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Occupy the Pulpit

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

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.

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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