How Occupy Got Religion

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This post originally appeared at

year ago around this time, Occupy Wall Street was celebrating Advent — the
season when Christians anticipate the birth of Jesus at Christmas. In front of
Trinity Church, right at the top of Wall Street along Broadway, Occupiers set
up a little model tent with the statuettes of a nativity scene inside: Mary,
Joseph and the Christ child in a manger, surrounded by animals. In the back, an
angel held a tiny cardboard sign with a verse from Luke’s Gospel: “There was no
room for them in the inn.” The reason for these activists’ interest in the
liturgical calendar, of course, was the movement’s ongoing effort to convince
Trinity to start acting less like a real estate corporation and more like a
church, and to let the movement use a vacant property that Trinity owns.

year later, even as a resilient few continue their 24-hour vigil on the
sidewalk outside Trinity, churches and Occupiers are having a very different
kind of Advent season together. Finding room in churches is no longer a problem
for the movement.

The day after Hurricane Sandy struck New York in late
October, Occupiers hustled to organize a massive popular relief effort, and
Occupy Sandy came into being. By circumstance and necessity, it has mostly
taken place in churches; they are the large public spaces available in affected
areas, and they were the people willing to open their doors. Two churches on
high ground in Brooklyn became organizing hubs, and others in the Rockaways,
Coney Island, Staten Island and Red Hook
became depots for getting supplies and support to devastated neighborhoods. To
make this possible, Occupiers have had to win the locals’ trust — by helping
clean up the damaged churches and by showing their determination to help those
whom the state-sponsored relief effort was leaving behind. When the time for
worship services came around, they’d cleared the supplies off the pews.

Sandy has been miraculous for us, really,” said Bob
Dennis, parish manager at St. Margaret Mary, a Catholic church in Staten Island. “They are doing exactly what Christ
preached.” Before this, the police and firemen living in his neighborhood
hadn’t had much good to say about Occupy Wall Street, but that has changed

leaders are organizing tours to show off the Occupy Sandy relief efforts of
which they’ve been a part, and they’re speaking out against the failures of
city, state and federal government. Congregations are getting to know Occupiers
one on one by working together in a relief effort that every day — as the
profiteering developers draw nearer — is growing into an act of resistance.

that’s only one part of it. Months before Sandy, organizers with the Occupy
Wall Street group Strike Debt made a concerted effort to reach out to religious
allies for help on a new project they were calling the Rolling Jubilee; by
buying up defaulted loans for pennies on the dollar, and then abolishing them,
organizers hoped to spread the spirit of jubilee — an ancient biblical practice
of debt forgiveness.

religious groups jumped at the chance to help. Occupy Faith organized an event
in New York
to celebrate the Rolling Jubilee’s launch. Occupy Catholics (of which I am a
part) took the opportunity to reclaim the Catholic concepts of jubilee and
usury for the present economic crisis and released a statement in support of
the Rolling Jubilee that has been signed by Catholics across the country.

Rolling Jubilee idea has been hugely successful, raising more money more
quickly than anyone anticipated — around $10 million in debt is poised to be
abolished. But now Strike Debt, too, has turned its attention to working with
those affected by the hurricane. On Dec. 2, the group published “Shouldering
the Costs,” a report on the proliferation of debt in the aftermath of Sandy. The document was
released with an event at — where else? — a church in Staten

newfound access to religious real estate is not merely a convenience for this
movement; it has implications that a lot of people probably aren’t even
thinking about yet. Occupy Wall Street has learned from the Egyptian Revolution
before, and now, even if by accident, it is doing so again.

Tahrir Square was still full of tents and tanks, and Hosni Mubarak was still in
power, the editors of Adbusters magazine were already imagining a “Million Man
March on Wall Street,” the idea that led to what would become their July 13,
2011, call to #occupywallstreet. More than a year after the occupation at Zuccotti Park began, though, and nearly two years
after crowds first filled Tahrir, neither revolt very much resembles its
origins. The Egyptian Revolution, first provoked by tech-savvy young activists,
has now been hijacked as a coup for the Muslim Brotherhood, a conservative
religious party; its only viable challenger is none other than Mubarak’s ancien
regime, minus only Mubarak himself. Occupy, meanwhile, has lost its encampments
and, despite whatever evidence there is to the contrary, most of its enemies in
power deem it no longer a threat.

many U.S. activists even today, the dream of creating a Tahrir-sized rupture in
this country persists — of finally drawing enough people into the streets and
causing enough trouble to make Wall Street cower. But what if something on the
scale of Tahrir really were to happen in the United States? What would be the

was thinking of this question recently while on an unrelated reporting mission
at a massive evangelical Christian megachurch near the Rocky
Mountains. Several thousand (mostly white, upper-middle-class)
people were there that day, of all ages. They had come back after Sunday
morning services for an afternoon series of talks on philosophy — far more
people than attend your average Occupy action.

time I step foot in one of these places, it strikes me how they put radicals in
the United States
to shame. These churches organize real, life-giving mutual aid as the basis of
an independent political discourse and power base. Church membership is far
larger, for instance, than that of unions in this country.

there were a sudden, Tahrir-like popular uprising right now, with riots in all
the cities and so forth, I can’t help but think that it would be organizations
like the church I went to that would come out taking power in the end, even
more so than they already do — just as the Islamists have in Egypt.

the idea of occupying symbolic public space was the Egyptians’ first lesson for
Occupy Wall Street, this is the second: Win religion over before it beats you

religion, again and again, people in the United States have organized for
power. Religion is also the means by which many imagine and work for a world
more just than this one. Just about every successful popular movement in U.S. history
has had to recognize this, from the American Revolution to labor, and from
civil rights to today’s campaigners for marriage equality — and now Occupy.

I stop by the Occupy Sandy hub near my house — the Episcopal church of St. Luke
and St. Matthew — and join the mayhem of volunteers carrying boxes this way and
that, and poke my head into the upper room full of laptops and organizers
around a long table, and see Occupiers in line for communion at Sunday
services, I keep thinking of how Alcoholics Anonymous’ 12-step program ends.
The 12th step is where you cap off all the self-involved inner work you’ve been
doing, and get over yourself for a bit, and heal yourself by helping someone

who has been around Occupy Wall
Street during the year since its eviction from Zuccotti Park knows it has been in need of
healing. Whether through flood-soaked churches, or on the debt market, this is
how the Occupy movement has always been at its best, and its most exciting, and
its most necessary: When it shows people how to build their own power, and to
strengthen their own communities, this movement finds itself.

Image by Poster Boy NYC,
licensed under Creative

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