Veteran peacemaker and activist Steve Clemens of Minneapolis has been on the front lines of social protest for more than 35 years. He has risked arrest numerous times and gone to prison as a result of his convictions, sustained by his faith and a community of supporters.
Born in Pennsylvania of Mennonite heritage, Clemens was raised as an evangelical protestant. He attended Wheaton College in Illinois, where he returned to his Anabaptist roots after registering as a conscientious objector during the Vietnam War. “I kept hearing the tapes in my head of Jesus saying ‘love your enemies,’ ” he said. At that point, he added, becoming a conscientious objector was a personal, religious decision, not at all political.
After a Black Power symposium and a summer working with Philadelphia street gangs, he became increasingly influenced by radical thinkers. “I quickly went from being a conservative Republican to a radical,” he recalls. “I never stopped at liberal.”
Following college, he performed his voluntary alternative service with Mennonites helping poor black families in the Mississippi Delta and later in Washington D.C. as a staff member with the Mennonite Central Committee’s Peace Section office. During that time, he joined the anti-war movement and was arrested at the White House – the first of more than 30 arrests that he would experience over the ensuing decades as a result of peace and justice activism.
In 1975, he moved to southern Georgia to be part of an intentional Christian Community, Koinonia Partners, centered on values of nonviolence, racial reconciliation, simple living, and service to others. During his 16 years with the community, Clemens participated in numerous vigils, actions and protests related to a wide range of social justice issues, resulting in several arrests, convictions and jail time.
In 1990, he and his wife, Christine Haas, and their two sons moved to Minneapolis and became part of the Community of St. Martin. Clemens took a job with Habitat for Humanity and became active in Minnesota’s peace community. As part of protests of weapons manufacturer Alliant Techsystems, he was arrested and acquitted in jury trials in 1997, 2003 and 2004.
In 2002, before the U.S. went to war in Iraq, he traveled there as part of the Iraq Peace Team, speaking to more than 65 groups after the trip. “Our goal was to be in solidarity with the Iraqi people,” he said. “I made a solemn commitment to them to nonviolently try to stop this war.”
Clemens traveled to Egypt and Jordan in 2003 in a peacemaking/reconciliation effort with Muslim families, and spent three months in prison in 2006 due to trespassing at the School of Americas in Fort Benning, GA. He is active in the Iraq & American Reconciliation Project and traveled to Afghanistan in 2011 as part of an international peace delegation. He plans to return to Iraq in 2012 as part of a good will delegation.
Besides numerous instances of direct action, Clemens has led workshops, led trainings, served on panels and spoken extensively on active nonviolence and the Biblical basis for peacemaking. His blog, Mennonista (http://mennonista.blogspot.com), is often reprinted in area publications. In 2009, he received the Minnesota Peacemaker of the Year Award from the Minnesota Fellowship of Reconciliation.