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UCC pastor decides to risk arrest to bear witness

Becky Withington, pastor of New Pilgrims Community Church in Anacortes, had been preaching since early May about issues the Poor People’s Campaign is uplifting and told her congregation she was going to Olympia on Monday, May 28, to participate in the rally.

Police arrest Becky Withington.         Photo courtesy of Becky Withington

At the training in the morning, she decided she would be of support to those willing to risk arrest, bringing water and protein bars, but she also learned about civil disobedience.

“My decision to risk arrest was last minute,” she said.  “I believe engaging in civil disobedience would heighten awareness of the issue.”

Becky felt it would underscore the seriousness of the issues if people were willing to risk arrest.

In a sense it was a last-minute decision, but it was also a natural step for her as an ordained minister, “walking the social justice path of Jesus as part of my call,” she said. 

“I’m also a peaceful, law abiding citizen who believes in the rule of law.  Sometimes those two ways of life come into conflict,” she added.

After the training, she and nearly 100 others joined the rally on the Capitol steps with 300 listening to speakers. 

After the rally, Becky was with a group of 50 who levt the Capitol to march, sing and chant.

She was with 16 who surrounded a state patrol SUV, circled it and sat down on the street, blocking the officer from leaving. 

He started the vehicle and put it in gear, inching forward, but “we didn’t budge,” she said.

After two hours, the Olympia police warned the group to disperse or be arrested.

“The arrest was catch and release.  Two police officers took each of us two blocks away to an officer with a computer,” Becky said.  “They scanned our driver’s licenses and gave us an arraignment date.

“We wanted to raise visibility by being arrested.  They wanted to minimize the visibility of our witness,” she said.

Stephen O'Bent was with a group arrested the second week for sitting in the Capitol rotunda. He is seated on the right, third from the front in the light t-shirt. Photo courtesy of Steve Clagett

Stephen O’Bent, associate minister of music at First Congregational UCC in Bellevue was arrested on May 21. On June 4, Tad Anderson, parish visitor at Plymouth, was arrested, and then on June 18, Kelle was among those arrested.

For Becky, the arraignment was 10 days later on June 6. 

Before then, the group talked with an attorney working with the Poor People’s Campaign in Washington state. 

Becky said that they were advised to sign up for a public defender.

The public defender then met with the campaign lawyer to “discuss constructive ways for those arrested to be heard without imposing on the public defenders’ time and ability to serve other clients, she said. 

“So we know our actions had some effect,” she said.

That day, the public defender read each person’s charge and said the misdemeanor could be reduced to an infraction and a $56 fine. 

Each accepted agreement, because there is no record with an infraction.

“I wondered if we had been people of color if our arrests might have been more rough and if we would so easily have had our sentences reduced,” Becky said.

When she had returned to tell the church she had been arrested, she found people not only supportive, but also proud.

Martin Luther King Jr. said, “An individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for the law.”

King planned a Poor People’s Campaign 50 years ago before his assassination in 1968. 

This campaign renews that effort, uniting tens of thousands of people across the U.S. to challenge the evils of systemic racism, poverty, the war economy, ecological devastation and the nation’s distorted morality, she said.

“Many clergy are supporting the call for moral revival by participating in rallies and civil disobedience,” she said. 

“As a Christian minister and activist, I felt called to join them,” Becky said.

The theme for May 28, Memorial Day, was ending the war economy and gun violence.

Members of Veterans Against War spoke. 

“One choked up as he described his grandfather’s suicide after returning from combat with mental illness that went untreated for years because of the backlog at Veterans Affairs,” Becky said.

“So many have sacrificed so much and been treated so badly by our criminal justice system, and so many are suffering from systemic racism, poverty, the war economy, ecological devastation and more,” she said.

“As I live into this call to take more action to protest the true injustices taking place in our country, I ask for prayers and urge others to follow their own call and conscience as we work together to bring about the Culture of God,” Becky requested.

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Pacific Northwest United Church News © Summer 2018


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