The Detroit News ran my piece on Christians, churches, and the Occupy movement today, “Protests, pews not always linked.” One of the reactions to the piece rightly noted that I did not fill out in detail what “the moral and spiritual formation necessary to be faithful followers of Christ every day in their productive service to others” looks like. Another comment at Patheos worries that my advice might leave Christians “complicit with structural injustice.”

One of the important implications of the Christian imperative to occupy the world in all its various calling is the necessity to engage institutions critically and constructively. This is what I was driving at in juxtaposing the views of Chaplin and Fujimura, for instance. But again, what that institutional engagement looks like is left indeterminate.

On this score I’ll cite Michael Novak: ”It is not those who say ‘The poor! The poor’ who will enter the Kingdom of Heaven, but those who actually put in place an economic system that helps the poor no longer to be poor.” Such economic systems require a variety of institutions, including governmental, profit-oriented, charitable, voluntary, and faith-based.

I’ve been working on putting together a collection of stories from my grandfather. One of these stories is set at Michigan State University in October in the late 60′s. There was an anti-war demonstration happening, which he describes:

A makeshift stage was set in front of Beaumont Tower at the center of campus and bull horns and tinny microphones battled for the attentions of the crowds. The audience numbered in the tens of thousands. The “freaks” were at it again. On stage were individuals whose message was “kill the pigs,” “take this place over,” and “stop the war.” Musicians with peace symbols painted on their guitars sang of disobedience and mayhem. The “pigs” kept a watchful eye from a distance hoping and praying that violence did not break out.

But what happened next is truly interesting:

A gray haired gentleman in a business suit and necktie made his way to the edge of the stage. He stood transfixed by the scene around him. At last he mounted the stage and spoke briefly with the one who currently held the microphone. I recognized him as John Apple, Ph.D., a renowned professor of social science. Dr. Apple took the microphone and turned to face the milling throng. To my amazement a hush fell over the entire scene and only the voice of Dr. Apple could be heard. He cleared his throat and thus spoke the most deadly prophesy I have ever heard.

The professor’s short speech to the protesters was the following:

Ladies and gentlemen! Your ideals are noble! You are MARSHMALLOWS hurling yourselves against a brick wall! You are wasting your energy by throwing yourselves uselessly at the administration! A MARSHMALLOW CAN destroy a brick wall! A MARSHMALLOW can destroy a brick wall from INSIDE! Do you wish to destroy the administration? BECOME THE ADMINISTRATION! Become the presidents of universities! Become the law makers of this country! Destroy the administration FROM WITHIN!

If well-formed Christians don’t occupy our institutions, others most certainly will. And as my grandfather observes, we are today reaping the consequences of those occupiers of various educational and governmental institutions over the last forty years. For what’s happening today at Michigan State University, check out “Despite strong Occupy Lansing movement, Occupy MSU fails to gain momentum.”

In just the few days since my piece first appeared last week, however, it seems that the question of how churches ought to engage the Occupy protests has taken on a more definite shape. In the case of Trinity Church in Manhattan, when the Occupiers’ “interest in setting up an organizing camp on vacant Trinity property at Canal Street and Avenue of the Americas” was met with denial from church officials, “The Occupy Wall Street forces then directed their skills at the church: They took their arguments to the streets. In familiar fashion, police officers converged on the area, standing around the perimeter.”

The Rev. Dr. James H. Cooper of Trinity Church reacted to what followed, trespassing on church property: “O.W.S. protestors call out for social and economic justice; Trinity has been supporting these goals for more than 300 years…. We do not, however, believe that erecting a tent city at Duarte Square enhances their mission or ours.”

Ecumenical News International (ENI) reports that Episcopal clergy were among those arrested in the Occupiers’ attempt to take over Duarte Park:

A retired Episcopal Church bishop and at least two other Episcopal priests were arrested on 17 December after they entered a fenced property owned by historic Trinity Episcopal Church in Lower Manhattan as part of an event to mark the three-month anniversary of the anti-corporate Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement.

Livestream video showed George Packard, former Episcopal bishop for the armed forces and federal ministries, dressed in a purple robe and wearing a cross, climbing a ladder that protesters erected against the fence and dropping to the ground inside the property, called Duarte Park. Other protesters followed, including the Rev. John Merz and the Rev. Michael Sniffen, Episcopal priests in the Diocese of Long Island (New York), Episcopal News Service (ENS) reports.

The full story appears below. But it’s clear that Trinity Church and so many other churches in cities where Occupy protests have occurred find themselves being forced to take sides. And its also clear that the Occupiers are no respecters of persons and property. If you are not for them, you must be against them and be ready for the consequences. Ready to cling to your guns and religion, anyone?


Episcopal clergy arrested at Occupy Wall Street protest
ENI-11-0703

By Sharon Sheridan — ENInews/ENS
New York, 19 December (ENInews)–A retired Episcopal Church bishop and at least two other Episcopal priests were arrested on 17 December after they entered a fenced property owned by historic Trinity Episcopal Church in Lower Manhattan as part of an event to mark the three-month anniversary of the anti-corporate Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement.

Livestream video showed George Packard, former Episcopal bishop for the armed forces and federal ministries, dressed in a purple robe and wearing a cross, climbing a ladder that protesters erected against the fence and dropping to the ground inside the property, called Duarte Park. Other protesters followed, including the Rev. John Merz and the Rev. Michael Sniffen, Episcopal priests in the Diocese of Long Island (New York), Episcopal News Service (ENS) reports.

Police entered the area and arrested at least 50 people. Merz reportedly was arrested with Packard. Sniffen later confirmed that he had been arrested. The clergy were later released.

OWS had been lobbying Trinity to use the property for a winter encampment, following the movement’s 15 November eviction from Zuccotti Park near the church. Trinity had refused, citing a lack of facilities at the site and its lease agreement allowing the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council to use it for periodic art installations. Packard had been trying to mediate an agreement between OWS members and Trinity.

“Trinity Wall Street would not meet with Occupy Wall Street. They refused,” said Packard’s wife, Brook, in a telephone interview on 17 December. “When Trinity closed its ears and refused to negotiate, the path of civil disobedience was clear.”

Sniffen told ENS he entered the park with Packard and other Episcopal and interfaith clergy. Over the phone, the sounds of people singing “Lo, how a rose e’er blooming” could be heard in the background.

“As a matter of conscience and discernment, I felt that I had to enter … in solidarity with these people who I’ve been supporting from the beginning and who are taking an enormous risk to force a conversation to happen about social and economic justice,” he said.

Inspired by the Arab Spring demonstrations that sparked political change in the Middle East, the Occupy movement protesting greed and economic inequality has spread to more than 2,500 locations across the U.S. and the world. Officials in many cities have dismantled encampments, including New York’s original site at Zuccotti Park.

Members of an OWS working group Brook Packard attended discussed how, in seeking to use Trinity’s property, “they didn’t want to make it against religion or people of faith” and wanted to make it clear that “the end goal was not to occupy this area,” she said. “The end result was to get a home, so that from there they could occupy foreclosed homes for homeless people instead of banks” and take other actions.

Faith leaders have differed on whether Trinity, which has allowed use of other facilities for OWS meeting space and respite, should permit an encampment on Duarte Square and whether protesters should “occupy” the space without permission.

The Rev. Michael Ellick of Manhattan’s Judson Memorial Church, one of the leaders in an interfaith group supporting OWS, wrote on 16 December in an e-mail to supporters: “Occupy Faith NYC has always supported the OWS ask of Trinity, and will continue to do so, but there is no clear consensus on actions like civil disobedience. Without this consensus, we will not be endorsing such actions, and individual faith leaders who may choose to go this route will be doing so autonomously. That said, I encourage all of you to join us tomorrow for this event.”

Also on 16 December, Episcopal Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori and Episcopal Diocese of New York Bishop Mark Sisk each issued statements criticizing OWS attempts to occupy the Trinity property without permission.

“The Trinity congregation has decided that the property known as Duarte Park is not appropriate for use by the Occupy movement, and that property remains closed,” Jefferts Schori wrote. “Other facilities of Trinity continue to be open to support the Occupy movement, for which I give great thanks. It is regrettable that Occupy members feel it necessary to provoke potential legal and police action by attempting to trespass on other parish property.”

Retired South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu praised OWS members as “a voice for the world,” but said he regretted the impasse between the protestors and Trinity, “an esteemed and valued old friend of mine,” and he discouraged law-breaking.

In a 17 December 17 statement, Trinity’s rector, the Rev. James Cooper, said the church was “saddened that OWS protestors chose to ignore yesterday’s messages” from Jefferts Schori, Tutu and Sisk.

“OWS protestors call out for social and economic justice; Trinity has been supporting these goals for more than 300 years,” he wrote. “The protestors say they want to improve housing and economic development; Trinity is actively engaged in such efforts in the poorest neighborhoods in New York City and indeed around the world. We do not, however, believe that erecting a tent city at Duarte Square enhances their mission or ours. The vacant lot has no facilities to sustain a winter encampment. In good conscience and faith, we strongly believe to do so would be wrong, unsafe, unhealthy and potentially injurious. We will continue to provide places of refuge and the responsible use of our facilities in the Wall Street area.”


  • http://twitter.com/stanchaz stan chaz

    Re Occupy &Trinity Church: You don’t need to be 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, 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, and 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 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 …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, a space of refuge and hope. And dare I say: a space of love – both love of country, and love of your fellow man and woman. Can thoughtful Christians argue with these simple Christian/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…