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Tents in the wilderness: a chaplain's dispatch from Occupy Seattle

[Episcopal News Service] The Occupy Wall Street movement, taking place in multiple sites including Seattle, has started a long overdue conversation about economic injustice, perhaps the most important public conversation since the Civil Rights movement. This prophetic eruption of protest and vision calls to mind the biblical prophets, summoning us to wake at last from our national slumber and say no to the countless wrongs of our age. Just in time for Advent: Sleepers wake!
The Empire is beginning to strike back. Before dawn on November 15 in New York's Zuccotti Park, police not only evicted the protestors, they trashed their library of 5000 books and destroyed their tents. On the same day in Seattle, a Methodist minister, vested in alb and stole, was walking between opposing lines of police and demonstrators, trying to keep the peace, when he was pepper-sprayed point-blank in the face. Temporarily blinded, he was surrounded and led to safety by some of the protestors. As he later reflected in a blog, those helping hands made him feel he was "in the midst of church."

The evictions and attacks are being done in the name of civic order, health and safety. There are certainly concerns in those areas – the camps are not exempt from the urban pathologies that most of us are able to ignore in the privacy of our own homes. And these concerns are being addressed by the protestors themselves in serious and thoughtful ways. But I suspect that "the powers" are also troubled by something deeper, more eschatological. Longing for a different world, a better world, disturbs the peace. But does democratic desire really need to be so feared? A journalist on the scene when protestors returned to Zuccotti Park after the Wall Street evictions reported that the spirit of the crowd was not anger – it was joy.

On November 13, the 22nd Sunday after Pentecost, I presided at a eucharist in the Sanctuary tent at Occupy Seattle, along with the Rev. Sally Carlson, a deacon who got us on the interfaith rota for the day. From 3 to 6 p.m. we were the resident chaplains at the Capitol Hill encampment on the corner of Broadway and Pine.

We set up a small altar with candles, and I led songs with my guitar. We began the eucharist with a congregation of two, which doubled as we went along. We talked about the Parable of the Talents as a story of risk-taking – choosing faith in the Kingdom's possibilities over fear of what might go wrong, a timely topic for the Occupy movement. Then we shared the Body and Blood of Christ in the Sanctuary tent, while all around us in the camp people were talking, eating, reading, drumming, and just hanging out, dwelling closely together as few of us do in our cities, towns and suburbs. Was it like this for the children of Israel in the Sinai? These protestors may not have reached the Promised Land, but at least they've said no to Egypt.
It is in such liminal space that God called the biblical people into being, and it is in these borderlands that the Church's own tents ought to be pitched as well. Jim Wallis of Sojourners asked one Wall Street protestor what churches could do to help. The man suggested three things: inspiration, consultation, and presence. What if we began to go down together after church to the Occupy sites to listen, engage, and bring our own faith values into the mix? What if we actually began to do church at these sites? Move a Sunday eucharist to the encampment, take a potluck to the folks and eat with them, ask what they need, give them our prayers and our love. Remember hope together. And take the vital conversation about justice back home to our parishes.

After our small eucharist, we let the altar candles burn for the remaining hour of our time there. As dusk turned to dark, various people were drawn into our circle of peaceful light, and soon there were a dozen of us sitting together on the floor of the Occupy Sanctuary, talking quietly, earnestly, thoughtfully about God, hope, community, justice, and social change. Each time another person peered into our tent, a welcome was issued: "Come sit with us." Just as in the Exodus, God took a ragtag band of social exiles and strangers and made of us, for a very precious hour, the people of God. It was the conversation – and the community – that I long for every day, but only find in those unexpected moments when the Kingdom shows up once again, pitching God's tent in the wilderness.
If I were planning a parish liturgy for the First Sunday of Advent, I would place a tent in front of the altar, and when the time came for the Old Testament lesson from Isaiah 64, a "prophet" inside the tent would lift the flap, step outside, and begin: O that You would tear open the heavens and come down ...

Meanwhile, in those raggedy tents of occupation at the corner of Broadway and Pine, perhaps God already has.

-- The Rev. Jim Friedrich is a priest in the Diocese of Olympia, working as liturgical creative, filmmaker ("The Story of Anglicanism"), teacher, musician and writer.


Copyright © 2011 Episcopal News Service