Faith leaders support ‘occupiers’ in various ways

By Sharon Sheridan
Posted Nov 16, 2011

Students from the University of California at Berkeley join in the “Occupy” protest near the campus. Photo/Daniel Joslyn-Siemiatkoski

[Episcopal News Service] As the worldwide protest movement against economic injustice that started with Occupy Wall Street (OWS) in New York enters its second month, participants and their supporters in the religious community are regrouping in some locations after police evicted them from encampments this week while faith leaders continue to provide material and spiritual assistance to “occupations” in many cities.

In New York on Nov. 15, protestors returned to the site of their Zuccotti Park encampment minus their sleeping bags and tents at the end of a day that began with an early-dawn raid and eviction by police in riot gear and ended with a judge’s ruling that the city could prevent them from camping at the site.

In California’s Bay Area, where police ousted and arrested occupiers, including 14 faith leaders at Occupy Oakland, early on Nov. 14, marches are planned in Oakland and nearby San Francisco for Nov. 19. Students have reestablished an encampment and are calling for dialogue with officials at the University of California-Berkeley following their ouster on Nov. 9. An Occupy San Francisco camp continues, but police removed an ancillary camp.

In Chicago, where protestors are required to remain mobile, Grace Episcopal Church is providing food and sleeping space to about 15 leaders per night.

And in Boston, Protest Chaplains are maintaining a faith and spirituality tent for occupiers at a downtown encampment.

OWS organizers are calling for an international, nonviolent Day of Action on Nov. 17, the two-month anniversary of what some call the 99 Percent Movement after protestors’ slogan, “We are the 99 percent,” highlighting the inequality between the wealth of the richest 1 percent and the rest of American society.

As outlined on the OWS website, New York protestors will begin “in Liberty Square at 7 a.m., before the ring of the trading floor bell, to prepare to confront Wall Street with the stories of people on the frontlines of economic injustice.” Actions to “occupy the subways,” gather in Manhattan’s Foley Square and march to city bridges will follow.

Actions planned elsewhere include student strikes in Spain and Germany. Since Sept. 17, the movement has spread to more than 2,400 locations across the country and around the world.

Varied church reactions

Church reaction to the movement has varied.

In England, the City of London Corporation is restarting legal action to remove protestors from the land it owns surrounding St. Paul’s Cathedral precincts. Cathedral officials initially supported legal measures to clear protestors, but following widespread criticism — resulting in two senior clergy resigning — agreed to suspend such action.

In Canada, police have cleared occupations in Halifax and London, Ontario, and similar tactics are being threatened in Vancouver and Toronto, where protestors are camped outside the Anglican cathedral. Cathedral Dean Douglas A. Stoute recently said that the protestors deserved respect.

The Episcopal Church’s Executive Council on Oct. 23 and the Diocese of Long Island at its convention last weekend passed resolutions supporting the movement.

In Oakland, members of various religious groups maintained an “Interfaith Tent” at Occupy Oakland and formed a group of the same name, said the Rev. Rita Nakashima Brock, a commissioned minister of the Christian Church of Disciples and director of the nonprofit Faith Voices for the Common Good. Locating their tent on the pavement at the park entrance, “we became sort of the greeter for new people – the narthex of the church, as it were.”

About 20 people took turns staffing the tent as a sacred space around the clock. Activities varied from “liberation yoga sessions” and Eucharist to a “compassion circle” bringing city officials and occupiers together to try to prevent the evacuation, and conducting a memorial service for a man killed in front of the tent Nov. 10, Brock said.

Initially, most occupiers either ignored them “because this is an area of the world that is not very religious” or had “some fairly hostile feelings about clergy being around” because clergy opposing Occupy Oakland previously had appeared at a press conference with the mayor, Brock said. That attitude changed after 14 Interfaith Tent members were among 32 people arrested during Monday morning’s raid after refusing to evacuate, she said.

“Our getting arrested so explicitly as a religious group, sort of respectable folks … gave a different face to the movement here in Oakland,” she said. “It also … sort of erased that image in people’s minds of those clergy that had stood with the mayor.”

At 9:30 p.m. Nov. 19, she plans to participate in a march she helped organize in San Francisco featuring a speech by author Cornel West that will follow a meeting of the American Academy of Religion, of which she is a member. A separate march also is planned in Oakland that day to downtown banks and an elementary school slated for closure.

In New York, clergy and laity from throughout the area have visited OWS, and some have joined an interfaith coalition to support them.

Located near the encampment, Trinity Episcopal Church, Wall Street, has issued several statements since early October, most recently a letter to the community late Nov. 15. Earlier in the day, following the police evacuation of Zuccotti Park, police arrested protestors who entered Trinity-owned property located a mile north of the church.

“We have been pastor to our newest neighbors,” the Rev. James Cooper, rector, wrote in the letter. “We have used our voice as a leader in the community on their behalf. And we have made sure that the parish has been open and inviting to all … As many protesters will tell you, Charlotte’s Place, our neighborhood center, has been a welcome gathering spot apart from Zuccotti Park.”

Noting that 60,000 people – from congregants and tourists to concertgoers and preschoolers – pass through Trinity’s doors each week, Cooper added, that, “while Trinity supports the Occupy movement’s right to protest peacefully and lawfully, and provides responsible assistance, the parish simply cannot be turned over to a single cause. Trinity welcomes protesters to participate in parish life, but not to occupy parish life in such a way that excludes anyone from taking full part in the vital and dynamic place of faith that is Trinity Wall Street.”

Trinity will continue to provide meeting space, bathrooms during open hours and “practical and pastoral help'” but not overnight accommodations, Cooper wrote.

Some would like to see Trinity do more.

“The letter,” said the Rev. John Merz, “did not address directly the fact that Trinity did, in real time while in conversation with people from OWS, allow the police to step onto their property and violently remove – and in some cases kick and beat – passive resisters. … The [letter] essentially restated in a defensive manner that one of the largest land owners in New York City, and also proudly a church, wants this global movement to know that it will support it and will continue to support it with the occasional use of bathrooms in three specific facilities that are open at very specific hours.”

“I think the faith community would call on Trinity to reconsider and to partner with us in finding solutions to help sustain a movement that is inspiring people around the world,” said Merz, who is active with Occupy Faith NYC and has housed protestors at his home in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, where he is priest-in-charge at the Episcopal Church of the Ascension.

“I understand the challenges that they’re facing,” he said. “This is not trivial. Everybody has commitments. But it’s really a moment to reevaluate.”

A new youth ministry

In Chicago, members of the Occupy movement have maintained a continuous presence in the financial district but not been “encamped,” said the Rev. Ted Curtis, Grace rector. Police told them “that they had to have everything mobile.”

As people donated supplies to protestors, Curtis agreed to become “the supply depot” and to provide sleeping quarters and breakfasts. “Our basement is filled with water and signs and cards and sleeping bags and blankets and food that has been donated.”

Curtis signed up for Occupy Chicago Twitter messages, provided a key to two Occupy “staff” who ensure only legitimate protestors stay at the church and set ground rules: protests had to remain nonviolent, and no drug or alcohol use was allowed. Most parishioners have supported his decision, and he’s raised $1,600 from the church’s 160-member e-mail list, he said.

About 15 protestors, mostly young people, sleep at the church each night, Curtis said. “To me it’s a youth ministry, really.”

“I’ve been really impressed with the thoughtfulness, the brilliance, the committed nature of these folks,” he said. He relates their efforts to the theology of Walter Wink, who said that institutions such as governments and churches formed for the common good are fallen but can be redeemed. “To me, that’s at the heart what these young people are trying to say, is that the institutions of our country are good, they’re messed up, and they can be put back on their right course.”

In the Boston area, Harvard Divinity School PhD. student Marisa Egerstrom, an Episcopalian, organized 10 students of faith as Protest Chaplains to attend the launch of OWS on Sept. 17. They attended wearing white albs, carrying a cardboard Celtic cross and offering prayer and song.

“It became clear to us pretty quickly that the most powerful thing we were doing was singing,” she said. “When we would sing, it just brought this entirely different energy, this sense of unity and freedom and lightness of heart that people responded to with this incredible mix of curiosity and disbelief and appreciation. It was profoundly moving for all of us.”

Back in Massachusetts, when Occupy Boston began at the end of September, the Protest Chaplains helped establish a faith and spirituality tent. They provide a space for meditation and prayer as well as a “stunning variety” of programs, from Bible study to therapeutic message, Muslim prayers to Buddhist teachings to Wednesday Eucharist to Unitarian Sunday night vespers. Trained members of a Unitarian group provide trauma counseling.

Protest Chaplains also encourages similar efforts elsewhere, with chapters begun in New York, Minnesota and California’s Bay Area.

For Egerstrom, supporting the movement is living out her Christian faith. “This is so deeply a matter of justice,” she said.

Egerstrom said she experienced “a profound sense of grief” at news of the Zuccotti Park raid and had been “stunned and appalled” at the level of violence turned against citizens in various police crackdowns against the movement. She said she worried that Boston could be raided next and was concerned that people might turn cynical or lose their vision in “exhaustion and frustration and rage at being treated as enemy combatants instead of citizens trying to make a better country.”

“Change on the level that people are hoping for seems to never come without serious loss and often casualty,” she said, adding that she hoped spiritual leaders could address the deeper spiritual issues involved and help keep the peace.

Bishop Lawrence Provenzano of the Diocese of Long Island, who has supported the movement, likewise said he had been “stunned at by the need to clean it all up” as police ousted protesters from Zuccotti Park and elsewhere.

“What harm is being done by the witness of these protestors? … They really are raising an issue for all of us to consider, both in terms of our Christian life and our being good citizens and members of society,” he said.

“There’s got to be some place to have a conversation about … what is a person’s legitimate right to make a profit as opposed to misuse of that right, and the denigration of people in our society,” Provenzano said. He sees the occupiers “as representing some of the reality that we all in the church ought to be talking about.”

In California, Episcopalian Daniel Joslyn-Siemiatkoski, associate professor of church history at the Episcopal Church Divinity School of the Pacific in Berkeley, and a couple of students attended the Nov. 2 “general strike” called by Occupy Oakland following an Oct. 25 raid on their encampment and violent clashes between police and protestors.

On Nov. 15, some students again joined him on a visit to the location where protesters are attempting to reestablish an Occupy Cal encampment at the University of California, near the seminary. More CDSP students visited that night, when university professor and former U.S. Secretary of Labor Robert Reich addressed the crowd.

When he marched with protestors on Nov. 2, Joslyn-Siemiatkoski said, he was contemplating both the divisiveness of the 99-percent-vs.-1-percent message and how to get to “the 100 percent, which is really another way to begin talking about the reign of God,” he said, where “even the one lost sheep gets brought back into the fold.”

He preached on this and his experience at the strike the next day.

While he’s “leery of overly divisive rhetoric” because both sides must be at the table to find solutions, he said, “you also need to speak the truth.”

“Part of the gospel is that it involves repentance,” he said. “The issue is how you use your wealth.”

And if you benefit from an unjust economic system, it’s important to engage in fixing it, he said. “As a white male, I benefit the most from American society, but it’s also important to see the ways in which my own benefiting flows out of forms of injustice. And for me, being at the march was a way of saying the system is unjust.”

— Sharon Sheridan is an ENS correspondent.