CLEVELAND, Aug. 25 (RNS)--A powerful coalition of religious groups is joining the struggle against Chief Wahoo, the logo for the Cleveland Indians baseball team, overcoming long-held fears of opposing the popular secular icon.

Mayor Michael R. White's opposition to the caricature was revealed last week. But the moral groundwork had already been laid in a series of actions by black and mainline Protestant religious groups that underscored the new vulnerability of the fire-engine red, hook-nosed, bucktoothed logo many Native Americans find offensive.

Over the last 18 months, United Pastors in Mission, the United Methodist Church, the Presbytery of the Western Reserve, and the Episcopal Diocese of Ohio all have joined in the anti-Wahoo battles with what had been a small group of United Church of Christ and American Indian activists.

Not all religious leaders have broken silence on an issue that ruffles the feathers of some in their flocks. Bishop Anthony Pilla, the spiritual leader of 1 million Cleveland-area Catholics, declined this week to comment on Chief Wahoo. Instead, he referred to a 1993 resolution by the diocesan Commission on Catholic Community Action calling on the Indians to dump the logo.

But those who have been on the front lines for years say the line of fear that prevented even religious groups from taking on Chief Wahoo has been crossed in a manner that parallels the civil rights movements of the 1950s and 1960s, when black protesters gradually won over the larger community with moral persuasion.

"Each of us has had to fight its own battle, quite frankly," said the Rev. Gregory A. Jacobs, assistant to the bishop for urban ministry in the Episcopal Diocese of Ohio.

"We cannot continue to live in this kind of hypocrisy that says, 'Yes, we are in solidarity with my brothers and sisters, yet we continue to exploit them.'"

A spokesman for the Cleveland Indians said this week that the logo is a caricature that is not meant to represent any group of human beings.

"Our position on this would be our name and logo have been a part of the Cleveland fabric since 1915, and we continue to impress upon people that we believe when people look at our logo, they think baseball," said Bob DiBiasio, Indians vice president of public relations.

Protests against Wahoo go back to the 1970s, when American Indian Movement founder Russell Means led demonstrations. Protest leaders said the logo is demeaning to Indians and their traditions.

However, until recently, with the exception of the liberal United Church of Christ, the religious community mostly sat on the sidelines of the Wahoo debate. Religious leaders said they were concerned about expending their moral capital on an issue that would alienate large numbers of church members.

Local religious leaders would privately express support, but "they were always afraid to come out" in public, said Faye Brings Them, 48, a Native American from Cleveland who protested the logo with Means as a high school girl in the 1970s and now brings her grandchildren to demonstrations.

When the East Ohio Conference of the United Methodist Church took up the issue in spring 1998, a resolution to condemn Wahoo was defeated by a two-thirds majority.

"I would cease being a United Methodist before I would cease wearing my Chief Wahoo clothing," one delegate said.

However, after years of being spit upon, mooned, verbally abused, and given the bird, the small band of protesters outside Cleveland Indians games calling for the end of Chief Wahoo suddenly have company.

Breaking one wall surrounding the popular caricature, White and top aides in a series of electronic messages expressed their disgust with "the offensive, racist symbol." The mayor proposed stripping it from city-owned property, a largely symbolic but powerful gesture that Chief Wahoo is no longer politically sacrosanct. Wahoo appears on city street banners and at the Cleveland Browns Stadium.

"We are reviewing the policy internally. Mayor White said a policy decision should be in place before next baseball season," mayoral spokesman Brian Rothenberg said Thursday.

The mayor is not out there on his own. White's proposal to ban Wahoo followed a series of actions by some of the community's leading religious groups.

In the United Methodist Church, a national commission on race urged the nation's second-largest Protestant denomination to move its quadrennial General Conference out of Cleveland this spring to protest Chief Wahoo, a caricature officials said made Native Americans feel "less than human."

The General Conference stayed, but the almost 1,000 delegates in May passed a resolution opposing the logo.

Also this spring, United Pastors in Mission, the leading group of black clergy in Greater Cleveland, publicly came out against Wahoo, maintaining that the community should not start the 21st century with such an offensive symbol.

"We felt it was a discriminatory icon and offensive to our brothers the Indians," said the Rev. Larry Macon of Mount Zion Baptist Church, head of United Pastors in Mission. "I think this is a very essential issue."

In November, the Episcopal Diocese of Ohio broke its silence at its annual convention with a resolution calling for the end of Wahoo and asking churches and members not to buy any products with the logo.

In spring 1999, after a lengthy debate among pro- and anti-Wahoo delegates, the Presbytery of the Western Reserve approved a resolution urging teams employing Native American imagery to choose a new logo and also asking Presbyterians not to buy products that negatively stereotype Indians.

"It's really about time that these institutions practiced what they preach," said Juan Reyna, chairman of the Committee of 500 Years of Dignity and Resistance.

In the United Church of Christ, which has been active in the anti-Wahoo effort since 1990, the Rev. Allison Phillips said different religious groups had finally put aside fears of reprisal from members to confront the moral issues at the heart of the Wahoo debate.

"The bottom line is, it's always the right time to do the right thing," said Phillips, an official of the Justice and Witness Ministries of the United Church of Christ.

What Phillips and religious and Indian leaders involved in the issue say they would like to hear is the conspicuously absent voice of Pilla.

"It would be a voice awfully hard to ignore, wouldn't it?" said the Rev. Marvin McMickle of Antioch Baptist Church. "He [Pilla] would have a tremendous impact on this discussion."

Jacobs encouraged the Catholic leader to follow his "hearts of hearts" and tell the community where he stands.

"We all hope and pray at some point we come to a place, regardless of what the ramifications are, where we do what we have to do because this is what we believe," he said.

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