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By DANIEL BURKE
c. 2010 Religion News Service
(RNS) Proposals to have the Presbyterian Church (USA) denounce or divest from Caterpillar Inc. because the company sells bulldozers to Israel are not playing well in Peoria.
The central Illinois city is home to the heavy machinery manufacturer, and a healthy number of local Presbyterians count on the company for paychecks, pensions or health care.
Nearly a third of the 700-member Northminster Presbyterian Church, for example, derive their income from Caterpillar or one of its subsidiaries, said Senior Pastor Doug Hucke; five of the church’s nine elders work for the company.
“Caterpillar’s huge in this part of the world,” Hucke said.
In part to protect his flock, Hucke will travel to Minneapolis next week (July 3-10) to the PCUSA’s General Assembly, which will consider several resolutions denouncing Caterpillar or calling for divestment.
When the church condemns Caterpillar or advocates selling off stock in the company to protest Israel’s use of its machinery, Peoria Presbyterians take it personally, said the pastor.
“They feel like the company is being badmouthed and manipulated in a way that’s not fair or honest,” Hucke said.
The divestment resolutions are expected to provoke contentious debate among the biannual assembly’s nearly 700 delegates — as are other overtures that condemn Israeli policy toward Palestinians, seek to change ordination standards to allow noncelibate gay and lesbian clergy, and ask for permission to start officiating at same-sex marriages.
With 2.1 million members, the PCUSA is the nation’s largest Presbyterian denomination, though it has continued to bleed members for decades, as have most mainline Protestant churches.
The PCUSA has walked down the divestment road before, voting in 2004 to begin “phased, selective” divestment from companies perceived to contribute to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Two years later, though, church members backed off and voted to try to change corporate policies through shareholder resolutions, meeting with executives, and banding together with other Christian groups.
It’s now clear that engagement hasn’t worked with Caterpillar, said the Rev. Louis Kilgore, a New Jersey pastor who’s the driving force behind a resolution from the Newark Presbytery calling for divestment from the company.
“The PCUSA … has tried to avoid ultimatums,” he said, “but Caterpillar refuses to respond and rejects their responsibility to us.”
The divestment resolution accuses Caterpillar of selling equipment to Israel that is used to build illegal Israeli settlements, to construct a wall separating Palestinians from natural resources and historic homelands, and to destroy Palestinian property.
In a statement, Caterpillar said it does not condone immoral use of its products, but “cannot monitor the use of every piece of its equipment around the world.” Moreover, the company said, U.S. laws prohibit companies from supporting or participating in boycotts not sanctioned by the government.
If the divestment resolution passes, Hucke said some Presbyterians in Peoria may consider withholding donations to the denomination — or even leave it altogether. If the PCUSA doesn’t want to put its money into Caterpillar, he said, why should Caterpillar employees give money to the denomination?
Kilgore said the PCUSA faced a similar dilemma when it chose to sell its stock in alcohol and tobacco companies. “My own grandfather grew tobacco and lost income he needed to keep his farm when it became clear that tobacco was poisoning our people.”
The PCUSA’s Committee on Mission Responsibility Through Investment lists 24 companies the denomination should not to buy stock in, including tobacco giant Altria Group, Boeing, and Lockheed Martin.
Even supporters acknowledge divesting from Caterpillar is largely symbolic. The denomination’s Board of Pensions holds more than $9 million in Caterpillar stock, but has only allowed 54 shares — worth about $3,300 — to be used to file shareholder resolutions. The board supports the social witness of the church, but has a legal duty not to harm the pension plan, board members explained in a 2006 statement.
But as a public relations strategy, divestment has been successful at times, most notably in helping heap worldwide condemnation on apartheid-era South Africa. While a number of Christian groups have considered divesting from Caterpillar, few have taken the step. The Church of England sold its $3.3 million in Caterpillar stock in 2008, but said it was for economic reasons.
A PCUSA committee that works on socially responsible investing has proposed a resolution to denounce Caterpillar, rather than selling company stock.
That’s cold comfort for Presbyterians in Peoria, said Hucke.
“Whether it’s divestment or denunciation, it basically has the same emotional impact on Caterpillar employees,” he said. “It’s still a slap in the face.”
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