United Methodists See 'Occupy' Protest Ties

November 10, 2011

By Sandra Brands*

They may have begun as a protest against corporations and greed, but for a growing number of United Methodists taking part in the Occupy Wall Street movement, the protests are a statement about the spiritual bankruptcy of materialism as well as a call to transform the world.
"This movement articulates [our call] for a more just society," said the Rev. Sandy Gess, pastor at St. Paul's United Methodist Church in Vacaville, California, and a long-time resident of Oakland. "The numbers of people who are homeless, unemployed, living on the streets are finding a community [in encampments] where they get assistance, a spiritual home, and have a voice those of us in the clergy, who really speak on behalf of our spiritual leader, Jesus the Christ, who always advocated for the poor."
The seed of the Occupy Wall Street movement was planted this summer by the Canadian-based magazine, Adbusters. The magazine called for a peaceful occupation of Wall Street to call attention to the role of banks and multinational corporations in the democratic process and Wall Street's role in the economic downturn. Demonstrators gathered Sept. 17 in Zuccotti Park in Manhattan's Financial District. According to the Occupy Wall Street website, the movement has spread since to more than 100 cities in the United States and more than 1,500 cities globally.
The Occupy movement reflects the tremendous frustration of people, especially young people, with the severe polarization of the U.S. political system and growing gap between the rich and the poor, said Jim Winkler, the top executive of the United Methodist Board of Church and Society.
"Occupy Wall Street is taking it to the financial heart of the country," he said. "There's a moral component to it that's grabbed the attention, not just of this country, but [also] of the whole world."
Winkler said the viral spread of the movement through the Internet and social media, such as the Methodists@OWS on Facebook, clearly shows the Occupy movement has struck a nerve. Many of their concerns echo the historical ministries and mission of John Wesley's Methodist Movement.
Though Winkler does not suggest Occupy Wall Street is motivated by Wesleyan teachings, he does find many similarities between the United Methodist Social Principles and the protestors' grievances, which were articulated in the Sept. 29 "Declaration of the Occupation New York City." The statement included a call to living cooperatively, creating a just economy, providing livable wages, environmental justice, and the value of human life over the profits of corporation.
"In our Social Principles, we claim all economic systems are under the judgment of God," said Winkler. "The Occupy forces are really challenging the very tenets of capitalism and asking whether or not it's the best system. In our Social Principles, we say corporations are responsible not only to their stockholders but to their other stakeholders.
"I think that's what you're hearing a demand for corporate social responsibility," he said.
Raising questions
For the Rev. James K. Karpen, pastor of the Church of St. Paul and St. Andrew United Methodist Church in Manhattan, the Occupy movement is raising questions the church has been asking forever.
"Questions about wealth and poverty," Karpen said. "Questions about the way the economy is structured who benefits from that, and who is hurt by that. These protests have changed the conversation in this country about these issues."
The voice of faith in the Occupy movement has been visible. There's even a website, OccupyFaithNYC, for news and updates about faith-based events at Zucotti Park. The West Village's Judson Memorial Church, affiliated with the United Church of Christ and American Baptist Church, was the site of an interfaith worship service Oct. 9. After the service, worshippers carried a paper mache golden calf a symbol, to Christians, Jews and Muslims, of greed and the worship of false idols through the streets to the statue of the Wall Street bull.
Similar interfaith services are going on throughout the country, according to Associated Press reports. Interfaith tents have been put up in Boston; Charleston, S.C.; Manhattan; Oakland; San Francisco; Philadelphia and elsewhere, offering space for prayers, meditations, conversations, and training in nonviolent protests.
Karpen says the Occupy Movement has welcomed the faith community.
"They seem to sense that when we are being true to our theological roots, we have their back. Wesley didn't sit in committee meetings; he went out to where the people were. And he didn't shy away from the issues that were impacting their lives.
"If you read the Gospels carefully, you see that Jesus had more to say about money than almost anything else," he said. "And most of what he said is closer to what the Occupy movement is talking about than to the way we talk about money in most of our churches."
A sacred space
Gess (below) has been a key organizer of a coalition of clergy in support of Occupy San Francisco, and is part of the Occupy Oakland movement.
"There is an organic spirituality with the Occupy Movement there is a privilege as clergy to participate and learn from this and share our values without proselytizing," she said. "I'll sit and meditate and if someone wants prayer, I'll offer prayer."
The faithful aren't just huddled on the sidelines in tents. Clergy and laity are walking among the encampments, praying with people, offering help, and actively taking part in the action committees and working groups that help the general assemblies that govern the movements and help shape goals and organization.
Donning her clerical collar, the Rev. Vicki Flippen, pastor at the Church of the Village United Methodist Church in New York, went to the encampment at Zuccotti Park, renamed Liberty Plaza by the movement.
"If God is doing something in your backyard, you should go check it out," she said.
To Flippen, God is very much present in the movement.
"I really believe God works outside of the Church and feel that God is doing something here in Zuccotti Park, and throughout the world. For me, it's a model of what church should be: a community of people who come together and say there's something off, something broken. They have this vision of the world that says we can make it better.
"That's why I think it's important to know what's going on and to be comfortable being there," she said. "It's very important for this generation of the Church to think about what it means to be Christian and resisting injustice."
A member of Park Presidio United Methodist Church in downtown San Francisco, Adrienne Fong, said she believes "the Occupy movement has been an awakening for all consciences. It has also shown what we can do when we all work together."
Fong, who is active in Occupy San Francisco, said the activity is "a reflection of the Wesleyan tradition of social activism. It is about people seeing and acting beyond themselves. It is about people caring what happens in our world and standing for what is right."
Meeting needs
The interfaith community and local congregants have been meeting the practical needs of the occupiers as they respond to the spiritual needs.
The reaction to that presence has been powerful, she said. "The people who were occupying, those who may have been wounded by Christianity or 'churchianity,' as I call it have said, 'Wow, these people really care.'
"I'm excited about that," she said.
Gess said the interfaith coalitions in San Francisco and Oakland are providing satellite centers for shelter, food, clothing, and counseling. The interfaith community also offers training in nonviolent protests for the occupiers and for the police.
"That's particularly important in the wake of the disturbances in Oakland Oct. 25," Gess said.
"We've witnessed how the police respond, and we are going to see if we can get some training or facilitate training for the police so they are better equipped to deal with protesters," she said. "I am on the core team of religious leaders who are active in being an ongoing spiritual presence at Occupy Oakland at the sacred tent which we have created, offer non-violence training on site, have ongoing meetings with Mayor Quan and city officials to help shape their decision-making, and peacefully stand between demonstrators and police."
California-Nevada retired Elder Sharon Delgado, a founding member of Earth Justice Ministry, an interfaith non-profit committed to building a peaceful, just, and sustainable world, spent some time on Wall Street with the Occupy Movement last month, and now works with the small Occupy Wall Street-Nevada County movement near Nevada City, California.
"The Occupy Movement gives me hope," she said. "It seems to be an awakening to, not only the great dangers we face as a species, but also an awakening to the power we have in community if we worked together for peace and justice and a sustainable world. The [current] system is bankrupt, and the ideology that supports it is bankrupt.
"As Christians, I believe that we need to speak to that to say it is idolatrous, that it's unjust, that it's not meeting the needs of the vast majority of the people in the world not just in the U.S.," she said.
Winkler encourages local church members to think about taking food or other supplies to the encampments and talk to the protesters, "get a feel for themselves about whether or not they think this [movement] is valid.
"I hope church people will engage the Occupy forces; there's a lot there that is reflective of our social principles. In a sense, I wonder why the Church wasn't there in the first place," he said.
*Brands is a freelance writer living in eastern Upstate New York. UMNS Photo Researcher Kathleen Barry also contributed to this story.