Occupy the Pulpit
THE FOLLOWING ARTICLE FIRST APPEARED IN THE FEBRUARY EDITION OF THE BOSTON OCCUPIER
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. 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.
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.
About a week before the first sleeping bags hit the ground at Zuccotti Park, 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.
Above, Protest Chaplains sing “Down to the River to Pray” on Dec. 8, the Night of the faux eviction of Occupy Boston at Dewey Sq.
Five of the Protest Chaplains came to Occupy Boston’s first General Assembly on September 27, 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.”
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 Street 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.
FOR MORE ON THE HISTORY OF THE CHRISTIAN LEFT GO TO THEBOSTONOCCUPIER.COM