By Dan Schneider
There was a time when the backdrop for Occupy Boston’s General Assemblies was a mosaic of movement-related imagery, spread across the wall of a Big Dig ventilation building. In the months since the group’s eviction from Dewey Square, you’d be more likely to see a golden cross.
Absent of a physical encampment, occupiers have turned to Boston’s churches for space to hold their numerous assemblies, gatherings and community events. Those that the group frequents most include Arlington Street Church, Emmanuel Church, Community Church of Boston, and St. Paul’s Church. All four are within a mile of each other in downtown Boston, and are either Unitarian Universalist (Arlington Street, Community Church) or Episcopalian (Emmanuel, St. Paul’s).
When Occupy Boston was evicted from Dewey Square in early December, staff of St. Paul’s Cathedral implored the dean, the Very Reverend Jep Strait, to let the group meet in the Church. “There was a suggestion of letting them hold General Assemblies in the church… I was a little nervous, because I wondered if they’d occupy the church and never leave,” Rev. Strait explained with a laugh. Ultimately, he says Occupy Boston has been incredibly respectful of the church and that he’s come to “admire their process for including everyone’s voice.”
“I hope that by giving them space, we help to in some small way bear witness to whatever they want to do,” Strait said. Since December, St. Paul’s Cathedral has been host to a number of ‘community gatherings’, discussion nights hosted each weeks by one of Occupy Boston’s many working groups.
Neighborhood-based Occupy groups have also moved many of their planning meetings and events to church basements and meeting spaces. Occupy Somerville has been meeting at the 1st Church of Somerville UCC and Occupy Jamaica Plain has found refuge at Hope Central Church. In some cases, space has been provided with the same indifference as open mic nights; but a growing number of pastors, congregations (and congregants) are moving from being mere hosts to being active participants. At a protest of Bank of America organized by Occupy Somerville, the Associate Pastor at 1st Church of Somerville, Jeff Mansfield, was one of five people who stepped forward to close his personal account at the bank.
To many people, a connection between mainstream religion – especially Christianity – and the Occupy movement might seem to be out of the question. Those folks probably haven’t heard of the Protest Chaplains.
Protesting in the Name of the God
The relationship between Occupy movement and sympathetic Christians dates back to just about a week before the first sleeping bags hit the ground at Zuccotti Park in New York City. A small group of students from Harvard Divinity School and a few members of the Christian organization The Crossing decided to take part in the action they had read about in Adbusters that summer.
Heather Pritchard, a member of the original group that ventured to Occupy Wall Street, recalls that “we wanted to bring an explicitly Christian voice to the protest.” Dressed in full Albs and carrying a cardboard cross through lower Manhattan, the Protest Chaplains were born amidst the same burst of activist energy that would find its way to Boston just a week and a half later. Five of the Protest Chaplains came to Occupy Boston’s first General Assembly on September 27th, where they immediately formed the Faith and Spirituality Working Group.
As Occupy Boston grew in size and diversity, so did the Chaplains. In the face of the inclusive and egalitarian ethos of the Occupy movement itself, the group decided to accept other faiths into their group: Jews, Buddhists, Muslims, and anyone whose drive to protest inequality came from a spiritual conviction.
Yet the original, singularly Christian intent of the group is what makes them so unique within this movement. As a result of the Chaplain’s efforts, many congregants who otherwise would have never approached the protests came down to see what was going on. Many of them ended up coming back; some for the Vespers services held at the encampment’s main stage, and others to just sit and talk with the protesters.
“A lot of individuals at Occupy Boston came to the movement wanting to promote secular things. They’re not trying to make this a religious movement,” Pritchard explains, “but a lot of people bring their faith. They believe in things like equality and human rights because of their faith.”
Speaking of her fellow protest chaplains, she added, “We strongly believe that Christ came to this earth to liberate the poor and the oppressed. That’s why he specifically spent his time with the beggars and the prostitutes and the lepers.”
The Altar on the Left
Since the 1980s, the Christian Right has been a political powerhouse, able to mobilize droves of supporters at the drop of a hat and strong enough, in some areas of the country, to make or break the candidacy of those vying for elected office. Their focus has been on a handful of divisive areas of domestic social policy: abortion, gay marriage and prayer in schools, to name a few. Generally speaking, the Christian Right has no voice of its own on matters of economic policy; the group largely follows in lock step with traditional conservative Republicans.
All the more reason, it seems, to reconsider of a term not frequently used: the Christian Left.
“It’s not a phrase I’d use naturally,” said Dan McKanan, a professor at Harvard Divinity School and author of the book Prophetic Encounters: Religion and the American Radical Tradition. McKanan describes the Christian Left as a group focused on those parts of Jesus’ teachings which advocate for a compassionate economic system, from the story of the Good Samaritan to the Beatitudes (“blessed are the poor in spirit”, for example).
He also describes them as a group that, despite having these strong faith-based convictions about the need for social and economic justice, isn’t nearly as organized or culturally relevant as the Christian Right.
“Part of the reason that left Christian organizations don’t have the same muscle as, say, Focus on the Family, is that a lot of religious leftists are putting their time and energy into organizations that aren’t specifically religious in character,” McKanan says. The Occupy movement is just one example.
That the Occupy movement could conceivably partner with mainline Christianity would be no surprise to McKanan. He points to a long history of radical Christian activism to support this, from labor-rallying Catholics Dorothy Day and César Chávez, to Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
Both at the national and local level, the stage appears to be set for a revival of this strain of Christian thought. When the battle over Wisconsin’s state budget came to a fever pitch last year, Milwaukee Archbishop Jerome E. Listecki issued a statement in support of the state’s public unions, quoting at length from Pope Benedict XVI’s 2009 encyclical.
“The repeated calls issued within the Church’s social doctrine…for the promotion of workers’ associations that can defend their rights must therefore be honored today even more than in the past,” Pope Benedict XVI wrote.
Here in Massachusetts, the Unitarian Church, the Black Ministerial Alliance and a number of other faith-based organizations have come out against the state’s new “three strikes” bill, which would require mandatory maximum sentences for repeat felons. Churches have partnered with and community organizations (including Occupy the Hood) to build a grassroots campaign against the bill.
In collaborations like this one, activists are taking up the message that legendary Boston activist Mel King delivered at Occupy Boston’s Martin Luther King Day community gathering in Arlington St. Church last month. King, a long-time Boston community activist and political leader, urged the gathering to make the churches and their congregants their allies.
On one hand, Mel King is challenging Occupy activists to organize outside of their comfort zones. On the other, he is challenging Christian congregations to answer and act on this question: “Which side are you on?”
As groups like the Protest Chaplains and others make their way through Boston’s houses of God, America’s often overlooked Christian Left seems poised to grow, and perhaps answer King’s question. If so, money lenders – among others – may once again have to worry about their tables getting turned over.