Call to 'Remind People to Honor Each Other'

December 07, 2011

A UMNS Report
By Sandra Brands* 

No one is beyond the grace of God, says the Rev. Kristin Stoneking, director and campus minister for the Cal Aggie Christian Association.
She is not alone in that belief. Many of the people of faith involved in theOccupy Movement have acted on their belief that all people are the children of God and that their role is to be instruments of mediation and reconciliation in the midst of divisive issues.
On the night of Nov. 18, Stoneking felt called to make her belief in love and reconciliation clear when she walked alongside the chancellor of the University of California, Davis, shortly after campus police doused peaceful student protesters with pepper spray.
The pepper-spraying was filmed by a number of people who uploaded multiple videos to YouTube. The videos had been viewed more than 3 million times by the end of November.
One video has since been rebroadcast on news stations and news organization websites throughout the country. 
Another video of Chancellor Linda Katehi walking from one of the campus' buildings through a corridor of silent students to her car later that evening  also was uploaded. Stoneking was walking alongside Katehi.
"Leaving (the building) in silence was an amazing show of commitment to nonviolence by the students," Stoneking said. "The students were showing that (Chancellor Katehi) didn't need to fear violence from them. Leaving in silence on her part respected the principles of nonviolence and the students, and honored what so many religious traditions honor: a moment of silence, a moment of grieving, a moment to recognize that something awful has happened here."
The day after, Stoneking posted to her blog her reasons for walking alongside Katehi on Nov. 18.
"Why did I walk the Chancellor to her car? Because I believe in the humanity of all persons. Because I believe that people should be assisted when they are afraid. Because I believe that in showing compassion, we embrace a nonviolent way of life that emanates to those whom we refuse to see as enemies, and, in turn, leads to the change that we all seek," Stoneking wrote.
"The role of ministry," Stoneking later told UMNS, "is to remind people to honor each other, to help people find ways to forgive and heal and grow, to bring justice and compassion."
Supporting all of God's children
Stoneking, an elder in the California-Nevada Annual (regional) Conference, may agree with many of the issues the Occupy Wall Street movement endorses, but for her, ministry is about supporting all of God's children, regardless of whether they share the same beliefs.
While she does not think the UC-Davis campus police were being threatened by the protesters, she said she does believe they are as deserving of support as the protesters.
"We still have to find a way to reconcile and include everyone in our communities."
That understanding of ministry is shared by many in The United Methodist Church. For the Rev. Steve Clunn, coalition coordinator for the Methodist Federation on Social Action, one of the things "people of faith bring to community is that even though we have differing opinions within the context of that community, we are still all beloved members of the community. We're all invited to participate."
The Methodist Federation for Social Action is an unofficial progress caucus in the denomination. Clunn said he experienced a deep sense of community during a Communion service he helped lead at Occupy DC in McPherson Square in Washington. Clunn said that a counter-protester had taken a position across from the park and was shouting through a megaphone, refusing an invitation from the Occupy group to join them.
Two people who were assisting Clunn during Communion decided to take the elements to the protester. "They ran across the street," Clunn said, "and (the protester) yelled out that he would be repeating everything they said to him. They said, 'We're just here to bring Communion to you.' (The protester) stopped and said, 'They've invited me to the table, y'all.' He put down his microphone and took Communion and when he was done, he took his microphone and left."
Easy to vilify and dehumanize
The Rev. Wongee Joh, pastor of Holmes (N.Y.) United Methodist Church, has participated in the interfaith alliance at Occupy Wall Street in Manhattan and is an active contributor to the Methodists@OWS Facebook page.
She said that it is often easy to vilify and dehumanize others, particularly when one side of the conflict is part of an institution. A hospital chaplain, she said she walks the fine line between someone working for an institution and someone advocating for a patient's rights and a patient's healing. She finds parallels between her role as a hospital chaplain and as a member of the interfaith movement at Occupy Wall Street.
"Reconciliation happens when you put a face to the people in that institution or group," she said.
She said that in her conversations with people, she has come to understand that some of the members of the 1 percent, those who seem to represent the banks and financial institutions that are being blamed for the current financial crisis, feel a deep sense of shame on a personal level.
"But it's difficult for one person to be held accountable for an institution. That's what happens in a lot of the 'us against them' dynamics," she said.
She sees that as part of the role of the Methodists@Occupy Wall Street. "We're seeking reconciliation for all people, whether you are part of the 99 percent or the 1 percent."
Opportunities to connect with lost
Like other clergy who have been involved in the interfaith alliances that have sprung up within the Occupy movement, The Rev. James "K" Karpen, pastor of the Church of St. Paul and St. Andrew, United Methodist, in New York, sees opportunities to connect with those who have lost faith.
Occupy protesters were invited to worship at his church, and, according to Karpen, "at least a dozen worshipped with us. We had one young woman who got up and made a testimony about how she had been feeling in the last year or so, that she had been losing her faith. Seeing how some of the churches were responding to (the Occupy movement) gave her her faith back."
Karpen, whose church opened its doors to some of the protesters after police shut down the encampments in Zucotti Park in mid-November, said the church offers sanctuary to many groups, some planned and some in emergency situations. "We have people sleeping here all the time. We host probably 50 to 60 groups a year, so it wasn't so far out of line to offer shelter (to the protesters)."
Concerns about accountability
The church also houses a women's shelter in cooperation with a local synagogue, B'nai Jeshurun, something known to the community and to the police. Which was why, Karpen said, it was a surprise to learn that two undercover police officers came into the church before dawn on the morning of Nov. 17. [Retired United Methodist Bishop Alfred Johnson, senior pastor at the Church of the Village (above, at right), listens as Bishop Jeremiah J. Park of the New York Annual (regional) Conference of the UMC preaches at a Dec. 4 interfaith workship service for Occupy Wall Street at Zuccotti Park. A UMNS photo by Melissa Hinnen.]
They asked to use the restrooms. "Except they went into the sanctuary," Karpen said, adding that they had not identified themselves as police. "They seemed to be counting people. The other person went downstairs and ended up at the shelter."
When stopped by a volunteer, who denied the man access, the man identified himself as an undercover officer and began to question the volunteer about the number of people being housed in the shelter. The volunteer said she wasn't permitted to share that information and asked the officer to leave. He did.
Karpen said the incident was upsetting because "there has been a long tradition of churches being able to provide safety and sanctuary, especially in situations where people are being targeted for whatever reason.
"I did not feel comfortable with this," he said. In a story published in the New York Times, Karpen said that the police were welcome to come in to the church but were expected to identify themselves. "We have never had that kind of issue with the police before," he told the Times. "Usually they are very respectful of church-state issues."
Walking alongside or showing compassion for people does not mean that people should not be held accountable, Stoneking said.
"One of my favorite lines from the (Book of) Discipline is that support without accountability promotes moral weakness, but accountability without support is cruel.
"I think we [have a tendency to] hold people accountable without giving them support or give them support without accountability," she said. "To have a mature and responsible society, we have to have both."
She points to the actions of some of the UC-Davis campus police in resorting to pepper spray as an example of support without accountability.
"I don't mean to disparage law enforcement," she said. "There are many thoughtful and moral people serving – but when culture gives permission to act without accountability, that promotes moral weakness and that officer (Lt. John Pike) certainly acted as if he would not be held accountable.
"On the other hand, I think Chancellor Katehi is being held accountable without support," she said. "When people don't offer a space for reconciliation and compassion, then we can't move forward. People need to change themselves and structures – so they can forgive, so they can accept grace, so they can see one another."
*Brands is a freelance writer living in eastern Upstate New York.

[Read Nov. 10, 2011 UMNS story, United Methodists see Occupy protest ties, and Nov. 18, 2011 UMNS story, Occupy 'astonishing opportunity for clergy', both also by Brands.]