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Western ND bishop bucks ELCA's backing of pipeline protest

Protestors face off with police officers along North Dakota Hwy. 1806 on Thursday, Oct. 27, 2016, north of Cannon Ball. Michael Vosburg / Forum News Service file photo

FARGO — A national Lutheran leader's support for the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe's pipeline protest has drawn sharp criticism from a North Dakota bishop and has led a state judge to resign her post as a church official.

Elizabeth Eaton, presiding bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), issued a statement Nov. 14, expressing solidarity with the tribe in its fight against the route of the Dakota Access Pipeline.

Eaton, who's based in Chicago, encouraged ELCA congregations across the country to pray for the tribe "and to offer material support, and to examine the racism inherent in our system that contributes to the current crisis."

"We will lend our presence when invited, our advocacy when requested, the resources of our people when asked, and our prayers, friendship and repentance at all times," she wrote.

Three days later, Bishop Mark Narum of the Western North Dakota ELCA Synod sent a letter to his congregants, saying he was disappointed that Eaton's statement "did not acknowledge the local effects of the unfolding protest."

Narum, based in Bismarck, said the protests just north of the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation have disrupted the lives and businesses of nearby farmers and ranchers. He also noted that Eaton's letter didn't mention the effects the protests have had on law enforcement officers and their families.

"In other words, the statement is written for a national audience, and our local realities are not being fleshed out," Narum wrote.

In his letter, Narum said he asked Eaton what she meant by offering "material support" and "the resources of our people." And she explained that she meant encouraging congregations to provide warm clothing or firewood for the protest camp, and added that there's no plan to give financial support to the tribe, according to Narum.

Narum's letter said the Western North Dakota Synod "has not, and will not, provide any financial or other material support to protests." Terry Brandt, bishop of the Eastern North Dakota Synod, said his synod also doesn't plan to fund the protests, but that the Dacotah Oyate Lutheran Church on the Spirit Lake Indian Reservation has been collecting non-financial donations.

Along with criticism from Narum, Eaton's letter also prompted state District Judge Sonna Anderson to resign her post as the Western North Dakota Synod's vice president.

The judge declined to comment, but shared her Nov. 16 resignation letter with The Forum. In the letter, Anderson said she stepped down because Eaton's call to support the protest could create the perception that the judge is biased in her handling of arrested protesters' cases, many of which have been assigned to her.

For months, protesters have camped near a site where plans call for the four-state, 1,172-mile pipeline to cross beneath the Missouri River. They fear the $3.8 billion pipeline could contaminate the tribe's source of drinking water and that construction will destroy cultural artifacts. Protesters and law enforcement officers have clashed violently at times.

In his letter, Narum said his synod has not taken a position on the pipeline controversy. He wrote that he supports the right to legal, peaceful protests but condemns illegal, violent ones. "There are appropriate administrative and legal forums to resolve the conflicting issues," he wrote.

Brandt of the Eastern North Dakota Synod said it's important for the church to recognize the complexities of the situation. "I think that maybe Bishop Eaton's letter didn't go as far as what might have been helpful for us living in North Dakota," he said.

Brandt said he's met with tribal leaders and visited the protest camp twice, once with Narum and Eaton in October. "I was not there to protest but simply to be in conversation and to try to understand the complexities," Brandt said, adding that he, Narum and Eaton also met with law enforcement officials.

This month, the Western North Dakota Synod hosted gatherings to discuss race and racism on the prairie. Last week in Fargo, the Eastern North Dakota Synod held a prayer service concerning the protests, and another was set for Tuesday night, Nov. 22, in Grand Forks.

"We'll pray for protesters," Brandt said of the prayer service. "We'll pray for ranchers, farmers, law enforcement, construction workers, those in the judicial system."

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