Occupy the Pulpit

Religious involvement in OWS heads upstream

When Occupy Wall Street protesters staged a rally on December 5 in Duarte Square to demand space for a new encampment, there was some delicate positioning to be done. The movement wasn't laying claim to a public space this time, but rather to an empty lot on the corner of Canal and Varick streets owned by Trinity Church.

The movement worked hard to avoid the awkward impression of a horde of activists expropriating property from a church, mostly by enlisting the support of other Christian leaders. When the occupiers threw ladders over the chain-link fence dividing the property, the first man over the wall was a white-haired Episcopal bishop in a full-length purple cassock.

"This vacant lot is now occupied and will come back to life!" proclaimed Bishop George Packer shortly before he was cuffed, arrested, and thrown in the back of a paddy wagon.

Bishop in cuffs: George Packer  arrested in Duarte Square.
Kristin Adams
Bishop in cuffs: George Packer arrested in Duarte Square.

Joining him in handcuffs was John Merz, an Episcopal priest at the Church of the Assumption in Greenpoint.

"This is a moment for the faith community to consider the ways in which we're complicit in an oppressive system, the ways our charity work actually props up that system," Merz told the Voice earlier that morning. "We don't want to be downstream collecting the bodies anymore. We want to be upstream, making sure they don't get broken."

The prominence of Christian voices at the December 17 Occupy Wall Street outing was strategic, but the roots of Christian participation in the movement go back to its beginnings.

In the early days of the occupation at Zuccotti Park, amid the profusion of anarchist and Marxist slogans, one man carried a sign with a passage from the book of Galatians:

"But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Against such things, there is no law."

Christian occupiers were central in the formation of Occupy Dignity, a group that helped and advocated for the addicted, mentally ill, and otherwise marginal people in the park, urging patience and compassion when other occupiers expressed frustration with the movement's "hangers-on."

In the third week of the occupation of Zuccotti Park, clergy led a procession around the Financial District and carried a golden idol that bore a striking resemblance to a familiar downtown landmark.

"The Wall Street bull is a false idol. A golden calf, and symbol of our spiritual poverty," said Reverend Michael Ellick of Judson Memorial Church.

Ellick has been central in building a network of religious leaders in support of the movement. Calling itself Occupy Faith, the coalition counts more than a hundred members.

Christian occupiers have been in the headlines once again this week, this time over their plans for "Occupy Christmas." The event was conceived as a 24-hour prayer vigil starting at midnight on Christmas Eve back in Zuccotti Park. The organizers planned a simple, spare affair, but soon realized that even basic items including communion wafers and prayer cushions would violate the new regulations instituted at the park by its owner, Brookfield Properties.

After conversations with police went nowhere, Occupy Christmas brought in the New York Civil Liberties Union to make sure the prayer vigil wouldn't be disrupted.

NYCLU executive director Donna Lieberman noted that the city has previously allowed religious services in public parks.

"It is entirely appropriate for the city to allow these folks to pray together in the park," Lieberman says. "It should do so without restricting any items the group believes are necessary to express its faith."

The main organizer of Occupy Christmas is an English-born music producer from Portland, who for months has been going by the name "Sebastian OWS." Tall, with long, flowing hair and a distinctly Jesus-y beard, Sebastian first came to Zuccotti Park after seeing the now-infamous videos of women being pepper-sprayed.

"To see a group of people standing up against injustice and putting themselves in a position where they're giving up their comforts to try and change it, that seemed Christian to me," Sebastian says. "They were saying we put ourselves in line with the neediest and the poorest in our community. It instantly sparked with me."

In Zuccotti Park, Sebastian found a community and a purpose that deepened his spiritual practice.

"I learned more about my faith doing this OWS thing than in years of going to church," he says.

After three months in New York, Sebastian must return to his life in Portland soon. But before he left, he wanted to stage one last event with Occupy Wall Street, something that would juxtapose the movement with Christmas and show each in a new light.

"Christmas has become such a holiday of consumption, a time when the people struggling the most feel especially hopeless while those that have are celebrating their abundance," Sebastian says. "Jesus was pretty clear about possessions and material wealth. I wanted to do something simple—serving food to those who need it and praying together—that would remind people what Christmas is really about."

What better place for a vigil like that, he thought, than Zuccotti Park?

"There's something new and beautiful that's trying to be born into the world, and we're being told there's no room for it," he says. "It's a familiar story."

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As a evangelical minister who strongly supports the Occupy movement, I am glad to see an article that doesn't pillage the Christian community, either those among the protesters or the larger faith-based community that supports the movement.

In response to Stan Chaz' comment that Trinity Church "look into its collective soul and do the right thing," this is offensive. Trinity Church has done as much as or more than any other church in NYC to minister to (including providing services, outreach, advocacy, etc.) the poor, homeless, hungry, and other "least of these" communities. And they have been doing so longer than almost any religious institution in NYC. Thus, to suggest that Trinity Church is in any way "remiss" in its mission as a church is not simply insupporting but insulting.

As well, Trinity church was among the earliest and most active supporters of OWS, including providing blankets, food, beverages, and other needs during the Zuccotti Park occupation. In this regard, the protesters' belief that they are "entitled" to the Duarte Park property smacks of ungratefulness and a belief that ANYTHING done for "the cause" - no matter what it is, or how it affects anyone else - is justifiable. Neither Jesus nor Gandhi would agree.




and next time, shorter paragraphs!

you is obviously a college grad who wuz never taught dat.


Re Occupy & Trinity Church: You don’t need to be Christian, or even religious, to understand -and embrace- the idea that "Whatsoever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me." But many of the 1%, in blind greed and endless schemes, have forgotten this. They have closed their eyes to what the word "society" should really mean, and what it can mean. But due to Occupy Wall Street, we are finally talking less about CUTS and more about BLEEDING. Instead of demanding m-o-r-e budget cuts -to be borne by the middle class and poor- we are FINALLY focusing on the shameful bleeding that the poor and middle class has endured, for all too long. Instead of talking about even m-o-r-e cuts in the taxes of millionaires....we are now talking about fairness and justice - about an economy and a political system that is increasingly run for the rich, and by the rich. Instead of talking about LESS government, we are talking about a government that WORKS FOR ALL OF US, not just a favored few. Thank you OWS, for reminding us that people -ordinary working people- really DO matter, for helping open our eyes to what’s going on in this country, ...and why. The attempt by OWS to occupy Duarte Square (the empty lot owned by Trinity Church) is much more than a plea for sanctuary. For like Zuccotti Park, it’s an attempt to carve out a protected space, a living conscience for the city, amid the repression. A refuge...in a city where control-freaks would sweep us under the rug, and out of the way. In a city where they would pen us in, and try to permit us to death. In a city that tells us to “move on, move on”..... you don’t belong, you don’t count, you don’t have a right to be here...don’t assemble, don’t block the street, don’t trespass, don’t EXIST! They would deny us, deny our lives, deny our very futures. IF WE LET THEM. But OWS responds, both in word and in DEED: it says we’ve had ENOUGH - we BELONG, we STAND our ground, and we DO matter! This IS our land, and we want it BACK! The word OCCUPY...says it all! That’s why OWS has captured our imagination. That’s why a living breathing OCCUPIED public space is important for OWS. Like Lady Liberty’s never extinguished torch that burns in our harbor, OWS needs to have a concrete, persistent, in-your-face presence.. ..to continually remind us of what we’ve lost, of what we are, and what we can be; a protected place to affirm, illuminate, defy...and inspire. Trinity Church, with its oft-proclaimed ideals (and its huge land holdings), should look deep into its collective soul, do the right thing, and help OWS secure a sanctuary. Not merely a space of refuge, but an enclave of hope, of non-violent change, and compassion. And dare I say: a space of love - love of country, love of your fellow man and woman, love for the poor and oppressed. Can thoughtful Christians argue with these simple Christian / these simple HUMAN values? For if Christ were physically with us today, as He was 2000 years ago, He would be among the FIRST to climb those fences, and occupy Trinity’s Duarte Square. Of this I am certain. Let us hope and pray and plea...that Trinity Church -and others- hear the call, and respond. For the old ways are not working. Find a quiet place somewhere, and consider this: Each of us has only one brief life....one chance....one roll of the dice....and many choices. The time has come to choose....to risk...and to act. If not now...then when? If not you, then....who? You DO have the power my friend....and the choice IS yours. Don’t let your hopes and dreams die: LIVE YOUR IDEALS!



and next time, shorter paragraphs!

you is obviously a college grad who wuz never taught dat.


a bunch of roman catholic priests hoping for some night time tent sex with some male college kids.

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