Occupy movement prepares for May 1; Episcopalians continue support

By Sharon Sheridan
Posted Apr 20, 2012

Occupy movement participants take part in stations of the cross on Good Friday at the Massachusetts State House. Photo/Michael Horan

[Episcopal News Service] With the dismantling of encampments at New York’s Zuccotti Park and elsewhere and the onset of winter, the Occupy movement dropped out of front-page headlines. But the movement against greed and economic inequality has continued unabated, supported by members of the faith community.

“It’s alive and well. I’ve never seen so much percolation going on. Just today there are four different meetings having to do with five different actions,” retired Episcopal Bishop George Packard said in a March interview with ENS.

“Actions” – from street theater to interruptions of foreclosure procedures by singing protestors to weekly Wall Street marches – occur frequently, chronicled on Occupy Wall Street’s Facebook page, website and elsewhere. Earth Day on Sunday in New York, for example, will bring a “jazz funeral for the death of Earth as we know it” and a march to the site of the proposed Spectra Pipeline in the West Village.

Faith groups in some cities led Lent or Easter events. In late March, two priests from the Episcopal Diocese of Long Island and the founder of Protest Chaplains in Boston traveled to Oakland, California, to participate in a national Occupy Faith gathering. And movement supporters around the country are planning a day of action, including a call for a general strike, for May 1.

“May Day is really going to kick off a whole series of actions that are going to go on this summer,” said the Rev. John Merz, priest-in-charge at the Episcopal Church of the Ascension on Greenpoint, Brooklyn. Leading up to that, every Friday or Saturday brings a march around Wall Street, he said. “There are sleeping bags in front of the [New York] Stock Exchange. There may even be attempts at various reoccupations, whether it’s Zuccotti or elsewhere. That may happen on a mass scale.”

May 1, he explained, is “traditionally a day when unions and disparate groups work together to stand up for workers’ rights and the rights of the disadvantaged in society.”

Packard, former bishop for the armed forces and federal ministries; Merz; the Rev. Michael Sniffen, priest-in-charge of the Episcopal Church of St. Luke and St. Matthew in Brooklyn; and the Rev. Earl Kooperkamp, rector of St. Mary’s Episcopal Church in Harlem, were among Occupy protesters arrested Dec. 17 after entering a fenced property owned by Trinity Episcopal Church, Wall Street, in Duarte Square in Lower Manhattan as part of Occupy Wall Street’s “D17 Take Back the Commons” event to celebrate three months since the movement’s launch.

OWS had been lobbying Trinity to use the property for a winter encampment, following the movement’s Nov. 15 eviction from Zuccotti Park near the church. Trinity had refused, citing a lack of facilities at the site and its lease agreement allowing the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council to use it for periodic art installations. Packard had been trying to mediate an agreement between OWS members and Trinity.

Packard and Kooperkamp are due in New York Criminal Court April 20 on trespassing charges. Merz and Sniffen accepted a six-month adjournment in contemplation of dismissal (ACD) on Feb. 28, which means the charges against them will be dismissed and they will have no criminal record if they are not arrested again in the next six months, according to a court official.

Packard said he chose not to accept the offered ACD because “I elected to hear my charges from a judge and be able to respond to them.

“I didn’t go through all of this just to kind of go out the back of the court with my tail between my legs, he said. “I felt it was time to stand on my own two feet, look the gentleman in the eye [and] say, ‘This is what I did.'”

“I also probably will be arrested again,” said Packard, who has continued to participate in OWS actions in New York. “I’m not looking to be arrested, but the chances are pretty high.”

Packard’s wife Brook, who was not arrested Dec. 17 but said she feared for her life when police countered OWS demonstrators with force, has continued to be involved in the movement as well, including teaching protest songs to occupiers for the spring marches.

Merz also said he accepted the possibility of being arrested again. “I’m not worried about that. … I’ll be at demonstrations and I’ll be out on May Day, and if there’s an attempt at a reoccupation, I’m going to be there.”

“Some of these demonstrations, people are getting arrested who are not even involved in the demonstration,” he said. “If you’re involved in some way, it’s a given that you may be arrested.”

Being in court brought another lesson in society’s inequities, Sniffen said. “Most of the people in the courtroom where I was were elderly Chinese and Latino women who had been arrested for selling flowers and candy on a street corner. I was just thinking about all of the gross injustices that surround us that many of us are fighting in the church and outside the church to overcome and that the justice system is clogged with people who are desperately trying to scrape a living together. It was really a surprise, and them being given $150 fines, which is probably more than they make in a couple of months.”

“I think it’s an indication that our justice system, along with many of our other systems, is also broken,” he said.

Involved from the start

Inspired by the Arab Spring, the Occupy movement was launched Sept. 17 with Occupy Wall Street. Demonstrators set up camp in Zuccotti Park and created a community with everything from an onsite lending library to working groups planning actions and statements on various social and economic concerns. Participants organized using “horizontal” rather than hierarchical leadership and made decisions at democratic “general assemblies.”

Other camps arose in cities and towns across the country and around the world, including an encampment outside St. Paul’s Cathedral in London. Within months, authorities broke up most of the encampments.

Episcopalians and other people of faith have supported the movement from the beginning. Harvard doctoral candidate Marisa Egerstrom organized a group called Protest Chaplains that participated in the launch at Zuccotti Park and has supported Occupy Boston. In New York, Episcopal clergy, including Diocese of Long Island Bishop Lawrence Provenzano and those arrested Dec. 17, spent time with occupiers at Zuccotti Park and have been involved with Occupy Faith NYC.

In late March, Occupy Faith members from across the country – including Merz, Sniffen and Egerstrom – attended a national planning meeting in Oakland, California, where members of various religious groups had maintained an “Interfaith Tent” at Occupy Oakland and 14 were arrested in November after refusing to evacuate that encampment.

The Oakland meeting included discussion about national coordination and actions, including what will happen May 1 and a push for a commission on debt and debt culture — “something along the lines of a truth commission around wealth and debt” — Merz said. But it also showed the challenges of a national strategy for a diverse movement.

Because there are so many Occupy groups at different stages of development, much of the conference focused on sharing experiences, identifying where the groups were in their development and discussing strategies, he said. Besides providing physical and logistical support, one area in which people saw faith leaders as potentially playing an important role is in direct actions, such as when Occupy Faith NYC members demonstrated in front of the governor’s office using beds to symbolize the impact of budget cuts on homeless people, he said.

Since the breakup of the occupations in New York and other cities, said Egerstrom, “the main development is that what used to be a very camp-centered movement has really … turned into collective, I guess, and that collective is made up of working groups and affinity groups who are all now pursuing various strategies but in communication with each other. So it actually looks more like movements we’ve seen in the past than it has previously.”

That, in turn, spurs the question: Will the movement dissolve into single-issue groups, “or are we going to continue to be something of a sustained popular uprising?” she said.

“In Boston, some of the Protest Chaplains have continued to do various actions,” she said. During Lent, for example, a group gathered every Friday morning outside Bank of America for prayers and music, “not only calling for repentance on the part of banks, but also for all of us to understand how we’re all locked into a system that rests on exploitation and greed.”

The Occupy Lent leaders included a Catholic, a Buddhist, a Unitarian, a Lutheran and emergent church Episcopalian. On Ash Wednesday, a UCC minister offered ashes. On Maundy Thursday, a group offered Eucharist and foot washing near a Boston Commons fountain. Good Friday brought a stations of the cross that drew 50 or 60 participants. In Philadelphia, Easter plans included a morning “Sermon at the Mall.”

“Occupy is almost mirroring so much of what gets discussed in sort of emergent church discourse,” Egerstrom said. “People don’t want statements or creeds or mission blurbs. … What matters is where you put your body and to what end.

“I think Episcopalians would say, ‘Well, it’s all fine and good if you say the creeds and you say that’s what you believe, but aren’t you going to show up to church? Aren’t we going to come together as a community and take part in the sacraments together and experience the sound of all our bodies and voices singing together, praying together?’ And Occupy has also come as a result of people being fed up with the insufficiency of things like signing online petitions, statements from people in positions of authority that don’t go anywhere.”

A need for conversation

“The camps taught us that there is no substitute for face-to-face conversations,” Egerstrom said. “And the camps taught us that there is nothing that scares the wealthy elite and their institutions more than a collection of people having face-to-face conversations.”

Some conversations are taking place at Episcopal seminaries.

On April 27, Packard and the Rev. James Cooper, rector of Trinity, Wall Street, will participate in “Occupy Faith – Leadership for the 100%,” a forum focusing on faith and leadership in the Occupy movement, at Virginia Theological Seminary in Alexandria, Virginia. The event is the second in a series of forums sponsored by the Social Concerns Committee highlighting the ongoing impact of the movement.

In February, Packard, Merz, Smithen and Egerstrom participated in a forum at General Theological Seminary in New York.

In the larger society, although OWS’ encampment only lasted two months, references to the movement and issues raised by Occupy have “just become part of the vocabulary,” Merz said.

Within the larger institutional church, he said, he’s “more convinced than ever” that it “will naturally lag behind being a force of any kind of institutional change.”

“We unconsciously and consciously perpetuate a lot of the institutional pillars in society, whether it’s family, law and order … Then we preach from the pulpit transformation,” he said. “Experientially, the church is a place that does not welcome transformation actually that openly and easily. You can’t move a pew without getting into an enormous fight.”

But, at least in New York, the movement has “pushed some churches into uncomfortable territory,” he said, stressing the need for continued conversations about economic justice and action.

May 1 will provide another opportunity, he said. “What will be the response to this? … How will churches respond and see ourselves as partners in pushing the society to answering the questions that we raise week in and week out from out from our pulpits?”

Looking outside the church, religious leaders have described a strong spiritual component to the Occupy movement and its encampments from the beginning, even if many participants aren’t religiously affiliated.

“The people I meet at OWS … they don’t know anything about institutional religion at all,” Packard said. “They are not less spiritual. They have a spirituality which is undeniable.”

— Sharon Sheridan is an ENS correspondent.


Comments (15)

  1. Lisa Sullivan says:

    Sharon, count me out when you say, “Episcopalians and other people of faith have supported the movement from the beginning.” I find that to be a careless and irresponsible blanket statement that does not reflect the diverse opinions of Episcopalians.

    1. Jeff Parker says:

      This sort of article is outrageous, inaccurate, and naive. When the USSR trooped all their military might in Red Square on May Day, the US reponded by naming it Law Day. Being spriritual does not mean that their position makes any sense. These comments are ridiculously sweeping. This Episcopalian certainly does not support OWS, and I am insulted by the insinuation that I do. What I do support on the political front is the Constitution.

      1. Sean McDermott says:

        God Bless you Jeff. I DO support Faith, Hope & Charity. I also support the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, something these neo-Bolsheviks do not.

  2. Jim Hunt says:

    Here in Auckland, New Zealand, I am trying another tack. “Some sits and thinks, some just sits”. I am starting up a blog, Occupy – E noho! E whaiwhakaaroaro! which means Sit! Think! and asking some economists to help me tell what economic thinkers have taught. I have no special gifts in tht direction apart from having lived through the years when great numbers of people died of hunger because the followers of Karl Marx and Mao Tse Tung couldn’t make their systems work. I have also spent most of my life putting things into simple language in English or Mota or Maori. Since it is the beginning of the academic year here the people I want are very busy, but one professor did tell me that these wealth gap matters do generate a lot of discussion among his students. That is good. Now let’s have some talk out in the real world!

  3. Shane Patrick Connolly says:

    The knee-jerk support given to the anarchist-leftist Occupy movement by some in the Episcopal Church would be laughable if it didn’t so overshadow the true mission of the Church which is to bring the gospel and love of Christ to all people. Some elements of the ECUSA hierarchy seem to have found, in the Occupy movement, a convenient social movement on which to hang their 1960’s-inspired (or perhaps early 20th-century Marxism-inspired?) theology. I really don’t recall Christ calling upon us to promote the shirking of personal responsibility and the expansion of a moribund Federal government to hand out money to whom they deem worthy and of whom no no accountability is required. I don’t see a Biblical injustice perpetrated when requiring someone to pay back their school or home loans. While there is plenty of injustice, Biblical or otherwise, in handing out our tax dollars to the wealthy on Wall Street and to well-connected green-tech Titans, I find it telling that I didn’t see the Occupy-apologist clergy and laity standing with the Tea Party folks who raised such issues. It really exposes these folks for who they are – political activists using the Christian faith as a cover to promote the left-wing ideals they just happen to have in common with the Occupy movement.

    1. Dan Shockley says:

      I think it should be obvious to Christians that Episcopalians who support a movement dedicated to speaking out for the poor and oppressed against the indifferent and oppressive rich are taking their example from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Have you read the Gospel?

      If you’re an Episcopalian in the Diocese of New York, you really should read the letter from our bishops in support of the Occupy movement. It explains well that the goals of followers of Christ and many of those held by OWS protesters are the same or similar enough for alliance on many issues.

      Don’t try to use the Bible to justify your selfish or indifferent attitude towards the poor and oppressed. You’re only fooling yourself and/or other people who have bought into the conservative/individualistic lie. Those beliefs are your own – they don’t look anything like what Jesus preached.

  4. Art House says:

    Sadly, the more trouble the Occupy Movement causes this year, the higher is the chance of a Republican sweep in the fall. Independents and centrists are going to look at he Occupiers the way they looked at the student demonstrators in 1968, as socialist-nihilists. Then, we got Nixon. Now we’ll get Romney and a GOP Congress, as surely as night follows day.

  5. Vicki Gray says:

    I have been deeply involved in Occupy San Francisco (http://americaoccupied.org/2012/01/19/the-deacon/) since early October, because, by my lights, it seeks the same over-arching goal we say we do – a society that is fair and just and loving…a Beloved Community of Shalom. And, as I have said elsewhere, I feel that it’s urgent for the church get off the sidelines and embrace the Occupy movement. Do we truly believe Jesus’ words and ours? Are we prepared to speak and act – dangerously – on our beliefs? Are we prepared to follow those like Bishop George Packard who are?

    Young people, in particular, are waiting for our answers and, I assure you, anxious to embrace us. I have found them calling us to do what we as a church should have been doing a long time ago. Are we listening? Are we ready, as people of faith, to act?

    Probably the biggest excuse for inaction is the contention that it’s all too fuzzy. Over and over – from our bishops and the people in the pews – we hear “What do they want?” Wrong question! The proper question is “What do we want?” Are we in the church not part of the 99%? Do we not have eyes and ears and hearts to see and hear and feel what Stephane Hessel , the French Holocaust survivor and human rights activist, calls the “unbearable things all around us” – the myriad injustices and indignities heaped upon us by out-of-control capitalism and a democracy corrupted by money. Do we not want to convince even the 1% to join a new, more humane consensus? Must we rely on the courageous, dispersed campers who have opened our eyes to those unbearable things to also fill our minds, grown flaccid, with ready-made answers? Have we not minds of our own? Can we not engage? Dare we not join the changed and broadening conversation about necessary and, yes, obvious solutions? Can we not exert ourselves, and, through such exertion, tone up our capacity to think for ourselves and, together, shape our answers. As Hessel writes in Time for Outrage, “The worst attitude is indifference.”
    There is, indeed, a time when silence is betrayal. We cannot be silent in the face of a patently unfair economy that devours the poor. Nor can we be indifferent to a political system that ignores our pain. We must speak truth to the powers-that-be, be they on Wall Street, Lafayette Square, or Nob Hill.

  6. The Rev. Al Minor says:

    Reform movements in America have always begun with “the people” against “the establishment”. In the OWS movement we see it again: people who have little facing down people who have much.

    Theologically there is nothing wrong with wealth, but it must bear a deep responsibility. “To whom much is given, much is expected.” We might even say REQUIRED: the care of those who are much less fortunate. The Biblical expectation of at least 10% of our wealth be given in worship to God is pretty clear, and the assumption is that very little of this is to go to institutional maintenance and most is to go to the responsible works expressing the care of God for the poor and suffering. This is the beginning standard in the ministries of the Church. The Church, in turn, must give unfailing concern and support to the victims and the CAUSES of injustice, deprivation, and uncaring exploitation.

    The issues of freedom directly involve the exploitation, victimization and deprivation of the poor by the crafty. Over time the effects of those who bear the messages of the love of God — at whatever levels of their resources of personal or corporate wealth must responsibly become involved. We are our brothers’ keepers and in this we must use our best skills.

    The OWS movement exposes a dangerous imbalance and immorality in the corporate society. Our national and spiritual health depends on its correction. There will be strife for sure. Somehow, in the life of Christ within us, we must not be afraid. The crucifixions of the just and loving will take place in various degrees and forms. It is to be expected, and it is a form of unaware worship.

    My highest hope for this growing movement is for a result of major, principled, open and public structures of care for the least fortunate on the part of the most fortunate, including the major corporations; and this before the extraordinary unneeded and greedy benefits of those on the highest rungs of the corporate ladders. I think there are signs of this now beginning. Keep the pressure up. We will all be spiritually healthier for it in this next step in the creation of our world.

  7. Deborah Sirotkin Butler says:

    I found my participation in Occupy Lent and the Stations of the Cross to be the most meaningful spiritual events in my life to date. As to “the Constitution” – let me remind everyone that when ideology met the constitution, the result was Citizens United vs. FEC. Not a very good “date”.

  8. Wayne Kempton says:

    Is there room at the Communion table in the Episcopal Church for those whose political views are opposed to Occupy? Can we accept that some disagree with us, or shall we continually be in liberal conversion mode? This article would seem to imply the latter.

  9. CH Trammell says:

    This is outrageous. Do not pretend to lump all Episcopalians in as supporters of this nonsensical outfit. I respectfully ask you to keep your personal political views away from legitimate Church news. The fact that this appears on the Episcopal News Service website and purports to have support from all Episcopalians is insulting and appalling. I for one find this group to be lazy and unrealistic and essentially a group of spoiled children trying to get their way by making a loud fuss and bucking conventional society. My suggestion for OWS “protesters” is to seek gainful employment and pursue the American Dream. I would hope that Christ would be in favor of individuals trying to better themselves and provide for their families, not sitting around protesting the fact that they can’t find success in the most bountiful land on God’s green earth. The irony is that for the most part this group is full of secularists that rail against virtually everything that the Church teaches, yet you find their “cause” to be noteworthy. If you can’t see these people for what they are and the Church truly endorses this movement…then God help us.

    1. Sean McDermott says:

      As a police officer in L.A. (LAPD) I’m quite horrified that my church sees fit to mix in with and empower those who assemble weapons against me and my brother and sister officers, go to the bathroom on our police cars, rape and murder one another – and no visits at all to police stations!

      All we have are our chaplains (God Bless them). I do wish Bishop Jon Bruno (a former police officer) would exhibit some Bonhoeffer inspired courage and strength on this matter. Pray for these protestors and denounce their Baal worship.

  10. Sean McDermott says:

    The occupiers are looking to the Arab Spring / Tahrir Square for their inspiration.

    http://www.cbsnews.com/2100-18560_162-20058368.html This is your future, Occupy! Your legacy of revolution is the French Revolution (the Great Terror), The Russian Revolution (the Red Terror) and Lara’s rape.

    Stand in solidarity with the Arab Spring? How’s that working out? The Muslim Brotherhood and affiliated Islamists now have over 70% of Egypt’s government. Please, dear God think through what you’re after.

  11. Anna Scott says:

    These types of blanket statements about Episcopalians are inaccurate and disturbing. I am an Episcopalian, and I do not support the Occupy Movement.

Comments are closed.