Occupy Wall Street - a chaplain's perspective
So, as I mentioned in Ivan Boothe’s recent Occupy movement post, I’ve been participating in Occupy Wall Street (OWS) as part of Union Theological Seminary’s new Protest Chaplains chapter, Protest Chaplains NYC (firstname.lastname@example.org). This post will describe a bit about who the Protest Chaplains are, what our purpose is and what my experience has been as a chaplain at Occupy Wall Street.
Who are The Protest Chaplains?
The Protest Chaplains were started in Boston in response to the events of Occupy Wall Street; they are made up of Harvard Divinity Students, the Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts and other church and faith-based organizations. Our chapter of Protest Chaplains is currently made up primarily of Union students, with a growing number of non-Union chaplains throughout the city beginning to join our group. Our religious affiliations include Jewish, Christian, Buddhist Catholic, Zen Buddhist and Barbarian, to name a few. The mission of the Protest Chaplains, as I understand it, is twofold.
The first is to live out a commitment to social justice and nonviolent activism, as embodied in Jesus’ message in Luke 4:18-19: “the spirit of the Lord is upon me, because He has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” The Protest Chaplains NYC have attempted to live out this part of the mission by joining with OWS protestors in various actions at Liberty Park (aka Zuccotti Park) and around the city; most recently, a number of us joined the massive protest against the efforts of Mayor Bloomberg and Brookfield Inc. - the private (former?) owners of the park - to evacuate the park. Protest Chaplains have also been involved in a number of other marches, occupations and protests around the city, such as the global “Call to Action” on October 15th and today’s “Stop ‘Stop and Frisk’” march. In this way, we Protest Chaplains have been showing our solidarity as people of faith called to bear witness to the brutal inequalities and injustice of our current capitalist system. In this sense, we are “protesting chaplains”.
The second part of the mission is the more unique, and in some ways trickier, dimension to the Protest Chaplains - as “chaplains to the protest”. As chaplains, we’re called in some way to pastoral care - that is, providing spiritual and emotional care to people in need. The occupation of Liberty Park has produced an amazing wealth of resources for physical comfort, health services and education for those taking up permanent residence on the park grounds; however, this kind of close living day after day out in the elements has also produced its share of human stress and conflict. Chaplains have been going down, sometimes in groups and sometimes in pairs, to OWS on a regular basis (almost daily coverage, at this point) during the day and at night to make ourselves available as a resource for the spiritual and emotional needs of people in the park. This sometimes takes the form of prayer, sometimes conversation; part of the goal of pastoral care is to simply “meet people where they are”, and let their needs guide our involvement.
What am I doing here?
I was at OWS last night - this was my fourth time there, my third time at night and my first time going alone (we had a few others who ended up not making it). I went first to the Medical tent to check in. This has become our standard practice; we let them know we’re there and where they can find us. I’ve also made it my practice to talk to the people working at the Medical tent, and see how they’re holding up; as the point-people handling a lot of the pain and suffering in the park, they deal with a massive amount of stress. I spoke to Gloria (not her real name) who was manning the area in front of the tent; she said that things had been quiet that day, which meant no seizures, hypothermia or other serious ailments (unlike the day before). I asked how she was doing, and she said she was tired but happy - she said that she felt that it was an honor to be able to serve the cause in this way. I said that I knew what she meant.
I spent the rest of the evening roaming around the park, weaving through tarp-covered tents and reclining bodies, keeping my eyes out for anyone in obvious distress. I sat next to one woman who identified herself as bipolar and listened to her life story, which took the form of a long, winding conspiracy theory. We talked a bit (OK, she talked and I listened) about religion and spirituality, and after about a half hour I excused myself to continue my wandering. I saw one fellow in his stocking feet, his head in his hands, and asked him if he needed shoes (the wind had started to pick up and it was getting cold in the park); he smiled and said that no, he had shoes. There were a few fights that night, and I found myself wishing that I had the kind of conflict resolution skills to mediate between some of these disputes; it seems that late at night, as people are tired, stressed and possibly intoxicated, this is the greatest source of disharmony in the life of the community. After a couple of these fights, which I tried lamely to help defuse, I found myself walking away thinking “what am I doing here?”
So far, the times I have felt the most useful as a chaplain at OWS has been when I have been able to engage people in conversation, especially those who are providing services themselves; there is still a great need, I think, in “taking care of the caretakers”. When I stopped back by Union last night on my way home, I spoke with a Catholic Worker named Johnny (also not his real name) who has become a permanent fixture at the park, helping to resolve conflicts and maintaining morale in the community. He said that he really appreciates the presence of the Protest Chaplains in the park, as it gives him a chance to unburden himself at the end of a difficult day tending to others. That was so great to hear! OK, so I am accomplishing something down at the park - but how could I, and we, be doing more?
Next post, I will address some ideas for further action that are emerging in our group, how we can be a more multifath coalition and how the Protest Chaplains mission is evolving. I also plan to have my first “sleepover” in the park next week, so I’ll talk a bit about that experience as well!