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Clergy, laity support nonviolent protests at Occupy Wall Street

[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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