How an undergraduate's activism led him to prison, and to plans to become a UU minister.
On December 19, 2008, Tim DeChristopher finished a final exam at the University of Utah, then took public transportation into downtown Salt Lake City with the goal of attending a protest against a sale of oil and gas leases on federal lands, some of them near national parks in Utah.
Bypassing the demonstration, he entered the room where the bidding was taking place, not sure what he was going to do. That’s when he noticed a friend from his church, First Unitarian Church of Salt Lake City, quietly crying in the back row. Krista Bowers said later that watching companies win leases for about $2 an acre made her feel helpless about her government.
That’s when DeChristopher began raising the bidder paddle he had been given on the way in. He bought one lease, then another, until the 27-year-old undergraduate had committed to buying around 22,500 acres of leases at a cost of $1.8 million. With no ability or intent to pay, his actions brought the lease sale to a halt. The federal government charged him with disrupting a federal oil and gas auction, and in 2011 he was convicted and then sentenced to two years in prison. His term began July 26, 2011. He is currently at a minimum-security prison in Littleton, Colorado, with a release scheduled for April 21, 2013. (As this magazine was going to press, DeChristopher was moved to a halfway house in Salt Lake City, where he will complete his sentence while working at a downtown bookstore.*)
When he is released a job is waiting for him. He will become director of Social Justice for First Unitarian Church, says the Rev. Tom Goldsmith, who looks forward to working with DeChristopher on projects such as teaching environmental leadership.
DeChristopher also has bigger plans: becoming a Unitarian Universalist minister. “His last phone call to me was all about ministry,” Goldsmith said. “The whole idea of preparing for ministry has really grounded him. He would be a minister the Unitarian Universalist Association would be very proud of.”
DeChristopher was raised in West Virginia. In an interview in 2011 with Outside magazine he noted that his father was a natural-gas engineer and his mother an accountant who cofounded the West Virginia chapter of the Sierra Club. In another interview he noted that she had been involved with mine safety issues. (UU World was unable to arrange an interview with DeChristopher directly, but did commission an article by him. See “Activism Is an Act of Faith.”)
After high school DeChristopher tried college, then dropped out to lead outdoor trips for teens in Missouri, then became a leader in a similar program for troubled teens in Utah. That’s where his view of the world began to change. In one interview he said, “Most of those kids were really good kids and they were all deeply disgruntled about the world. Eventually I started feeling like I was helping them adjust to something that shouldn’t be adjusted to.”
In 2005 he moved to Salt Lake City, where he enrolled at the university and began attending First Unitarian Church, which is near campus. In March 2008 he attended the Wallace Stegner Center Symposium at the University of Utah, where he heard a presentation by Stanford University biology professor Terry Root, who argued that many of the worst effects of global warming were already unavoidable. DeChristopher has said that was what turned him toward activism.
He also credits a 2008 Bioneers presentation that he attended at First Unitarian Church by journalist and activist Naomi Klein on the need to take decisive action to protect life on earth.
Goldsmith said DeChristopher attended the church occasionally for about two years prior to his arrest. After his arrest he became a member. Goldsmith remembers meeting DeChristopher for the first time at an educational forum by the congregation’s Environmental Ministry team. “Joan Gregory and Richard Teerlink of our congregation were facilitating a discussion of Lester Brown’s Plan B. [Brown is a prominent environmental analyst.] There was this kid there who just knocked my socks off with his observations. Afterward I asked Joan who it was. ‘He’s a student at the university,’ she said.” Gregory is coordinator of the congregation’s Environmental Ministry program.
The congregation has embraced DeChristopher wholeheartedly, said Goldsmith. Several people, including Goldsmith, Bowers, and Gregory, have visited him in prison. Others write to him. “He also makes surprise calls to me every three or four weeks from prison,” said Goldsmith. DeChristopher can call out but he cannot receive calls.
When DeChristopher was arrested, dozens of First Unitarian members attended his trial and rallied outside the courthouse. Some have gone further. Last April five Salt Lake Unitarians were among thirty people arrested while protesting federal energy policy in Washington, D.C. Gregory, inspired by DeChristopher, was among them.
DeChristopher told Goldsmith he had been surprised by the level of support he has received from the congregation. Goldsmith noted, “In my thirty-seven years of ministry I’ve never experienced this kind of complete unanimous support of one person. It’s a combination of his passion, his intelligence, and the cause itself. It’s really united the congregation.”
Goldsmith added, “This outpouring of love and support has given him a bit of humility. I think it has made him stronger and added a humble dimension to him. He has a lot of gratitude. It means a lot to him to have a community like this supporting him. It’s almost like a safety net, ready to catch him and love him.”
After he was arrested DeChristopher cofounded a group, Peaceful Uprising, which continues to pursue climate crisis issues.
The Rev. Harold Straughn, a semi-retired Disciples of Christ minister who is a member of First Unitarian, visited DeChristopher in prison in July along with several members of Straughn’s family.
“He told us he’s working in the prison kitchen, preparing meals,” Straughn said. “He works out. He’s probably put on twenty pounds of muscle. He’s in a cell with four other people who are in there for financial misdeeds and drug violations. At first it was puzzling to them as to why he was there. He’s had the opportunity and complexity of explaining to them and to others why he did what he did.”
Straughn said DeChristopher has been reflecting on the future of nonviolent movements. DeChristopher has told interviewers he is interested in issues in addition to climate change. Corporate personhood and its monetary effects and worker rights also interest him.
A documentary, Bidder 70, named for the number on DeChristopher’s oil and gas lease bidding paddle, has been released and is making the rounds of film festivals. Beth Gage, with Gage & Gage Productions, said congregations that want to show the film are invited to request a screening at bidder70film.com.
This article appeared in the Winter 2012 issue of UU World (pages 34–36).
Update 11.12.12: The version of this article that appeared in the print edition incorrectly stated that DeChristopher’s release date had been moved up to October 24, 2012, as the magazine was going to press. Although he was moved from a minimum-security prison in Colorado to a halfway house in Salt Lake City in October, he remains in custody. According to news reports, the Bureau of Prisons ruled that DeChristopher could not take First Unitarian Church’s director of social justice job on work release, so he is working at a downtown bookstore while completing his sentence. Click here to return to the corrected paragraph.
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Donald E. Skinner was the founding editor of the InterConnections newsletter for congregational leaders and a senior editor of UU World from 1998 until his retirement in 2014. He is a member of the Shawnee Mission Unitarian Universalist Church in Lenexa, Kansas.
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