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When civil disobedience becomes a church distraction

Church protests happen all over the country for a variety of reasons; follow these steps for preparedness.

By Eric Spacek

Picture the following scene:

Angry citizens — more than 120 of them —protest outside a church. Several police officers stand ready to control the crowd. Using bullhorns, the protesters hurl insults —some of them profane. They shove signs in parishioners’ faces. One protester shoots pepper spray into the face of an opposing protester.

For more than a year, weekly protests continued at the church. Finally, protestors decided they’d had enough, and the protests stopped.

That’s exactly what happened to the 80-member United Church of Christ in Simi Valley, CA. In August 2007, the church began sheltering a mother and her infant son. The woman’s husband, a homeowner who works two jobs, is a U.S. citizen, as are the couple’s three children. The mother, however, was not a U.S. citizen and faced deportation.

The church decided to provide shelter for the mother as a matter of faith and justice. “We believe God calls us to care for the stranger,” says June Goudey, pastor of the church.

Site of a protest

Unfortunately, this protest scenario is not out of the ordinary. Church protests happen all over the country for a variety of reasons. If your church was to become the site of a protest, would you know what to do? Consider the following tips from Goudey and others who’ve been through similar situations.

Don’t engage:
After the first large protest, United Church of Christ in Simi Valley learned that counter-protestors were counter-productive. “We did everything we could to make sure there weren’t counter-protestors,” Goudey explains. “If people wanted to support us, we invited them to come inside the church and worship with us.”

“There were people who wanted to march and hold quiet vigils in support of the church,” Goudey continues. “I was adamant that we not do that. No matter what the protestors did or what they called us, we didn’t respond. I feel that was the most important thing we did.”

Understand your rights as a property owner: Learn local laws about private property and trespassing. For instance, in many jurisdictions, once a property owner either declines to give, or withdraws, permission for protestors to be on the property they must stay outside its physical confines. If the protestors step onto the property, they risk arrest and prosecution for trespassing.

Consult with police: While churches may be unfamiliar with handling demonstrations, local police are trained to respond to such events. If your church learns that it will be protested, contact your local police department for guidance. Involve them as much as possible, and use their experience to make the protest a non-event.

Prepare your people: When the protest is known in advance, communicate with the congregation regarding what’s known about it and the reasons behind it. Also, you should share practical advice such as what entrances to use, where to park and how to “avoid and ignore” protestors.

Prepare the property: Inspect the area where the protestors will be permitted to demonstrate. Make sure there are no tripping or other hazards in that area. If a defect exists, make repairs. And if a repair cannot be made in time, use warning cones or tape. Also, post “no trespassing” signs on the property.

Record events before and during the protest: Once the property has been prepared, consider recording its condition before the protestors arrive. Videotaping or photographing the area where the protestors are expected to congregate can show that the property was in good condition at the time of the protest.

Video provides witness

United Church of Christ in Simi Valley used video cameras to record events during protests. “The one day we didn’t do that, an incident occurred between a protestor and a non-church member that resulted in injuries, and we didn’t have visual witness to speak to that,” Goudey says.

Goudey recommends that whoever operates the video camera be trained in non-violence. “We gave people workshops on non-violence so we didn’t have anyone outside who would provoke the protestors,” she says.

Finally, keep the videotapes and photographs until the statute of limitations in your state has expired. This is typically between two to five years.

Use a buffer: Many churches feel it’s important to have a well-recognized staff member, security guard or layperson from the church placed between the protestors and the passing membership. This person acts as a buffer between the two groups to make sure that church members heed the church’s suggestion to ignore and avoid the demonstrators.

Be prepared to deal with the media: Church protests are almost always of interest to the media. Knowing what you’ll say ahead of time, and sticking with that message, will save your church from making embarrassing missteps. “For any public statements,” Goudey advises, “make sure you’re clear on the purpose. Every time we spoke, our reasons were,  ‘It’s a matter of faith and justice, not a political act.’”

If your church doesn’t already have a plan to deal with protestors, start working on one now. Don’t wait until a protest is imminent. At that point, it may be hard to think with a clear head.

If your church does face a protest, having a plan of action in hand will help your church react with restraint and grace. And that will help the protest come to a quick, and hopefully unremarkable, conclusion.

Eric Spacek is senior church risk manager at GuideOne Insurance, West Des Moines, IA. [www.guideone.com]

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