Bearing Christian witness at “Occupy Wall Street”

At ‘Occupy’ Protests, Bearing Christian Witness Without Preaching

By MARK OPPENHEIMER

Published: November 11, 2011

 

The old leftist dream was for everyone to abandon regional and ethnic allegiances
to play for a common team, the working class. But as anyone attending a
demonstration knows, many activists demand to be counted as representatives of
smaller groups: home teams.

Occupy Wall Street and the allied events, there are police officers in the
symbolic 99 percent, wearing uniforms. There are self-proclaimed mothers in the
99 percent. There are Marines. There are Muslims and Jews, yoginis and puppeteers.
Sometimes they proclaim their tribes on signs in protest-movement Magic Marker;
other times their meaningful headgear speaks loud enough: firefighter’s hat,
bus driver’s cap, yarmulke.

There are Christians, too, eager to be seen as
Christians. They face a special challenge. They want to make the church
visible, so they wear clerical collars or other religious garb, like the albs,
or white robes, that lay Christians may also wear.

But they know that many, especially on the
political left, are wary of Christians, suspicious that these men and women in
strange garments are seeking converts. When liberal activists hear “Christian,”
they often think “conservative.” Many would thrill to see an imam marching next
to them but shudder at a priest.

So committed Christians have different answers to
the question, “How Christian should we seem?” Marisa
Egerstrom
, an Episcopalian who studies religion at Harvard,
recognized Occupy Wall Street as a sign of the times, “a continuation of the
Arab Spring.” On Sept. 17, she brought a group of 10 Boston-area Christians,
including Roman Catholics and Lutherans, to Zuccotti Park in New York.

“We wore white albs,” Ms. Egerstrom said, referring
to the long clerical cassocks. “We knew that there would be millions and
millions of Christians who see that at their churches every Sunday on the
acolytes.” They chanted devotionals from Taizé,
the ecumenical Christian community in France, and they sang “Ubi Caritas,” the
Gregorian hymn whose lyrics mean, in English, “Wherever there is charity and
love, there is God.”

“Whenever we started singing, people just stopped
and watched,” Ms. Egerstrom said. “There would be this melting. They would
understand this wasn’t just confrontation. The music and harmonies are an
expression of hope in the midst of chaos.”

Protest Chaplains, the national network that Ms. Egerstrom started after her visit to New York,
has attracted members from many religions, but her original group wanted to
communicate the Christian aspect of their witness. “We wanted to connect with
the idea that we have obligations under Christian baptism,” she said.

More often, Protest Chaplains emphasizes the
ecumenical nature of its work. Erica Richmond is a Unitarian Universalist studying for ordination
at Union Theological Seminary in New York. She is
one of about 65 members of Protest Chaplains in New York, and she spoke of
their special obligations.

“All of us respect the title of chaplain, which
inherently suggests we are there for other people,” Ms. Richmond said. “No
chaplain would ever impose their own beliefs on someone else who has come for
help.” Whether in a hospital, in the military or at an Occupy event, chaplains
are not evangelists, Ms. Richmond said.

Jan Cazden, an Episcopal deacon who has visited
Occupy San Francisco several times, bringing five-gallon jugs of potable water,
agreed.

“Chaplaincy is about affirming people’s connection
with spirit, however they might find it,” Ms. Cazden said. “Especially in areas
like San Francisco, if I had a nickel for every time I heard, ‘I am not
religious, but I am spiritual,’ I would have retired years ago.”

When she meets people in need, her job is to find
meaningful language for people who have no liturgical tradition: “If you define
your connection with something larger than yourself by climbing a mountain, how
do we connect with you when you’re in a hospital bed?” Or, she might have
added, when you are struggling with what Occupy San Francisco really stands
for, and whether you want to stay.

A former hospital chaplain, Ms. Cazden often wears
a clergy collar, and on her first visit to Occupy San Francisco she wore a
shirt with the Episcopal seal and the diaconal cross embroidered on the collar.
“But I don’t try to be overt,” she said. “I don’t want to put other people off
by religious garb. It’s not about my personal faith tradition; it’s about theirs.”

While the Occupy sites have honored specific
traditions — like with the Kol Nidre service
on Yom Kippur evening in New York — the trend is toward collaboration.

There is an interfaith service at Occupy Wall
Street every Sunday afternoon, using the “people’s mike”: a religious leader
speaks, without amplification, and the crowd repeats his or her words, an incidental
reminder of the call and response in many Protestant churches.

In Toronto, the Wednesday night religious services
are “open to anyone,” said Rafael
Vallejo
, a Presbyterian minister and a member of Protest Chaplains.
“We are aware that there are people out there of every faith or no faith.” They
have used a prayer service that is careful, Mr. Vallejo said, “not to use any
particular word for God.”

The institutional church can be a great help. The Occupy Toronto site is next to
the grounds of the Cathedral Church of St. James, an Anglican
church
, which has provided water and power to the protesters. For
now, however, being outdoors practically requires a multireligious vibe: “The
situation forces you to open out, because you are not inside any kind of
building,” Mr. Vallejo said — a sentiment sure to be tested by the Canadian
winter, but which for now is in full leaf.

From http://www.nytimes.com/2011/11/12/us/at-occupy-protests-bearing-witness-without-preaching-beliefs-by-mark-oppenheimer.html

 

 

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