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Conservative Catholic gathering draws protesters in Napa

For 11 years, minus one when COVID-19 drove the event online, the Napa Institute hosted its annual Summer Conference at the Meritage Resort and Spa without incident. That changed in 2022, with a spate of press coverage — starting with a Press Democrat story that ran Wednesday — casting light upon the four-day meeting of influential Catholic thinkers and right-wing political activists in Napa.

This year, protesters emerged.

It started Friday afternoon, when a group of 25-30 people met on Second Street in Napa and marched through downtown holding signs and, in the case of one of the organizers, Aisley Wallace Harper of the group Stop Napa Hate, calling into a megaphone.

Two organizations, including NDN Network, planned to shake things up during former U.S. Attorney General William Barr’s scheduled talk — “Strangers in a Strange Land: How do Catholics Live as ‘Resident Aliens’ and Faithful Citizens at the Same Time” — at 8:15 p.m. Saturday.

And a scattering of folks showed up Saturday morning to greet conference attendees as they walked across Bordeaux Way from breakfast to begin the day’s slate of prayer and presentations.

The Napa Institute, unknown to many outside Catholic hierarchy and conservative fundraising, is a nonprofit with growing political clout. Those associated with its Summer Conference have included Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, mega-donor Charles Koch and Federalist Society Co-Chairperson Leonard Leo, who is often described as the brains behind Donald Trump’s Supreme Court nominations.

Guests of the Summer Conference pay $2,700 each to hear high-profile speakers on a variety of religious and political topics, many of which are openly hostile to things like reproductive rights and gender fluidity.

The people who came to defend those rights Saturday were few, but varied.

Napa resident Sheila Edridge had arrived ay 7 a.m. at the Meritage to speak out against what she sees as a blooming theocracy in the U.S.

“Our government is being infused, especially the Supreme Court, by these religious nuts that want to take over democracy,” Edridge said. “We can’t let that happen. And it’s so normalized. They’re doing it shamelessly, in plain sight. I had to be here.”

Melanie Sakoda and Caroline Clark were on site as representatives of Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. Clark was sexually abused as a child at a Catholic church in Bakersfield. Sakoda advocates because of what she witnessed at a Russian Orthodox Church in San Francisco. Each wanted the people attending the conference to see her sign, and to reflect on the harm done within the Catholic hierarchy.

“I hope they think of it when they lay their heads down and go to sleep,” Clark said.

Then there was the young man nearer the driveway to the private Meritage parking lot. The front of his T-shirt had a graphic illustration of Donald Trump shooting himself in the head, and his socks said “666.” The man had a bandanna over his nose and mouth. One of his small signs read “Hail Satan.” Hung from a belt loop was a Bluetooth speaker blaring dark metal songs.

The younger protester declined to give his name, but said, “We need policies and politicians that lift people up. Not those that make a certain section of the population live in fear.”

Some of the conference clientele called out “We’ll pray for you” to the Hail Satan guy as they strode by, or stopped, smiled and shook their heads. One attendee attempted to engage the young man, asking, “Are you in a conversational mood?”

When the protester shook his head, the conference goer moved on to the priest abuse survivors. The three had a brief, civil conversation.

The attendee, it turned out, was Dave Sloan, director of external affairs for the Georgia Center for Opportunity, a nonprofit think tank that, as Sloan put it, seeks to “ameliorate systemic poverty.” Not through redistributive equity, he added, but through opportunity to achieve better education and employment.

Sloan believes those outside the religion might misunderstand its intentions.

“We love women. We love the poor,” Sloan said. “You’d be surprised by how many people there are here who aren’t drawn to the luxury, and who are not drawn to the wealth. There’s actually quite a lot of people here that have vows of poverty.”

That was hard to glean from pressed suits striding back and forth across Bordeaux Way, and from the library tastings advertised in the official conference schedule. Sloan conceded the point.

“I want to be gracious to my hosts,” he said, choosing his words carefully. “It can get in the way. It is a challenge for us not to get drawn into the mission because of an opportunity to succeed and to be successful.”

Sakoda and Clark, the assault survivors, said they are in no way intent on destroying the Catholic Church. They just want recognition of past and current abuse by clergymen, something they believe has not been adequately addressed even after years of revelations.

“By being here today, my hope is that maybe the right person will think a little bit more about how they wield their power and influence,” said Clark, who lives in Petaluma. “It’s easy to compartmentalize or put in the backs of their minds, maybe.”

Theirs would not be the final civic action of the day. The group NDN Collective, an Indigenous-led organization that works to increase the power of North America’s Native peoples on a variety of fronts, promised to disrupt Barr’s keynote address Saturday night.

Indigenous rights and modern Catholicism may not seem naturally opposed, but the history on colonialism creates a fundamental divide that has never been bridged, said Kailea Frederick, an NDN Collective climate justice organizer.

As one of the world’s largest landowners (not the largest, as is often misstated), the Catholic Church is a natural target of those seeking the return of Native lands. But Indigenous groups have other reasons to protest the Summer Conference, said Frederick, who identifies as Tahltan, Kaska and Black.

One is abortion access. Frederick noted that Indigenous and Black Americans disproportionately live in poverty, and are therefore less able to bear the brunt of an unwanted pregnancy.

The themes of the Napa Institute event are also in opposition to the many Indigenous groups throughout the world that see homosexuality and gender fluidity as natural expressions, Frederick said. She wants the conference organizers to know.

“This church equals colonialism,” Frederick said. “The core message of this (protest) action is that the people currently in attendance are absolutely not welcome, nor do they represent the people of Napa or people across the Bay Area. We want to make it really clear that we’re aware, we’re watching and they should not be here.”

You can reach Phil Barber at 707-521-5263 or phil.barber@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @Skinny_Post.

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