Clergy, laity support nonviolent protest at Occupy Wall Street

Clergy, laity support nonviolent protests at Occupy

Wall Street

From http://www.episcopalchurch.org/79425_130309_ENG_HTM.htm

By Sharon Sheridan, October 25, 2011

[Episcopal News Service] In the early stages of the Occupy
Wall Street protests, the Rev. Michael Sniffen and some clergy colleagues from
the Episcopal Diocese of Long
Island
traveled to Manhattan’s Zuccotti Park to observe what was happening.
He’s returned regularly since, talking to protestors and offering pastoral
care.

“I see myself as part of the movement,” said Sniffen, 31,
priest-in-charge of the Episcopal Church
of St. Luke and St. Matthew
in Brooklyn, New York. “I really feel like this
is my generation’s plea for a just society. I think the Gospels make it quite
clear in Jesus’ teachings that there can be no justice without economic
justice.”

Sniffen is among a number of Episcopal clergy and laity who are
visiting and lending support to protesters at the birthplace of the Occupy Wall
Street (OWS) campaign. Begun Sept. 17 and inspired by the Arab Spring movement,
OWS protests against greed and economic inequality have spread to more than 2,100
locations
across the country and around the world, including other major
cities such as Denver, Miami, Berlin, London and Tokyo.

On Oct. 23, the
Episcopal Church’s Executive Council issued a resolution affirming “that the
growing movement of peaceful protests in public spaces in the United States and
throughout the world in resistance to the exploitation of people for profit or
power bears faithful witness in the tradition of Jesus to the sinful inequities
in society” and calling upon “Episcopalians to witness in the tradition of Jesus
to inequities in society.”

Three days earlier, Diocese of Long Island
Bishop Lawrence Provenzano visited Zuccotti Park and attended a meeting at
Trinity Episcopal Church, Wall Street, of about three dozen interfaith leaders –
including an Episcopal priest from Harlem and two from his diocese – discussing
ways to support the movement.

New York’s Judson Memorial Baptist Church
has been coordinating interfaith efforts with the coalition, which includes
Christians of various denominations, Buddhists, imams and rabbis, said the Rev.
John Merz, 46, priest-in-charge at the Episcopal
Church of the Ascension
in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. On Oct. 9, he joined other
clergy in carrying a golden calf from Washington Square Park to Wall Street to
Zuccotti Park. As of Oct. 25, more than 250 faith leaders had signed a petition
“of people of faith and/or moral commitment who support the Occupy Wall Street
movement.”

Demonstrators at Zuccotti Park range from one-time visitors to
protesters who have camped out since the campaign began. They include the
employed and the unemployed and encompass all ages, races and creeds, observers
said. People discuss everything from capitalism to environmental issues to the
transformational value of the arts. Protest signs bear messages such as “If only
the war on poverty was a real war then we would actually be putting money into
it,” “Low wages equal modern day slavery” and “The death penalty is a legal
crime.”

Protester Luis Daniel, 31, recently stood in the park wrapped in
silver foil, holding a sign saying: “Enough is enough. Where is my silver
lining?”

Daniel has worked jobs varying from construction to sales but
has been unemployed since 2007 and homeless for seven months.

“The jobs
aren’t there,” he said. “That’s why I am out here with this little costume of
mine, this silver lining. … I want to know where it’s at. I want to know where
is my opportunity.”

Some have criticized protestors for lacking a unified
message or concrete list of demands.

“If they come down here and talk to
everybody, they are going to find a bunch of clear messages,” said OWS press
liaison Anup Desai, City University of New York professor of philosophy and
geography. “This is a movement of movements, and so all the people who are here
dedicating their time strictly out of passion, they have their agenda … If you
come down and talk to them you will see that those demands are quite eloquent
and well thought-out.”

Commented Merz, “It’s actually quite close to the
heart of Anglican theology and practice: You get involved, and then the theology
develops out of it. It’s very inspiring to have conversations with people
because you see how smart people are, how varied it
is.”

Protesting greed
The Rev. Elizabeth Kaeton of
Delaware said she heard a distinct message when she spent the 25th anniversary
of her ordination to the priesthood at Zuccotti Park on Oct.
18.

“Everybody is really, really clear that what they’re protesting is
greed. It’s not about luxury, it’s not about capitalism,” said Kaeton, who is
canonically resident in the Episcopal Diocese of Newark. “People are really
angry about greed, and I think that’s absolutely right. … That’s what made Jesus
turn over a few tables in the temple, was greed and corruption. That’s the moral
problem that I think the church needs to speak to.”

The movement is a
call for the church to become prophetic while being pastoral “to people who are
really struggling and really hurting,” she said. “What I found at Wall Street
was the intersection of the pastoral and the prophetic … and that’s where we
need to be.”

“I just hope more clergy get involved because I think this
is really where the church needs to be,” Kaeton said. “For me, class is the
original sin of the Episcopal Church, and we’re not going to get anywhere unless
we confront our own classism – while we continue to confront our racism and our
sexism and our heterosexism.

“I think we’ve been talking about sex for
the past 30 years so we don’t have to talk about money, and now is the time,”
she said. “That would be the gift of Occupy Wall Street. It’s forcing us to have
those conversations that we’ve been avoiding for a long time.”

Said
Provenzano, “I think there’s an opportunity here for us to look at class
collaboration rather than class warfare, and for all of us, at least from a
religious perspective, to see us all as God’s people.”

OWS press liaison
Desai said he’d recently seen a lot of chaplains and ministers involved. “During
the protest, they walk around making sure that things are peaceful and are a
sort of go-between, between the police officers and the protesters. It’s great
to see them there taking a proactive role.”

When New York Mayor Michael
Bloomberg announced people would have to leave the park so it could be cleaned
on Oct. 14 (an action ultimately postponed), Merz camped out for the night and
talked with protestors about how the interfaith coalition might support them if
they were forced to leave.

“Everybody knew that once they left the park,
there was a good chance nobody was going to be able to get back in,” said Merz,
who has been blogging about
his OWS experiences
. “That night was very tense.”

Those spending
their days in Zuccotti Park include Rena Patty, a certified nonviolent
communication trainer from Washington state, who committed to spending a week in
New York.

Overall, Merz said, “This has been remarkably nonviolent thus
far. We do have a place there in helping to spread that.”

One exception
occurred when one of his parishioners, Chelsea Elliott, was among several young
women pepper-sprayed by a police officer on Sept. 24.

“I’ve been involved
with Occupy Wall Street since the second day,” said Elliott, 25, a freelance
digital imager who owns the business Bang
Bang New York
. “Our economy keeps getting worse and worse, and the
corporations and executives have yet to be held accountable. … We have less
control over our government.”

“It was just such a relief to be able to
talk about these issues with other people that are upset about it,” she said.
“It’s just been good to relate to them and create a dialogue.”

On Sept.
24, she participated in a march to Union Square, then began to walk with friends
back to Zuccotti Park, she recounted. Some police stopped them on the sidewalk
and then erected orange netting in front of them, she said. As the crowd behind
them grew, scuffles broke out and a girl began screaming, she believes in
response to a fight, Elliott said.

Elliott said she began screaming when
a police officer shoved the girl to the ground and dragged her by her hair
beneath the orange net. “I thought she had a concussion,” she said. “This cop
walks over from far away – he didn’t even see us, but he walks over to us for
some reason – and sprays me and three other women in the face, like, directly
with pepper spray.”

New York Police Department Deputy Inspector Anthony
Bologna later was docked 10 vacation days, or the equivalent amount of pay, for
the incident, the
Daily News reported
. Elliott said she planned to file a civil suit to try to
get the police department to set a new protocol for dealing with such
situations.

The incident didn’t deter her from participating in OWS. “You
can Mace me or hit me. It’s not really going to weaken the movement,” she said.
“Being pepper-sprayed is not a pleasant experience, but it’s not the end of the
world. It’s definitely worth it. I feel like it’s very important to nonviolently
demonstrate. … I was worried that this whole incident would lead to anti-police
sentiment.”

Provenzano and others commented on the sense of community
that had developed at the park.

“I think there is a holy moment in this,”
he said. “There’s an incarnational moment, and I think this is one of those
moments in our history where there can be real change.”

“What I said at
the meeting [Oct. 20] is that I don’t think it is the religious community’s job
to help organize them or to help them to be more efficient or even provide them
with the mechanisms and the tools to better communicate,” he said. “They don’t
need us to do anything else but to be pastoral support to them as they lead us
and help us to see a way forward through a lot of complicated
issues.

“They’re a community. They’re very church-like,” he said. “The
rules that they are living by, I think, can be a real lesson for the church,
particularly our denomination. There is this kind of horizontal decision-making
that’s going on in their meetings … There is no one leader. I stood there this
morning thinking, this looks like monasticism that I can recognize. This looks
like church community that I could become a part of from a pastoral
perspective.”

During the protesters’ daily “general assemblies,”
subcommittees present information for discussion and decisions are made by
consensus, Sniffen said. Lacking microphones, they use a “human mic system,”
repeating what’s said in widening circles around each speaker, and use hand
gestures to acknowledge assent or dissent. Leadership roles rotate.

“It
takes a really long time, but when consensus is reached, it’s incredibly
powerful,” Sniffen said.

A document is now circulating calling for a
national assembly, modeled after the original Continental
Congresses
, convening July 4 in Philadelphia to discuss and ratify a
petition of grievances to the federal government, he noted.

While
Provenzano was at the park, a man approached and asked what his favorite Bible
verse was, then opened a Bible, read the verse aloud and asked the bishop to
pray with him. “He said, ‘Thank you for being here. It’s important for us to see
people like you here so that we know that we’re OK.’ I thought to myself, ‘This
might be the most important thing I do all week is this Bible study with this
man.'”

Several people at OWS urged her to preach their stories, said
Kaeton, adding she was amazed at “the urgency about how people want to be
heard.”

“They want their stories told, and they’re so used to having
their cries fall on deaf ears that they’ve resorted to this movement so that
they can be heard and their truths can be validated and some change will
happen,” said Kaeton, who blogged
about some of their stories.

Next steps
Lis Jacobs,
54, director of finance at New York Presbyterian Hospital, joined Kaeton at
Zuccotti Park for the first time on Oct. 18 but said she intended to return and
invite others to join her. Some of her medical colleagues donate time to tend to
protestors during their off hours, she noted.

“I really believe in what
they’re doing, and I know I’m part of that 99 percent,” said Jacobs, who attends
Church of the Intercession in New
York and is a trustee of the Diocese of New York. “Were it not for the fact that
I have a job, I’d be sitting out there with them, 24/7. … I thank God for New
York Presbyterian Hospital every day, that I have a job.”

Provenzano said
he intended to return to OWS and to encourage his clergy to go. “I’m going to be
sending some e-mails to my seminarians saying, ‘Get down there and interact with
these people. Go find out what’s happening here. This is practical
theology.”

Jacobs, who sees economic injustice as the core cause of the
movement, said OWS already had moved her to action: She’s shifted her checking
account to a credit union and plans to do her holiday shopping for her
grandchildren at local “mom and pop” stores. “It has to start
somewhere.”

At the church level, she’s not sure what will happen. “The
Episcopal Church is so huge, we could really make a difference with banks and
corporations and things of that sort,” she said. “But I don’t know that we will
do it. I don’t see any movement to do it. It’s a huge effort. It’s not like me
taking my meager little checking account and moving it to a credit union. …
There has to be some real thought and policy and polity put into what we would
do about this.”

At the Oct. 20 interfaith meeting, participants discussed
whether faith communities would be able to offer respite for protestors such as
showers and a warm place to stay as the weather gets colder, Provenzano said. “I
think that’s coming.”

Kaeton said she had been in touch with The Protest
Chaplains
, who describe themselves as “mostly Christians, based in Boston,
with ties to Harvard Divinity School, the Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts,
and many other local churches and faith groups.”

“My next step is to work
with the network of clergy on the ground who want to bring about change,” Kaeton
said.

On Oct. 5, Trinity Church posted a statement on its website
inviting OWS protestors to use the congregation’s facilities and staff for rest,
revitalization and pastoral care.

“I’m really glad to hear that Trinity
has opened its doors in allowing the protestors to use the bathroom facilities,
and I think there may be more things that Trinity can do,” Kaeton said. “I think
this is a wonderful opportunity for Trinity, as 9/11 was for St. Paul’s Chapel,
to serve people in need,” perhaps by providing shelter in inclement weather, she
said.

In an Oct. 22 e-mail, Trinity Communications Officer Linda Hanick
said, “Trinity’s meeting spaces at 74 Trinity Place and Charlotte’s Place are
being used by Occupy Wall Street protestors every day and our public restrooms
at three locations (Trinity Church, St. Paul’s Chapel and Charlotte’s Place) are
available for use during open hours.

“We are in frequent conversation
with the protestors, our residential and business neighbors and community board
about the daily impact of Occupy Wall Street on the living conditions within the
vicinity of Zuccotti Park. Trinity continues to provide practical and pastoral
help,” she said. “We do not plan on providing overnight shelter.”

In
London, protestors have worn out their welcome at St. Paul’s
Cathedral
. The cathedral closed its doors to visitors and worshipers for the
first time since World War II because of what its staff said were health and
safety risks posed by Occupy London protestors who’d camped outside for the past
week.

In an Oct. 21 statement, cathedral Dean Graeme Knowles said that,
while he and his staff supported the protestors’ campaign to seek equality and
financial probity, their presence was obstructing the cathedral’s ability to
continue its day-to-day operations.

The protestors subsequently held an
impromptu meeting and decided to stay put for the time being. The cathedral now
is planning legal action to force the protestors to move.

Back in New
York, Sniffen said he believed the protests would make a difference.

“From our perspective as Episcopalians – certainly from my perspective
as somebody who was highly influenced by liberation theology – my reading of the
gospel is quite clear that Jesus showed a preferential option for the poor and
that in situations of economic justice in particular Jesus always sided with the
poor,” Sniffen said. “I have a lot of hope for the movement. I think the
potential is there for this to lead to real transformation of our economic
system in this country and hopefully of other systems as well.”

— Sharon Sheridan is an ENS correspondent. ENS
editor/reporter Lynette Wilson contributed to this article.

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Episcopal News Service

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