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Looking for alternatives to “the denial-laden pseudo-optimistic think-happy-thoughts crap that so often passes for spirituality in numb, consumerist America?” Check out the work of the Protest Chaplains of Occupy who were interviewed by Maia Duerr.

Maia Duerr
11 July 2013

Boston Herald. All Rights Reserved.

 “American Christians have been far too polite, too quiet, and too accommodating of both the injustice and the blasphemous use of Jesus' name in committing atrocities in our nation and our world. That's why we want to protest with all those who, like us, know in the deepest places of our souls that another world is indeed possible.”

That’s what I like about the “Protest Chaplains” who wrote this mission statement – they say what they mean and they mean what they say. In fact that’s also the essence of transformation, with its message that the personal and the political are always inter-woven.  

Originally launched by ten graduate students from Harvard Divinity School, the Protest Chaplains added a religious voice and pastoral care to the thousands of other people who joined the Occupy Wall Street movement in September of 2011. I interviewed four of the students who were present on the first day of Occupy in New York, from whom the following edited quotations are taken.

On their own admission, they had no idea what they were getting into at the start. But they knew that there was a spiritual or human dimension to Wall Street corruption and excess, and to the protests that unfolded against these things. As divinity students, that was a crucial point. In the months that followed, they evolved to be a movement within a movement, with hundreds of chaplains self-organizing in other cities including Boston, Toronto, Oakland, Portland and Chicago. One of the four, Dave Woessner, explained how it all began:

“We heard about this protest on Wall Street. It was just a complete and total word-of-mouth thing. We started talking about what we wanted to do there and came up with this vague sense of protest as liturgy. We discussed how we were going to prepare for this and agreed it was all about love. No one was coming from the point of view of trying to proselytize. It was all about being there with other people who felt called to act.

We had two cars and went around and raided all the sacristies to get more albs [white liturgical robes]. We took the train down from Harlem on the morning of September 17th, wore albs the whole way, and carried a cardboard cross. When we got down to Wall Street, the police had already barricaded everything off. They had their riot gear on. The protest was called for out in front of the stock exchange, but because we couldn’t get there, no one knew what to do. Our plan was to go to Trinity Episcopal Church. At the beginning it was us and one guy from Veterans for Peace who was waving a flag. We started singing hymns.

A lot of people thought we would be judgmental. But we were there for the same reasons they were: to say that corporate greed is killing our country, our world, and our soul. There’s a simple point, a call for justice, to say that a lot of harm has been done to a lot of people, the most vulnerable people, who are also taxpayers who have bailed out these banks. And we haven’t seen the appropriate castigation and follow through to make sure these practices don’t happen again.”

What difference did the Protest Chaplains make? One of their roles was to help people connect with the movement who might otherwise have been turned off by the protests. Robin Lutjohann, who self-identified as a Lutheran, explained it like this:

“[One day] I was wearing the white robe and the cross and being very ostentatiously some sort of Christian ministerial figure. An old lady came up to me and asked me who I was and what I was doing. Then we moved on to what the protest was about, what I believed, how my religion played into it. I honestly believe she wouldn’t have come up to anyone else, but she came to me because I resembled something she was familiar and comfortable with, in this case, the Christian faith. Our conversation broke through some of the chanting and shouting and signs that may have taken her aback.”

In addition, I think their presence also helped to give Occupy a more spiritual core that reinforced a sense of vitality and possibility. Here’s Dave Woessner again:

“From the very beginning we thought that this was key, to give people the courage to engage with this in a spiritual way, to use language like ‘my soul is hurting,’ to feel justified in crying out for justice and love and not to feel that it’s hokey or sentimental.”

The Protest Chaplains’ mission statement is explicit about this commitment:

“We also want to be of service to those camping with us. We draw strength from the rituals of prayer, song, meditation, and devotion that we have inherited as the very best and brightest points of the troublesome Christian tradition. (But) we’re not out to evangelize anyone.”

Quite the opposite – the chaplains embodied a willingness, an excitement even, to let the process emerge rather than trying to control it. Like the Occupy Movement as a whole, the Protest Chaplains were adamant about not designating leaders, and they made participatory democracy and consensus the basis for their decision-making.

This position gave rise to a common critique of Occupy – that it was too formless to be a real social movement, too unstructured, with no explicit or concrete demands. But such demands confer legitimacy and tacit approval on the current system of oppression in which they have to be articulated. Instead, the Protest Chaplains chose to challenge the underlying stories that are used to justify certain forms of economics and economic values.

As part of their street ministry they invited people to create new stories that contained a different set of possibilities. These conversations often began with skepticism about the viability of alternative economics, as Dave Woessner told me when I asked him how people had responded to the Chaplains: 

“We have the best economic system possible now, given that people will always be greedy and self-interested,” they would say to him. He countered by asking, “Well, what would it take for you to think otherwise? If you keep telling yourself that, you’ll keep seeing that.” New stories, new possibilities, and new realities go together. Occupation takes a lot of work and a lot of collaboration,” he continued, “occupation is an attempt to build a shared dream. This is an aspect of the Occupy movement that is most overlooked: first and foremost, occupation is a demonstration or a model. People living in the village - the collection of tents in Dewey Square, where Occupy Boston is physically based - are showing the world the example of the just community in which they hope to live.”

Perhaps most important of all was the influence of the Protest Chaplains’ participation on their own, ongoing ministry of social transformation. Marisa Egerstrom was another graduate student who was there as a Protest Chaplain on that September day. She continues to organize progressive religious activists, and she summed up her experience like this:

“[This experience has] planted in me the conviction that true pastoral care is revolutionary, in the sense that so much of what people experience as depression is a cognitive recognition of the overwhelming reality of just how out of balance, how unsustainable, and how unjust Life As We Know It actually is, without the emotional/psychological/spiritual capacity to deal with that reality.

I constantly call on clergy to help move people through the transition from denial to recognizing that our government, the police, etc., are not actually there to protect or help us, but to defend the concentration of wealth. It's a terribly difficult thing for people who have been pretty comfortable their whole lives. But ordained or lay, whatever tradition you're in, if you're not helping people cope with this and find hope in a sense of the goodness of God who is alive in us or whatever your equivalent is, I am now convinced that you are only an agent of illusion.

The whole ‘wake up’ paradigm is kind of cliché, and yet it's still entirely apt. And believe me, I wish it was otherwise. Crying has become an integral part of my own spiritual practice. Real grief is one of the most healing powers I know. So I hope that the experiences of the Protest Chaplains, as we bring stories of our experiences out into various faith communities, will spark a new theology of grief and powerful hope that overcomes the denial-laden pseudo-optimistic think-happy-thoughts crap that so often passes for spirituality in numb, consumerist America.”

All in all, that’s not a bad mission statement for the transformation of spirituality into a force for social justice.

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