As pro-Palestinian protests continue on college campuses, Episcopal chaplains, churches offer support to protesters

By Shireen Korkzan
Posted May 2, 2024

Demonstrators gather on the UCLA campus, after nighttime clashes between pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian groups, Wednesday, May 1, 2024, in Los Angeles. Photo: Jae C. Hong/AP

[Episcopal News Service] Pro-Palestinian protest encampments on dozens of college campuses nationwide have led to violent clashes, more than 2,000 arrests, expulsions, suspensions and the cancellation of classes and commencement ceremonies

The protesters are calling for a ceasefire in Gaza and demanding that academic institutions disclose and divest from companies with financial ties to Israel

Administrators at many of these college campuses, including the University of Texas at Austin, have called in police officers to clear these encampments, which sometimes have turned violent

“I would like law enforcement to stop and in turn recognize the humanity of the people that they are abusing,” the Rev. Noah Stansbury, chaplain of University of Texas at Austin’s Episcopal Student Center, told Episcopal News Service. “And I have a lot of questions for UT’s administration about why they’re choosing to address this in the way that they are. Who is the university here for, because right now it doesn’t look like you’re here for the students.”

College students nationwide have been holding demonstrations calling for a ceasefire since the war began in October 2023, which has resulted in the deaths of more than 34,000 people in Gaza, with at least 1,700 Israelis being killed. 

The encampments, however, are new. Many protesters have been accused of shouting antisemitic chants, which prompted Congress to launch a series of hearings. After the first congressional hearing last December, the presidents of Harvard, the University of Pennsylvania and Massachusetts Institute of Technology sparked a backlash after testifying in favor of First Amendment rights but failing to say if students would be disciplined for calling for the genocide of Jews. The presidents of Harvard and Penn resigned shortly after

At another congressional hearing April 17, Columbia University president Nemat Shafik said antisemitism “has no place on our campus.” The same day, students set up an encampment in protest of the war. Columbia officials responded by authorizing New York City police to arrest more than 100 protesters in an attempt to disband the encampment. On April 30, 109 more protesters were arrested after barricading themselves inside an academic building. Police cleared the building by using a vehicle to push a bridge into a window.

On Tuesday, House Republicans announced an investigation into federal funding for colleges whose administrators have yet to shut down encampments, as Jewish students have said they fear for their safety.

Early in the morning of May 2, 2024, hundreds of police in riot gear cleared UCLA’s encampment after an intense standoff overnight with more than 1,000 protesters. Hundreds of people were arrested. The sweep occurred a few days after pro-Israel counter-protesters attacked the encampment.

Los Angeles Bishop John Harvey Taylor told ENS in a written statement, “I join with colleagues of faith in affirming the calm and attentive approach of those students, faculty, administrators, and chaplains who are building bridges and creating understanding amid the current unrest. No matter how emotional these matters are for all of our siblings, particularly those with roots and beloved people in the region, we can only make progress if we act peacefully.”

Stansbury told ENS he and other campus ministers have been distributing water and snacks to protesters. This week, Stansbury also helped street medics treat people experiencing heat exhaustion and exposure to pepper spray and tear gas. He’s also been providing pastoral care.

“I have found my role in this to be one of a supporter, which is on one level very practical — people need water,” he said. “We’re relying on student communication channels to keep an eye on what’s going on and really taking it hour-by-hour. … I had hoped that we would put the violence behind us and get through the end of finals, but now all that seems very much in flux for us.”

Stansbury said a nearby church is serving as a refuge center for protesters, but the Episcopal Student Center isn’t because it’s not as close to the campus. Instead, the student center has been involved since the war began by designating its weekly Sunday offering for the Diocese of Jerusalem and allowing students to express their concerns at the center’s weekly group discussion sessions. During last week’s discussion, the student center provided food and a phone charger to students who arrived from the protest.

Emily Lawitz, the Episcopal Student Center’s program coordinator, graduated from University of Texas at Austin in December 2023 with dual degrees in religious studies and Middle Eastern studies. She was enrolled in a class on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict taught by a Palestinian professor her last semester when the war broke out.

“I experienced such a wide range of opinions. …My professor’s family was in the middle of Gaza when the war broke out. There were folks who are staunchly pro-Israel, but I met Jewish students who are disgusted by the violence enacted in Gaza,” Lawitz said. “I met many Palestinians who are worried, of course, and Jewish students who are in fear.”

Stansbury and Lawitz both said the protesters have been peaceful from their perspectives. Instead, police have triggered the violence.

“I’m worried for [the protesters’] safety in the presence of the increased police brutality. Every time police have been on campus, there’s been an escalating amount of violence. Once law enforcement disperses, it’s very peaceful” Lawitz said.

Stansbury said it’s been “interesting” for him to observe the way protesters have “unexpectedly” expressed themselves.

“One of those images that’s going to be seared in my memory for a long time is watching a Jewish student wearing a kippah (also called a yarmulke) being arrested from inside the pro-Palestinian encampment [on UT’s campus],” he said. “In the moment and society that we live in, it’s so easy to sort people into binaries, put them in boxes. But then there are people, like this student, who are like, ‘No, I’m showing up as who I am, regardless of what box you think I belong to,’ and I think that’s really needed.”

The Rev. Christie Mossman, a priest at St. Alban’s Episcopal Church, located across the street from UCLA’s campus, serves as the university’s Episcopal chaplain. Like Stansbury, Mossman has been working with student demonstrators. Mossman told the Diocese of Los Angeles that she was also harassed by counter-protesters over the weekend while at the encampment. The experience hasn’t stopped Mossman from continuing to serve those protesting.

“[Churches could provide] a space for connection, with housing, food, work, scholarships or grants, whatever it takes to finance students’ well-being while they are getting their education,” she said in a diocesan blog post.

Stansbury and Lawitz both said the campus protests have reminded them of Holy Week.

“I don’t mean the liturgies; I mean the stories, the combination of dread and injustice on full display and the fever pitch of everyone’s emotions. And the humanity of it all,” Stansbury said.

“It feels like sitting in the Garden of Gethsemane, this ominous waiting for the next thing to happen,” Lawitz said. “I’m just hopeful that eventually we will reach our Easter Sunday here on campus.”

-Shireen Korkzan is a reporter and assistant editor for Episcopal News Service based in northern Indiana. She can be reached at skorkzan@episcopalchurch.org.


Tags