Saturday, November 12, 2011

OWS Organizers Meet with OccupyFaith Leaders

Minister Michael Ellick is a good and faithful pastor at Judson Church in Greenwich Village.  He also is a gifted and courageous community organizer.   Fully active in OWS since its inception, and contributing faith-based solidarity and support, Michael instigated OccupyFaithNYC within the first month of the movement. Michael, Eric Jackson, and several members of Judson captured national public attention on October 9 by bringing a  Golden Calf to the protest movement on Wall Street. 
Michael also is a gifted community organizer, bold as well as gentle, able to speak truth to power, and also give a cup of cold water in the spirit of Jesus.  Watching him in action, whether leading a direct action on the streets or facilitating a strategy meeting at the church, his Conservative Baptist roots, Union Theological School training, and seven years of study under a Tibetan Buddhist Teacher prepared him for prophetic leadership “in such a time as this.” see PBS Feature on Michael

Last Thursday, November 10, over 50 pastors, priests, Rabbis, Buddhist monks, interfaith reps, and other faith-based community leaders crowded into a board meeting room at Judson Church in the Village to plan their next set of actions.  At least six OWS organizers attended the strategy meeting to help coordinate direct actions of civil disobedience and legal demonstrations of protest as the second month birthday of the movement drew near.  I was pleased to have been invited to attend as representative of Communities of Shalom, with hope and interest in helping to shart shalom zones on Wall Street and in Lower Manhattan, as well as serve with the Protest Chaplains in Zuccotti Park.
OCCUPY Wall Street (OWS), according to Wikipedia, “is an ongoing series of demonstrations in New York City based in Zuccotti Park in the Wall Street financial district. The protests were initiated by the Canadian activist group Adbusters. They are mainly protesting social and economic inequality, corporate greed, corruption and influence over government—particularly from the financial services sector—and lobbyists. The protesters' slogan, "We are the 99%", refers to the difference in wealth and income growth in the U.S. between the wealthiest 1% and the rest of the population.”  See www.occupywallstreet.org 

OccupyFaith is an interfaith network of Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Pagans, and others who find hope and inspiration in the Occupy Movement. 
As Rev. Michael Ellich, one of the members of the coalition, says in a sermon:  “I believe that what we’re seeing in Zuccotti Park is the first real movement of the national conscience to hit the street in a long time, and it has more than just one thing to say. This isn’t just a jobs issue, or a tax issue, or even an immigration issue. It’s a spiritual issue, about what the United States has become… We are no longer a Democracy, and that instead we have become a Plutocracy - a government run by the rich… I think the first step [to restore democracy] is to spiritually recognize that as a country, we are entering a kind of kairos moment. Now more than ever, it is the responsibility of all people of faith to realize that the great spiritual work of our times is to restore our Democracy and the people’s voice in shaping the American Way.” 

Personally,  while I would not express the root issue in political terms, I think Jews, Christians, and Muslims should offer their qualified support to a popular movement like OWS, at least for some of their demands (like publically funded elections, campaign contribution limits, and the limitation of independent expenditures from supper committees) and boldly join them in condemning corporate greed and political bribery, as did our prophets before them (read Isaiah, Jeremiah, Amos, and Micah).  The Abrahamic religions stand squarely in the prophetic tradition as well as in the justice and Jubilee agenda of Jesus (See Luke 4)

Specially, people of Christian faith need not endorse all the factions involved in the movement in order to affirm, “Occupy Wall Street is a good thing.”  The Church of Jesus can stand firmly within our Jewish-Christian-Muslim prophetic tradition of social justice and moral reform, and call for an end to corporate greed, corruption and unfair influence over government that has caused the human family to grow apart: 

Six young OWS organizers (all recognized leaders in a non-heirarchical grass-roots movement, and who are part of their own working groups and general assembly) attended Thursday’s faith-based strategy meeting for the first time. Grateful for the support they receive (including tents and food), they admitted how surprised they were by the strength and commitment of faith-based, religious people from OccupyFaith. “I’m totally amazed that religious people want to be with us,” said Laura who is involved in the community watch working group.  The same thing was said by Collin who is part of the Outreach working group. Diego, Josh, and Amin (all part of the Direction Action working group) each expressed their own message and listened with to others.

I learned about the strong values and creative strategies of the movement, including: moral messaging, teach-ins and speak outs, ‘mic check’ and call and response method (the people’s mic), compassion for the 1%, democratic decision making, non-violent direct action, withholding judgment, the importance of supporting local business near where they occupy, cleaning up the park where they now live, when to surround trouble-makers and “vote” them out of the park, and how to protect occupiers from the negative effects of drugs and violence.

I must say that Minister Michael runs a good meeting in which these things and practical strategies are discussed; and he seamlessly empowers all voices to be heard while keeping us on point and schedule. We heard from a priest from South Africa who lost his hands from a bomb exploding during anti-apartied demonstrations.  We heard from a Jewish Rabbi and a Buddhist monk. We heard from human rights and living wage advocates, and from People of Color still a bit wary of what has been perceived as a young, white kids movement “takin at us and not with us.”  We heard from Latino leaders who want a voice in the movement.  Even the old-timer one-note protestor from the 60’s got to say his piece about Martin Luther King’s opposition to war.  Many causes, many people, with one thing in common--faith in GOD (variously experienced) in solidarity with Occupy Wall Street. 

Upcoming actions and events were discussed, most significantly the two-month birthday of OWS on 17 November.  A mass non-violent direct action day is planned in NYC, coordinated with other demonstrations around the country and the world. Thousands of occupiers plan to resist and shut down Wall Street in the morning before the Trading Floor Bell rings.  Afternoon demonstrations at public transportation hubs in all five boroughs.  And an evening rally at City Hall followed by a march across the Brooklyn Bridge.  Clergy and other faith community leaders are invited to participate by wearing their vestments and joining their voices to “resist austerity, rebuild the economy and reclaim our democracy.”   See www.occupywallst.org

I was most impressed with young man Zack (a natural leader, articulate and charismatic), who is part of Finance and Food working groups), who said “I have been waiting my whole life to be part of this kind of movement.  He admitted that OWS had utopian dreams and asked to borrow a Bible (Michal had one). Zack turned to Psalm 82 and read: 

 1 God presides in the great assembly;
   he renders judgment among the “gods”:
 2 “How long will you[a] defend the unjust
   and show partiality to the wicked?[b]
3 Defend the weak and the fatherless;
   uphold the cause of the poor and the oppressed.
4 Rescue the weak and the needy;
   deliver them from the hand of the wicked...

 6 “I said, ‘You are “gods”;
   you are all sons of the Most High.’
7 But you will die like mere mortals;
   you will fall like every other ruler.”
 8 Rise up, O God, judge the earth,
   for all the nations are your inheritance.


As the two hour meeting, Michael asked Fr. Juan Carlos Ruil to pray for us all.  His prayer was a powerful witness to the essential role of the faith community in OWS, and the recognition that God “hears the cries of the oppressed and seeks to set his people free.” (Exo 3)