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Amid Occupation, Protest Chaplains Illustrate How to Flourish Together
On September 16, an ecumenical group of 10 Boston-area Christians, including several HDS students, drove to New York City in two cramped hatchbacks to attend the first day of the Occupy Wall Street protest.
Most of us had not met each other until that evening. At midnight, as we laid out sleeping bags on the floor of the rectory of St. Mary's Episcopal Church in Harlem, we had no idea what the next day would bring. We gathered in prayer for the first time and the Protest Chaplains were born.
Our plan was, essentially, to improvise. We wanted to be visible as Christians, so we wore white albs as a symbolic connection to our baptismal vocation and because we were experimenting with protesting economic injustice as a liturgical act. We carried an ornate Celtic cross carved from cardboard, since marching with wood, metal, or plastic poles is illegal in New York. We brought packets of prayers, litanies, and songs.
Though it was more of an intention than a plan, our goal was to be a presence of peace amid the often hostile and confrontational space of protest. What we didn't expect was the attention we received.
That first Saturday in the Financial District was a blur. We marched around the bronze Charging Bull sculpture. We sang hymns outside of Trinity Episcopal on Wall Street. We met dozens of beautiful human beings all yearning for truth, justice, and a peaceful, prosperous vision of our shared future. We distributed hundreds of granola bars to protesters and police alike. We marched to Liberty Square (aka Zuccotti Park), and the occupation began.
We led chants. We offered an open, inclusive "inter-and-no-faith" blessing for our first shared meal. We prayed with individuals. For some, this was the first time they had ever engaged in religious expression—a remarkable and humbling honor for us.
In between doing all of these things, we spent a lot of time explaining ourselves to people. Most expected us to be judgmental and angry, which was revealing. When they discovered that we were not, people often opened up immediately, regardless of their religious background.
Some people needed to be heard: their struggles with paying bills and finding jobs; their lack of faith in the current economic system; the sense of unfairness that citizens should have to compete with lobbyists for just representation; their sense of having been harmed or betrayed in their own religious communities. In short, we really were chaplains, embodying a new approach to the ministry of accompaniment. Most powerfully, many people just wanted to thank us for being Christians who acted like Jesus and lived our beliefs.
As meetings began on Boston Common to plan Occupy Boston, we shifted our energies closer to home. Occupation takes a lot of work and a lot of collaboration; occupation is an attempt to build a shared dream.
This is an aspect of the Occupy movement that is most overlooked: first and foremost, occupation is a demonstration or model. People living in the village—the collection of tents in Dewey Square, where Occupy Boston is physically based—are showing the world the example of the just community in which they hope to live.
We are dedicated to nonviolence. We embrace radical, personal democracy despite its frustrations. We are committed to caring for all who join, chronically homeless and well-heeled activist lawyers alike. We work through our differences to envision the future together. These are the values and actions woefully missing from our public life and political discourse. It is unclear how we will regain these values without first relearning them. Thus, we feel it is necessary to show the United States and the world: this is how humans flourish together in dignity, respect, and love.
I've seen it with my own eyes: a disheveled man, a bit twitchy, walks into the village and says, "I'm here and I want to stay." Within two hours he has a tent, a sleeping bag, warmer clothes, and a hot meal. The cuts on his hands have been bandaged, and he stands next to me at the General Assembly, our democratic forum.
If a rag-tag group of protesters managed this, why can't the wealthiest nation on Earth? Why can't many religious organizations and social service institutions with billions of dollars and all the right intentions manage to do this? What are the missing ingredients? This is the challenge and promise of the Occupy movement, often overlooked in both pro and con commentary. It's less about what we're saying, and more about what we're doing.
For the Protest Chaplains here in Boston, this has meant creating a sacred space—a faith and spirituality tent for all to use. The space was quickly adapted to the practice of any and all religions. Local religious communities have donated generously. We have Buddha rupas, Tanakhs, Qur'ans and a qibla, rosaries, icons of Christ, many sacred objects from indigenous religions, and a large, hand-carved tiki totem to welcome people. The Peace Abbey in Sherborn, Massachusetts, lent us their nine-foot statue of Gandhi.
The sacred space is a beautiful and powerful place, representing shared space and shared dreams, much in the same way that Harvard Divinity School brings students and scholars together from the world's religions.
Last week I was contemplating an icon of Christ the Pantocrator, and I glanced up. Next to me was a man in full-lotus posture, meditating in front of Buddha. Next to him a man mouthing prayers in a language I couldn't understand, blessing himself with the smoke of a smudge-stick. Next to him was a Muslim woman saying her evening prayers, bowing toward Mecca. Four religions, three races, two genders, from young adult to late-middle age, in one 12-foot-by-12-foot tent. Now that is powerful.
The sacred space has a life of its own. Clergy and lay people from all over Boston come for services. We've had yoga classes, Kol Nidre and prayers for Yom Kippur, ecumenical Christian Eucharist, talks on Islamic commitments to peace and justice, Bible studies, and Thai Pali chanting of the suttas.
The sacred space is a vibrant nexus for local religious communities, connecting to their holiest traditions, connecting to those who are living in the village, and connecting to the shared vision of a more just, inclusive community built upon care and not upon greed.
Occupy Boston and the Protest Chaplains invite religious communities of any and all stripes to come and be revitalized. The life-giving values your community proclaims week after week are being lived, and you can worship and practice in the midst of it.
The Protest Chaplains have a life of their own, too. Hundreds of email messages have poured in from around the world, written by clergy and laity wanting to start chapters in their cities. We quickly wrote a how-to on our blog, and we've seen the development of chapters from New York to Dallas to the San Francisco Bay area, and now in Canada and London.
We've had so many good folks join us: Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus, and Unitarian Universalists. Now we are a full chaplaincy, representing the depth and difference of our various traditions in a shared effort to tend to the spiritual well-being of Occupiers, those visiting the camp, and even those watching from afar.
The original 10 Protest Chaplains still follow Christ and still wear our albs, but we are now part of a robe of many colors, gently wrapping those seeking refuge and change. The holy is among us, friends. Come and see.