Ordinary People Doing Extraordinary Things

December 07, 2011

A UMNS Commentary
By The Rev. Sandy Gess*

A handmade sign caught my eye at the general strike march called by Occupy Oakland on Nov. 2. Held by a middle-aged "soccer mom," the sign said: "Sorry for the Inconvenience: We Are Trying to Change the World."
More than 10,000 demonstrators gathered that day to express their dissatisfaction with corporate power and stark income inequality in the United States. The handmade signs are powerful personal expressions of ordinary people doing extraordinary things to change the world. 
We are witnessing no less than a "Revolution of Values": Income equality, paying your fair share, reclaiming public space, open exercise of democracy, regulating corporate greed, restricting corporate takeover of the political system, advocacy for the homeless and the unemployed, forgiveness of debts, open media, health care for all, and an opportunity for all to participate in change where they are. Before the Occupy Movement, there was little discussion of the outsized power of financial institutions and the diminishing fortunes of the middle class.
It is a "movement" – not a list of demands – with a call for deep change, which combines the local and the global and names the source of the crisis, caused in large part by Wall Street greed, perverse financial incentives and a corporate takeover of the political system and media. 
We have created a big tent: The 99 percent are people of all ages, races, occupations, political affiliations and religious beliefs. We are learning to work together with respect to address the critical challenges of our time.
These are issues in our churches
I know as a United Methodist minister that these are issues we have been dealing with for a long, long time in our churches. The situation has become even more dire, as our members have lost homes to foreclosure, lost jobs with little prospect for finding new work, and no longer can financially support the church as they used to.
At the same time, I have found the spirit of revival in our churches as people have come together to discuss and find ways to support one another. People who have been estranged from the church for most of their adult lives are returning. Young people, in particular, are responding to the activism of clergy, clergy they never knew existed because they saw only judgmental evangelists on TV. Clergy and lay people engaged now in this movement are engaged in our own kind of evangelism: compassionate and listening.
I find much in common from our faith tradition with the Occupy Movement. And, as an active participant and organizer with the Interfaith Tent @ Oakland, I draw inspiration from the Methodist tradition and our founder, John Wesley: "The world is my parish."
Wesley faced similar challenges as he responded to the crying needs of those affected by the Industrial Revolution and by what William Blake condemned as "satanic mills." Wesley worked tirelessly to create a world that worked for everyone, not just the wealthiest. It's been said that John Wesley gave England the equivalent of the French Revolution without a shot fired. His efforts were in the tradition of the first Christians, who held everything in common (Acts 2:42-47).
Wesley did not shirk from reaching out
John Wesley did not shirk from reaching out to those in need and neither should we. He organized Methodist societies to respond, preached out in the open where the people were, created new forms of communication through publishing efforts and organized others to change a broken and corrupt society.
There is a vision of the world that is wanted, but like all human endeavors, the Occupy Movement and its thousands of variations and spinoffs will be imperfect. I am involved because I am passionate about continuing what was begun by the Civil Rights Movement and the Rev. Martin Luther King's vision of a Beloved Community. I am involved because I am a strong advocate for nonviolence, not only by demonstrators but also by law enforcement. Ours is a violent society. We've been raised in it, we've funded it through endless wars, and our communities continue to be wounded by seemingly unlimited access to guns and the arms trade.
I am particularly drawn to the Occupy Movement because it offers an ethic and practice of deep democracy and community. As our world faces extraordinary challenges from climate change to soaring inequality, I feel that our best hope is when ordinary people, gathered in imperfect communities, find ways to fix a broken world. It seems very Christian to me. When I go to Occupy encampments, I hear Wesley saying, "I've got your back." When I march, I hear Martin Luther King, Jr., saying, "I've got your back." When I go to the General Assembly meetings at Occupy Oakland, I hear Paul saying, "I've got your back." When I challenge excessive police force and use of chemical weapons, I hear Gandhi saying, "I've got your back." When I demonstrate in front of financial institutions to confront present-day moneychangers, I hear Jesus say, "I've got your back."
There are a cloud of witnesses who have come together now for the great social movement of our time. God speaks to us in mysterious ways: Sometimes in the whirlwind, sometimes with a still small voice, sometimes through a prophet, sometimes through his only begotten son, sometimes through the Bible, sometimes through the spirit working amongst us, sometimes through United Methodists. God is still speaking. 
*Gess is pastor of St. Paul's United Methodist Church in Vacaville, Calif., a resident of Oakland, and an elder in the California-Nevada Annual (regional) Conference.


[Also read Nov. 10 UMNS story, United Methodists see Occupy protest ties.]