As a grassroots organizer within the Occupy movement, it is easy for me to get carried away. There is an intensity in my sense of calling to this work, and a part of me insists that everyone should be involved. And there is some truth in this. I do believe that we are all called to the struggle for greater love, truth and justice in our society. We all have a responsibility to hear and respond to the Spirit’s movement in our hearts, however we are directed. But responding faithfully looks different for some than for others.
But there is more than one way to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with God. This grassroots action that I have been called to is important, but there are other, complimentary ways that we are engaging simultaneously. We need the folks who are laboring tireless for policy reforms to curb the abuses of the financial sector. We need the courage of those who are working within multi-national corporations and big banks, to take the risk of advocating for more just and sustainable policies within their organizations. We need lawmakers who are responsive to the needs of their human constituents – not only the demands of their corporate creditors. There are many ways that we are working for justice, and each of us is called to be faithful in our particular role.
The work that I and other grassroots organizers are doing fit into a larger picture. Our efforts are crucial, but we cannot succeed alone. Rather than insisting that everyone engage in the same way as me, I must learn to cooperate with those who are seeking to be faithful in a variety of different contexts and callings. If we hope to see real change in our society, we will need the cooperation from all our parts. We cannot heal the body by hacking off limbs. We need restoration, not amputation.
This spring is particularly special. We just marked six months since the beginning of Occupy Wall Street. The Occupy movement was an autumn counterpart to the Arab Spring that swept across North Africa and the Middle East last year. We sought to participate in a living, grassroots democracy where each person has a voice, regardless of the size of our wallets. Yet even as we occupied public spaces across North America and the world, we knew that the fall was just the beginning. Even greater things were in store for the American Spring.
The Occupy Church is embracing the American Spring by focusing on a few areas where we believe we can make a real difference. One example is our partnership in foreclosure resistance with Occupy Our Homes DC. Working alongside homeowners and tenants in Prince George’s County, we have already helped to ensure that Bertina Jones – an accountant, grandmother, and pillar in her family and community – will be able to stay in her home, despite the unjust dealings of Bank of America and Freddie Mac. And we are just getting warmed up. Our ultimate goal is to build a base of ordinary citizens who are equipped to stand up to predatory banks.
One unique way that Occupy Church is participating in the American Spring is through the development of a theological basis for this movement. As Christians, we feel called to participate in the Occupy movement because of our commitment to the Lord Jesus Christ, who began his earthly ministry by declaring that he had come to bring good news to the poor. We understand the Jubileetradition of debt forgiveness as being central to Jesus’ message. As we develop a scriptural understanding of how God is at work in the lives of the poor, we are discovering how the Holy Spirit calls us to the work of reconciliation and economic justice. In addition to individual writing and study, we are exploring whether Occupy Church might release a declaration outlining our sense of how the Spirit is speaking to the churches in our present context.
We are just getting started. The events of the last six months have raised up countless new leaders with a huge range of experience, skills and spiritual gifts. This spring, we will begin the process of nurturing these emerging leaders, equipping ourselves for the work that God is calling us into. We know from first-hand experience that the Lord calls the most unlikely of people to do God’s work in the world. As unworthy as we are, we in the Occupy Church pray that Christ will walk beside us and teach us how live into this calling. We trust in his promise that he will never leave us, even as he invites us into work that we are incapable of doing on our own.
We live in a world that is divided between ideological poles: Left and right, liberal and conservative, red states and blue states. This dynamic plays out not only in popular culture, but also within the Church. Our congregations endure vicious arguments over hot button issues like gay marriage, the ministry of women and abortion – yet both sides in these debates lack a compelling and positive vision of what the Church is called to be. Both extreme liberals and extreme conservatives are more interested in ideological purity than in building up the Body of Christ and seeing real, practical changes in the way that we live as a community. If this were not so, we would spend less time on theological debates (important as these are) and much more time on outreach and service to our neighbors.
But there is an alternative. We do not have to pick a side in this false battle for the heart and soul of our society. Rather than getting caught up in these bipolar disputes, many of us are being called into an engagement with the real problems that confront our culture and our churches today.
We know that the culture wars are not from God. These debates are fueled by a smug sense of self-righteousness and superiority more in keeping with the spirit of the Pharisees than with the Spirit of Christ. Any ideology is false that calls for others to change without first confessing our own shortcomings and need for transformation. God calls us to lives of humility, endurance and self sacrifice; and when we live in Christ, we experience love and compassion for others – not a bristling sense of superiority.
I have drawn a lot of comfort and inspiration recently from reading Andrew Lewis’ book, The Shadows of Youth, about the young activists who were the backbone of the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. It has been a delight to read about how women and men in their early twenties – like Diane Nash, Stokely Carmichael, Bob Moses, and John Lewis – had the courage to stand up against cruelty and injustice, and in the process helped to shape the character of the United States for decades to come.
Despite the gap in generation and historical context, the lives of these daring civil rights activists provide perspective on my involvement with the Occupy movement. I am intrigued about the many similarities that present themselves: the tension between reform and revolution; clashes between the old, pragmatic establishment and the young, idealistic activists; the friendships that hold the movement together; and the personality conflicts that break it apart. There is so much wisdom to be gained from the hard-earned lessons of those who have come before.
Reading about the civil rights movement is affecting me many ways. In addition to giving me insight about the nature of grassroots activism in general, it helps to sensitize me to the dynamics of race and class in the United States. Some of the stories told in The Shadows of Youth are so extreme as to be almost unbelievable. A prime example would be how the Freedom Riders of 1961 were met by violent mobs of white citizens who, with the cooperation of local police, beat these college-aged activists with baseball bats, chains and whips. White America was stridently committed to the perpetuation of Jim Crow, and it required great courage by black activists and white allies to be willing to take the insults, beatings, torture and murder that awaited them.
The sheer moral power of this guiltless suffering, captured by reporters and broadcast to the nation, had a huge impact on the culture. By the end of the 1960s, de jure segregation was no more, and though the pace of progress was slow, African-Americans were increasingly finding their voice in public discourse and governance. There was real reason for optimism.
Yet, as I read about these remarkable historical struggles that changed the face of our nation, I cannot help but notice how far we still fall short of the dream of racial equality and economic justice in this country. Despite the fact that segregation is no longer legally enforced, Washington, DC is deeply divided along racial and class lines. Of course, the strong links between race and economic class only increase the dynamic of de facto segregation.
I live in Deanwood, a neighborhood in DC that lies to the east of the Anacostia river. Those who are familiar with DC will know that white folks do not generally venture into this part of the city, known as East of the River. Many here are afraid to even visit my neighborhood, much less live here. On the other hand, since very few of the city’s cafes, supermarkets and shops are located East of the River, we frequently leave our part of town to buy groceries, or meet up with friends.
It is a strange sensation to people-watch as I commute from Deanwood to Capitol Hill. As I start out from my home, I am surrounded by my African-American neighbors. Kids returning from school. The man hawking newspapers at Benning Road and East Capitol Street. When I cross the river, the picture changes dramatically. Immediately, there are large numbers of well-dressed professionals and middle class white people. By the time I reach historic Capitol Hill, all I see are white folks jogging, walking their dogs and strolling with their babies. I am in another city entirely.
I cannot help but wonder: is this what Lewis, Nash, Carmichael and other civil rights activists thought they were putting their lives on the line for? De facto segregation in the nation’s capital? A city divided by enormous gaps in wealth and privilege, where most of its black residents are consigned to one isolated quarter of the District? Seeing the dynamics at work in my town, I am reminded that the long struggle for racial equality and economic justice is far from over. I wonder how I, as a white man involved in the Occupy movement, can humbly make space for a next step in the liberation of those who are marginalized in our culture and economy. How can I stay aware of the injustice that continues to hold sway in our society? How can I change my own ways of thinking and living in the world, to live into the dream of true peace and reconciliation?
The beauty of the spring is all the more radiant for me because of how challenging the winter has been. From November through February, I felt almost overwhelmed by stress and anxiety. The process of looking for a home in the DC area left me gasping for breath. The Occupy movement began its transition to a post-encampment stage, and for a couple of months it felt like everything was falling apart. As new homeowners, many new expenses emerged and stress over finances grew.
Ultimately, I needed to get out of DC in order to get my head on straight. In mid-February, way opened for me to make a visit to Friends in Philadelphia. I had opportunities with a number of folks who were clearly putting God first, allowing the Spirit’s leading to shape every aspect of their lives. In some cases, this had profound financial implications. I was inspired by the example of Jon Watts and Maggie Harrison, who are focusing on the ministry that God has given them to do. They are demonstrating their faith in the Lord in very concrete ways.
In the last several weeks, I have begun to understand that what God is requiring of me at this moment is to focus my attention on the Occupy movement. In particular, I am feeling God’s call to throw myself into full-time organizing for the Occupy Church, an ecumenical Christian witness for economic justice in our local communities. One concrete way that I and other Christians are bearing witness is through our partnership with Occupy Our Homes DC.
Occupy Church has a particular role to play in all of this. I, and other Occupy Church organizers, are working to develop relationships with clergy and members of area churches with the ultimate goal of building a coalition based in the local community that can stand up to the abusive lenders that are forcing families out of their homes. In the months ahead, I will be focusing much of my energy on this effort, as we seek to stand with the families that are being ruined by the callous greed of the big banks.
For many occupiers, the past ten years had been a time of intense darkness. A wordless despondency had crept over my generation. We watched with tears as war finally came home on September 11th, 2001. We groaned in helpless outrage as our nation’s leaders took advantage of our collective trauma and fear to invade weaker, oil-rich nations. We despaired as we saw America abandon any semblance of respect for the international community, instead striking a belligerant pose of imperial might.
Yet, there was hope. With the election of Barack Obama, many of us dared to believe that America might change its trajectory. Using the economic crisis as an opportunity for spiritual growth, perhaps we could once again become a respected and respectful member of the world community. With new leadership, we could begin to address the climate crisis that threatens all of us. I personally held out hope that this new regime would focus more on education, health care and poverty reduction – rejecting the pattern of endless military build-up and systematic reduction of civil liberties established during the Bush years.
We watched with disgust as virtually all of our lawmakers colluded with powerful, elite interests that ignored the needs of ordinary working Americans in favor of their own narrow interests. Many of us were becoming convinced that neither Democrats nor Republicans offered solutions for the multiple crises that we were facing as a country. All of them – Left and Right, Democrat and Republican – were more interested in the concerns of the wealthy elites than they were in the long-term health of our nation as a whole.
In a very real sense, many of us became citizens for the first time as a result of this struggle. Always before, our voices had been confined by the straightjacket of the corporate-controlled two-party system; but now, we were free to express directly our rejection of a system that privileges the greed of the wealthiest 1% over the needs of our whole society.
We know that slight modifications of the present order will not be enough. We need a fundamental revisioning of our whole way of life. We must examine the ways in which our own entrenched attitudes and habits have contributed to a society in which a small elite controls most of the wealth and dominates public discourse. Now is the time to have these conversations. We have a window of opportunity to profoundly reshape our national self-understanding, to live up to America’s founding creed of liberty, justice and equal opportunity.