On July 11, more than 150 U.S. citizens from faith-based, environmental and human rights organizations gathered in front of the White House to protest the pending Colombia Free Trade Agreement. A Presbyterian presence was prominent among them.
“We are here right now to recognize that we are called to advocate for justice,” said the Rev. J. Herbert Nelson, director of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s Office of Public Witness. “We believe in fair trade, not just free trade.”
Along with other groups, OPW and the Presbyterian Peace Fellowship helped organize the protest. Leaders from both groups spoke alongside environmental activists and trade unionists from the United States and Colombia about the devastating consequences the free trade agreement would have on laborers, farmers, Afro-Colombians and other Colombian citizens.
Participants surrounded the stage with 51 cardboard coffins representing the 51 trade unionists killed in Colombia in 2010 — more than the number killed during the same time period in the rest of the world combined.
Protesters marched from Lafayette Park to the White House fence, where they laid the symbolic coffins in the street as an act of civil disobedience.
Upon request from the police, the majority of the protestors returned to the park, where they waved signs, sang and chanted. Members of the Presbyterian Peace Fellowship served communion.
But four members of the peace fellowship (director Rick Ufford-Chase, the Rev. Sally Juarez, Katie Rains and Kevin Moran) refused to leave their post of witness and stood praying and reading Scripture until they were arrested.
For Ufford-Chase, the choice to get arrested was the inevitable result of his Presbyterian convictions.
“As a denomination, the PC(USA) has consistently said, ‘We are opposed to free trade, we are in favor of human rights, and we are going to stand strong with our brothers and sisters [in Colombia],’” he told the public later that night in a radio interview on the Rick Smith Show.
While submitting to arrest may seem an extreme way to live out one’s faith, Rains reminded Presbyterians that “There is a spectrum of activism. One the one hand there is getting arrested in front of the White House. On the other hand there is refusing to use plastic bags at the grocery store … some people think this isn’t an ‘activist’ thing to do … but it is because it’s changing the normative culture …. We’re all in that spectrum somewhere. I ask people to look and see where they are and if God is calling you to grow into that next step.”
With the Presbyterian Church of Colombia, the PC(USA) has been an active voice against the free trade agreement, organizing a week-long fast and a call-in campaign. Stated Clerk Gradye Parsons has also written a letter to President Obama opposing the passage of the free trade agreement.
Ginna Irby is an intern with the PC(USA)’s Office of Public Witness.