Allegheny County sheriff's deputies marched into a Lutheran church in this Pittsburgh-area steel town today and arrested the Rev. D. Douglas Roth for defying removal orders in a controversy over his preaching against corporate "institutional evil."
The arrest ended a nine-day occupation of Trinity Lutheran Church by Roth, who ignored not only his bishop and a judge but the protests of half his parishioners, who had objected to his militant advocacy on behalf of unemployed steelworkers and petitioned for his removal.
"I am not obeying the courts because the courts have no jurisdiction in this church matter," Roth said as he stood awaiting arrest on Trinity's carpeted altar in this economically depressed town of 12,000.
Roth's arrest and subsequent jailing is the latest chapter in a year-long campaign of religious-oriented guerrilla warfare pitting local clergy and union activists against the Pittsburgh establishment. Protesters have withdrawn funds from banks and deposited dead fish and skunk oil in safe-deposit boxes in protests against that establishment, dominated by giants such as U.S. Steel Corp. and Mellon Bank.
"We are saying that these corporations cannot continue to put profits before people," Roth said Monday night during the ninth day of his occupation of the church in defiance of a court order. "We are saying you can't just put people in the street and destroy people for profit."
Roth, 33, and ministers from 20 congregations in the Monongahela River valley have formed the Denominational Ministry Strategy. The group has agitated against what it calls "institutional evil," such as corporate decisions to invest overseas at the expense of local communities suffering massive unemployment.
A related group of union supporters, The Network to Save the Mon/Ohio Valleys, escalated the corporate campaign last Easter by invading some of Pittsburgh's wealthiest parishes to confront corporate executives in their pews and to publicize the plight of the jobless.
The church and union groups like to compare themselves to Poland's Solidarity movement, and say they are forced to use unorthodox tactics to budge unresponsive corporate and government bureaucracies.
"Reverend Roth is preaching according to the Bible . . . and, like Jesus', that offends the power structure," said Michael Bonn, president of United Steelworkers of America Local 2227, who stood beside Roth today as he was arrested. "You can march and picket all you want, but you really have to find ways to irritate the power structure. That's what we did."
Roth's problems began when nearly half of his roughly 150 parishioners petitioned Bishop Kenneth R. May of the Western Pennsylvania-West Virginia Synod for Roth's removal. On Oct. 17, May suspended Roth, saying he could not be "effective . . . due to local conditions." The bishop declared the pulpit vacant pending an investigation of Roth, who came here six years ago after graduating from a Nebraska seminary.
"He refused to cooperate with our order, and there was nothing we could do" except go to court, May said in an interview. "We were sitting there with anarchy on our hands."
The bishop's action in obtaining an injunction barring Roth from the church came at the request of Lutheran stalwarts like Clairton town librarian Elsie Milton, who has been a member of Trinity Lutheran for 63 years.
"When Rev. Roth started all this, it was fine, and we were told it was to help the unemployed," she said. "But when they started disrupting services and spraying skunk oil, I don't see how that helps," she said.
"I have nothing against unions," Milton said, "but they have stolen our church and made a union hall out of it."
Here in the home of U.S. Steel's giant Clairton Works, where employment has shrunk from 6,000 to about 1,200, the town's welcome sign says: "Clairton, Where Proud People Work Together for a Revitalized City."
But Roth and others say revitalization cannot occur because Mellon and U.S. Steel obtain higher profits by investing elsewhere. Spokesmen for both companies said today that they would not discuss the charges, but they have said previously that they cannot invest in outdated steel plant facilities that have little prospect of becoming competitive.
May has begun proceedings against the Rev. John Gropp of Christ Lutheran Church in nearby Duquesne. Gropp, one of 11 Lutheran ministers who petitioned in support of Roth, said he believes that the bishop is motivated partly by fear of losing donations from wealthy parishioners.
"It's only a matter of time before they try to get rid of the rest of us," Gropp said.
Roth appeared today before Allegheny County Common Pleas Judge Emil Narick, who asked him whether he would obey Narick's order. Roth, after reading from Scriptures, said he could not and was remanded to the county jail.