of Pittsburg, and hurled balloons filled with skunk oil about the room. The indirect target: David M. Roderick, chairman of US steel, who attends services there. Research into Pittsburgh's power structure has spurred DMS to broaden its sights. Its members have planted frozen fish in safe depos it boxes at Mellon Bank, arguing that the state's largest bank dictates public and private interest; they have skunked a judge's home and slashed the car tires of the synod leader, Bishop Kenneth May, who now opposes them.
``If you are nice and rational about it, everyone ignores you,'' said Charles Honeywell, a professional organizer schooled in confrontational protest who was hired by the DMS. ``So we're outlandish.''
Still, a dour-faced man spoke for many when he refused a DMS leaflet offered to him on church steps recently. ``I was laid off four years ago,'' he told an activist, ``but I don't agree with your tactics.''
The activist offensive comes while civic and business leaders here are eagerly touting a ``Pittsburgh renaissance.'' The city, trying to shuck its ``smokestack'' image and welcome corporations to make their beds here, was buoyed last spring by a publisher's survey that ranked Pittsburgh ``the most livable city in America.'' Almost immediately, billboards emblazoned with ``Pittsburgh: No. 1 City'' cropped up across the countryside.
But DMS holds hostage a favorable image of Pittsburgh, the Rev. Mr. Roth said. ``They can have their image back as soon as they deliver for the people.''
Still, by bruising Pittsburgh's image as a desirable place to work, critics say the DMS exacerbates unemployment. ``They're keeping out the very people who might be able to bring some hope,'' said Bill Hoffman, a US Steel spokesman. Mr. Hoffman said, however, that DMS activities had no effect on his company's decisions.
In a classic division, Pittsburgh now has two images, symbolized, on the one hand, by the sleek new corporate headquarters thrusting out of downtown streets and, on the other, by the idled mills stretching up the ``Mon'' River like a metal spine. While Pittsburgh proper boasts America's third-largest corporate center after New York and Chicago, the financially independent, outlying mill towns have 55 percent employment, according to some estimates. Suicide and divorce rates there hover at twice the n ational average, according to a recent survey.
The rift between religious DMS supporters and detractors stems largely from interaction between Bishop May, the synod leader, and the defiant pastors. The bishop, who helped start DMS, has lambasted it for what he called ``hurting the cause of Christ'' and ``bringing bad publicity to the people of Pittsburgh.'' The Rev. Mr. Roth, who was first disciplined by Bisop May, counters that the bishop is more concerned with church coffers than with the plight of the unemployed. ``Our job is to see the bishop
through his fears.''
The Rev. Donald D. Anderson, the synod secretary, who testified last week against the Rev. Mr. Solberg, said he ``had no idea'' whether Mr. Solberg, who has been suspended from his pastorate, will also be defrocked.
The DMS has also split union loyalties in a town built on union labor. While some members of the rank and file trust the international union leadership to protect their interests, others have filled the DMS volunteer forces, saying that leadership has been co-opted and has betrayed them. For the DMS, this has meant new faces in church. According to the Rev. Mr. Roth, his small congregation had 50 new members at the time the synod ousted him. Since he lost his church, he has held services at home. One
recent Sunday, he began his sermon to 17 worshipers by holding high a box of Cheerios and asking, ``Now if someone comes to my door with an empty bowl, what do I do?''
Darrell Becker, president of Marine and Shipbuilders' Local 61, attends the Rev. Mr. Roth's services. ``Before, you couldn't get a lot of union guys with a 10-foot pole to go for quote unquote Christianity,'' he said. But when DMS pastors decided that ``works'' to complement faith meant linking arms with strikers, they won the trust of some errant churchgoers.
Armed with Bibles and skunk oil, DMS pastors such as Roth and Solberg have indeed ``penetrated the lives'' of Pittsburgh's unemployed. Churning out position papers on home computers, studying law and tactics of civil disobedience, and now unemployed themselves, they may be accused by critics of doing their job too well.