A small, tight-knit group of Occupiers gathers outside the Bank of America on Federal Street this morning to pray for repentance and against greed, a weekly ritual that will continue every Friday throughout Lent at 8am. Parting the sea of business people hurrying down the sidewalk to work, they remain steadfast in their message: carrying signs that read “Blessed are the poor” and “Occupy Lent,” as well as a tall, wooden cross.
“Get a job,” says one suit passing by.
“I design databases,” says protestor Mary Sweeney. “I’m not a person without skill.”
“I work up the street,” says Michael Zachniser.
One reason they choose the bank on Federal Street as the spot for their morning service is because of its location and history.
“This was formerly the site of the Federal Street Church,” says Robin Lutjohann, a seminary student at Harvard Divinity School and member of the Protest Chaplains. That church is where the Massachusetts delegation ratified the Constitution, and was home to abolitionist Reverend William Ellery Channing.
“Now here stands Bank of America, this colossus of a building. It’s jarring. How many people have suffered under the policies of this institution?”
Lutjohann is referring to the bank’s illegal foreclosures and fraudulent home loans, among other practices.
“I know a man who wasn’t able to make his payments to Bank of America. And they didn’t allow partial payments, so fees kept accruing. He eventually lost his house – now he’s on the street and addicted to heroin.”
“It’s not primarily about Bank of America. It’s about all of us, our participation in the system, not just pointing the finger at one big institution.”
“As a Christian, it is very essential to live a life of generosity, simplicity, and solidarity with the poor,” says Zachniser, also a member of the Protest Chaplains. “The season of Lent is a time for looking at ourselves and how we can live constructively. Jesus preached caring for the poor and working towards equality. Many Christians, many people, are called towards equality.”
Lutjohann leads the small group in prayers of guidance and charity, holding the cross he made himself. Zachniser, who actually works up the street from the bank, leads the group in songs.
“Get a life, get a life, get a life!” says one businessman hurrying by the group, eyes focused straight ahead.
Soon after, Lutjohann begins to read the Beatitudes, which starts with the famous line “Blessed are the poor.”
Some passersby pay more attention than others. A man in jeans slows down to watch; most suits sped along.
“A lot of official churches have drifted,” says Sweeney. “They assume the people in suits sitting in air conditioned offices are the good guys. But it didn’t work that way in Jesus’ time.”
“There’s so much blame put on people who lost their homes to foreclosure. But most people who lost their homes didn’t buy a mansion – there was sickness, or the family fell apart, or became unemployed.”
The prayer service ends within a half an hour and the group separates. They’ll meet again next week, with more prayers and songs, and hopefully more participants.
“Did you see Chris Hedges’s last video?” Sweeney asks the other protestors. “He says the Occupy movement will define the relevancy of religion.” She’s referring to the journalist’s recent speech that the movement will either “revitalize traditional Christianity in the U.S. or signal it’s moral, social and political irrelevance.”
Lutjohann knows firsthand that mixing religion and the movement is a touchy subject.
“Some people are upset, they think we’re hijacking religion for our cause,” said Lutjohann.
“Sometimes, that’s a legitimate criticism. I just want to sit down with those people, grab some coffee and talk to them about it.”