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Wal-Mart, Its Foes Turn to Religion

Times Staff Writer

Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and its critics have been fighting for the hearts and minds of the American public, through advertising, media outreach, worker testimonials and public debate. Now the two sides are fighting for souls.

The world’s largest retailer and its adversaries are hoping to sway religious leaders to their respective causes, seeking to use the clergy’s powerful influence to reach flocks that may not respond to mere public relations or media-driven pitches.

Wal-Mart has quietly reached out to church officials with invitations to visit its headquarters in Bentonville, Ark., to serve on leadership committees and to open a dialogue with the company.

Across the aisle, one of the company’s chief foes, Wal-Mart Watch, this weekend is launching seven days of anti-Wal-Mart consciousness-raising at more than 200 churches, synagogues and mosques in 100 cities, where leaders have agreed to sermonize about what they see as moral problems with the company.

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“They are each probing for weaknesses behind enemy lines,” said Nelson Lichtenstein, professor of history at UC Santa Barbara and editor of the forthcoming book “Wal-Mart: The Face of 21st Century Capitalism.” “The liberals are trying to go into the churches even in conservative Republican neighborhoods. And then Wal-Mart goes into black churches and poor neighborhoods and says, ‘Look, on this question, you should be with us because we provide jobs.’ ”

Wal-Mart Watch’s religious efforts are part of the group’s Higher Expectations Week, a series of nationwide events at churches, clubs, colleges and other organizations that highlight criticism of the retailer. The activities include free screenings of Robert Greenwald’s recently released documentary, “Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price,” a critical look at how the company, the largest private employer in the U.S., treats workers.

Wal-Mart declined to comment on its outreach to clergy. But church leaders from around the country said the retailer had contacted them to encourage their support -- or to respond to their criticism -- of the company.

The Rev. Ron Stief, director of the Washington office of the United Church of Christ, said a Wal-Mart representative telephoned him about six weeks ago after he criticized the company in a church newspaper article about Greenwald’s documentary. After years of writing letters to the company to complain about Wal-Mart’s conduct, Stief said, he finally received an invitation to Bentonville.

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“They wanted me to come see their side of it,” he said. Stief said he hoped to take the retailer up on the offer after he and other church members see the film.

The Rev. Clarence Pemberton Jr., pastor of New Hope Baptist Church in Philadelphia, said a Wal-Mart representative attended Tuesday’s regular meeting of about 75 Baptist ministers in that city.

“It appeared that what he was trying to do was to influence us or put us in opposition to this film that is coming out and will be in the churches,” Pemberton said, referring to the documentary. “It was implied very strongly that it was about some sort of cash rewards for people who would become partners with Wal-Mart and what they were trying to do.”

Bishop Edward L. Brown, a regional leader of the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church, said a Wal-Mart representative attended a CME bishops meeting last spring in Memphis, Tenn.

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“They are reaching out, no question about that,” Brown said. “They were trying to give their point of view, to do damage control.”

And the Rev. Ira Combs of the Greater Bible Way Temple of Jackson, Mich., told the Jackson Citizen Patriot last week that Wal-Mart recruited him to be part of a national steering committee of community leaders that would meet in Washington to “develop responses to issues raised by the company’s critics.”

Combs, who told the paper that he was a Wal-Mart supporter and might have been chosen because he is active in the Republican Party, did not return calls seeking comment.

Lichtenstein of UC Santa Barbara said he was not surprised that Wal-Mart was hoping to influence church leaders. Through its community grants, the company already gives money to many local church projects.

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Wal-Mart Watch, in reaching out to churches, has opened a new front in its campaign, hoping to win converts among those who are not natural allies of labor and environmental activists, the mainstays of the group’s support.

“In order to make the impact we wish to make, we need to have breadth and depth of supporters, and we’ve been discovering that one way of developing that is with communities of faith,” said Wal-Mart Watch spokeswoman Tracy Sefl. “The notion of justice, fairness and opportunity is a message that is powerful from the pulpit and is a message that really transcends simply talking about the stores in familiar ways.”

In preparation for this weekend, the group distributed a 16-page Faith Resource Guide, which outlines how to link a moral lesson about Wal-Mart to the assigned biblical texts for services in the Catholic, Protestant and Jewish faiths. The guide also describes portions of the Koran that might be applicable to a discussion about Wal-Mart for Muslims, who do not use weekly assigned texts.

A Muslim theologian, for example, suggests using this teaching from the Koran: “Men shall have the benefit of what they earn, and women shall have the benefit of what they earn” (Koran, 4:32).

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The Rev. Frank Alton of Immanuel Presbyterian Church in Koreatown said he could not recall ever sermonizing about a specific company in his 10 1/2 years in his pulpit. But asking his 250 members to consider the ethical implications of Wal-Mart, he said, was worth making an exception.

“They are a leader, and they are multiplying around the world -- they have a responsibility as a leader and an innovator and pioneer to set a standard since others are following them,” Alton said. “They are destroying community, which is a value of Jesus; they are exercising greed, which is against the values of Jesus; and they are promoting a culture of greed and extending a culture of poverty, which are against the values of Jesus.”


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