In recent weeks few Drew students, alumni and United Methodists have shown up and offered their solidarity with Occupy Wall Street. Some serve as “Protest Chaplains” offering pastoral care and the ministry of presence at designate times in Zucotti Park. Others show up on weekends or take a day off to add their prophetic witness in the social justice tradition of Amos and Micah, Moses and Jesus, in proclaiming Jubilee economics and God’s concern for the poor. Together with others representing faith communities in greater New York City, they are part of a growing community of practical and spiritual support to a national and international movement demanding economic justice. These faith-based demonstrators identify themselves as OccupyFaith.
I finally joined them last Sunday, November 6, for prayer and protest on the steps ofZucotti Park—the epicenter of the worldwide Occupy Movement. The Druids included: Rev. Eric C. Jackson (current MDIV student), Protest-Chaplain Richenda Fairhurst (current MDIV student), Fr. Michael T. Sniffen (Drew alum), Melissa Hinnen (Drew alum), and Dean Kuan (Dean of the Theological School).
Before joining the group that was leading the multifaith service Sunday afternoon, I began my day in the City by attending morning worship at Judson Memorial Church—an historic, inclusive, social justice oriented church on Washington Square Park in the heart of the Village. I remember visiting Judson Church back in the mid 1970’s when it was considered extremely “liberal” and politically radical, attracting New York actors as well as social activists. Thirty-five years later, it’s still a spiritually and socially progressive church and a very special place: Check out www.Judson.org
Senior Minister, Donna Schaper, preached a profound sermon aboutthatwhich we so easily name “evil” and how easy it is—especially when one feels wronged or oppressed—to demonize the other with whom you disagree or fear may hurt you. Whether our perceived enemy is the red neck gay-basher or the Wall Street tycoon, it’s important, she said, not to call another human being “evil.” Jesus taught us to love even our enemies, and to dare to believe that what is wrong could be made right, and that those who follow false paths can turn around. I found her sermon deeply Christian and particularly helpful in light of the Occupy Wall Street protests that the church was highly involved in.
After worship Eric introduced me to the Golden Calf who lives in the lobby of Judson Church offices. We held it up just to see how heavy it was to carry from Greenwich Village to Wall Street. Eric, who has carried the False Idol more than his fair share, admits that it is tiring to hold it up above the crow, but the symbolism of economic idolatry and its association with the raging Wall Street Bull is worth its price in gold. After lunch in the Village, I took the subway to the Financial District to spend the rest of the afternoon at Occupy Wall Street.
Zucotti Park offers alternative community
Zucotti Park is much smaller than I imagined from television coverage, and the crowd so much nicer than reported by mainstream media. The once open green space was fully occupied with semi-permanent tents, tarps, and camp sites. Signs and banners galore. Mostly young, white kids staking out turf to pitch their tent and point of view.
Prominently positioned was the Anonymous Camp whose revolutionary messages are quite provocative; the Socialist Core proclaiming “No more bailouts for bankers! Yes to a bailout plan for workers, migrants and youth.” There was the Unified Society for Mutual Responsibility passing out leaflets calling for ‘Real Change’ and quoting Buckminster Fuller: “You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.” And there were a number of representatives of the Baha’ u’llah with deep and sincere smiles for passers by, as well as for the occupiers. They were eager to share the good news message and mission of their founder, who over 100 years ago warned the world that its social order was decaying and that a new world order would manifest itself at the right time. By their presence at Occupy Wall Street, I think they believe that time is Now.
It took me at least an hour to walk leisurely around the perimeter of the park and stop to talk to the various personalities in front of tables of literature, buttons, and just causes. To pause long enough to talk to self-identified members of the 99% unjustly cut off from the 1% that control global wealth. And then another hour to find my way through the trails within the park, past tents and feeding stations, with so many friendly faces open and ready to discuss the movement with newbies and tourists. The Protest Chaplains positioned themselves right in the heart of the park, prominently identified by their informal badges, and are good at striking up conversations with those who pass by.
I hung out for awhile with Chaplains Richenda Fairhurst and Melissa Hinnen, and also met some fascinating individuals. People like Karen from Saint Paul, MN, who came to offer a Teach-in on healing energy for a new era, and the disshelved, dirty, homeless-looking guy who pointed to the Byzantine cross around my neck and asked me pointedly whether the gold or Jesus was the most important thing about the cross. (maybe I should have worn my colorful, wooded, Guatamalen cross). I enjoyed snacking at the feeding station (supported by donations of food and volunteer help), and seeing Ben and Jerry’s Ice cream cart offering free cones for whosoever will.
Tree of Life Shrine attracts the weary
I found my way to what was called the Tree of Life for a rest stop on the tour of the Occupied Zone. As I studied the countless religious objects that were brought and laid on shelves at the foot of the Tree, I imagined the many prayers and reflections that had been offered by the Occupies over the past few weeks. I overheard one young woman near her tent telling another who just arrived: “This is the spiritual center of the occupation. People come here just to sit and meditate.”
I squatted there for a while gazing at religious candles, cruicifixes, Virgin Marys, happy Buddha’s, prayer wheels, gods and gurus, icons and artifacts, sacred texts and prayer cloths, relics of all varieties. And I gave thanks for this diverse, organic expression of spiritual hunger and religious faith. One of the leaders later explained how police threatened to remove the religious paraphernalia and even uproot the Tree to get the Occupies to leave; but they backed off, as did the city from their threat to forcibly remove the protestors.
Multifaith Prayer Service
At the other end of the park stands another sacred Tree. Here people gather at 3:30pm on Sundays for a multifaith prayer service hosted and led by a different faith group each week. Today’s service is led by Rev. Eric Jackson of Drew, who serves as a community minister at Judson and a Baptist minister in Harlem, and is also frequent carrier of the golden calf in previous services in the Park.
“Mike check!” Eric begins. “Mike check” the crowd responds in their accustomed manner. Once the group’s attention is gained, the half-hour prayer service begins. Four speakers are prepared to give a 3-5 minute speech preceded and followed by prayers and silent meditation. Eric’s sermon was short, too the point, powerfully said, and traditionally Christian (which is a good thing in my book). Rev. Laura Seener, a Unitarian Universalist minister in New York followed with a more poetical speech that called on all people to “worship justice, truth and love” (Whatever). Fr. Michael Sniffen, a young Episcopal priest from New Jersey, who graduated two years ago from Drew and now on the Alumni Board, gave an inspiring, rousing speech about ‘speaking truth the power and doing justice.’ He spoke powerfully without notes, demonstrating what often is called “command presence.” (Definitely Drew-formed). Jeffrey Kuan, Dean of Drew Theological School was scheduled to preach, but he was on the other end of my cell phone saying he was caught in a traffic jam in Holland Tunnel and would not be there in time. Eric turned to me and said, “You want to say something?” Without thinking much, I said, “Well, I guess I could speak for a minute.“
My first speech on Wall Street:
Without advance notice, I could only come up with some sound bites:
“My name is Michael, representing Communities of Shalom, at Drew University.”
Those participating in the service repeated every word I said to compensate for the lack of sound equipment. Using the Occupy technique of call and response during speeches helps to get your point across, so I knew I had to slow it down and bump it up). Here’s what I found myself shouting:
We are here
WE ARE HERE
To occupy with Faith
TO OCCUPY WITH FAITH
We are here
WE ARE HERE
To occupy with HOPE
TO OCCUPY WITH HOPE
We are here
WE ARE HERE
To occupy with LOVE
TO OCCUPY WITH LOVE
On the mountain of greed
ON THE MOUNTAIN OF GREED
From the ashes of despair
FROM THE ASHES OF DESPAIR
In the chaos of these times
IN THE CHAOS OF THESE TIMES
New communities of love and daring
NEW COMMUNITIES OF LOVE AND DARING
New communities of hope and faith
NEW COMMUNITIES OF HOPE AND FAITH
New communities of God’s Shalom
NEW COMMUNITIES OF GOD’S SHALOM
Thus it is written
THUS IT IS WRITTEN
Thus it shall be
THUS IT SHALL BE
This I believe
THIS I BELIEVE
Shalom, Salaam, Shanti, Right On, AMEN!
Okay, so it wasn’t a substantive speech, but a Shalom litany was all I could come up with outside in the cold on the steps of the park at Occupy Wall Street. Perhaps I’ll have another chance on December 4 (First Sunday of Advent) when Communities of Shalom has been asked to host and lead the multifaith service at Zucotti Park on the theme of new beginnings.
Markings of a Movement
At the end of the day, it was time to return home to Madison, NJ, and prepare for next week at Drew. This was my third time to visit an Occupy demonstration in the four weeks (first in San Francisco, then in Indianapolis, and finally where it began on Wall Street, NY), and I am beginning to think that this movement has moral traction and Kairotic power as a new generation of activists says “Enough!“ and take it to the streets.
People of Christian faith need not endorse all the factions involved in the movement in order to affirm, “Occupy Wall Street is a good thing”. The Church of Jesus can stand firmly within our Jewish-Christian prophetic tradition of social justice and moral reform, and call for an end to http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Economic_inequality economic inequality, corporate greed, corruption and unfair influence over government.
Is a better world and way of living really possible? Despite the wackadoodles and anarchists, unrealistic utopian idealists and libertarians within the ranks, most of the young protestors are optimistic and compassionate, really smart and articulate, and deeply committed to a lot of good causes. I know I must continue paying attention to this movement, spiritually engage its leaders as I’m able, and morally participate where I can. And yes, I plan to return next week, same time and place.
For updates: Druids Occupy Wall Street