You figure it out together, you take a mike check, and this is how faith comes to you. - Rev. Michael Ellick
BY WAY OF PREFACE
It started in the mid-fifties…my first knowing encounters with injustice…a thirst for justice…a growing conviction that "It just ain't fair!" Black and white TV pictures from Little Rock, Montgomery, and Birmingham. A 1958 ride from New York to Annapolis to take an oath at the Naval Academy and those signs along Route 40 – "Negro Motel," "Whites Only." An August march with Martin. A dream.
And, then, a war…a war I volunteered to fight, a war in which I killed, a war I learned was wrong. I marched again…to songs like Phil Ochs' "I Ain't Marchin' Anymore." (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L5pgrKSwFJE Everything seemed possible. We would end a war. We would free a people. We would free ourselves.
But they killed the songs and, in the rice paddies I had left behind, they killed more brown and yellow people who sought the same dignity and freedom I did. And, in 1968, they killed the dreamer… and the dream.
Martin had just begun the pivot to addressing the endemic economic inequality that affected not only African Americans, but my own white parents in the Bronx. He had gone to Memphis to stand with sanitation workers seeking a decent wage and drawn up plans for a Poor People's March on Washington.
And, in Washington, I watched the city burn in the wake of Martin's death and watched Resurrection City, the Poor People's encampment along the Potomac, sink into the mud, a victim of the spring rains and a "Southern Strategy." The powers-that-be had again had their way. Those who had dared to dream drifted away, leaderless, rudderless, into our myriad private realms. Stay low, go with the flow" was the watchword.
And so we began a forty-year-long, dreamless sleepwalk. Our striving for private pleasures morphed to rampant greed, while, beyond our shuttered vision, comfort-inducing drugs, and the distractions of corporate-supplied infotainment, others plundered the public commons.
Then came 2008 – the cold shower that was the collapse of the commons…and another young African American with soaring rhetoric and an ability to strum the near numb chords of a remembered dream. "Hope you can believe in," he called it. But, soon enough, we learned that he was no Martin and that an African American from Chicago's Southside could settle in with the powers-that-be just as comfortably as a white "cowboy" from Texas.
There's a funny thing about hope rekindled and quickly quashed – it clears the scales from the eyes, adds anger and determination to the equation, and gives rise to greater hope. We used to call it the "Revolution of Rising Expectations." For three years that revolution quietly gathered steam, as, in disgust and disbelief, we watched the powers-that-be claw their way back, secure, they thought, in a return to business as usual. But the embers had been stirred. The dreamers were dreaming again.
THE EMBERS STIRRED TO FLAME
And, then, in the coldest months, those embers burst into flame in unexpected places – a Tunis street, a Cairo square named "Liberty," a statehouse in Madison, Wisconsin. The cry was everywhere the same – Basta! Kefeya! Enough!
Soon enough, it was September 17. Creative protestors danced around Wall Street's bull – that golden calf of greed. A cry was raised: "We are the 99%!" The tents went up in Zucotti Park, and Occupy was born.
I remember thinking "Zucotti Park? Where's that?" I had been to Ground Zero and Trinity and prayed at both, but knew nothing about Zucotti Park. It was, I was told, a private park…like Bryant Park these days. Oh, my, I thought, "They're privatizing the commons." I thought, too, of a seventeenth-century English protest ditty:
The law locks up the hapless felon
who steals the goose from off the common,
but lets the greater felon loose
who steals the common from the goose.
who steals the goose from off the common,
but lets the greater felon loose
who steals the common from the goose.
It reminded me that this struggle for the commons was nothing new and inequitably skewed.
It was a struggle that quickly spread to other cities, including Oakland and San Francisco…to public spaces that are the commons of today - Frank Ogawa Plaza at Oakland's City Hall and San Francisco's Justin Herman Plaza where Market Street meets the Bay. My heart beat faster and my soul cried out "At last!" We had waited forty years. Our situation had reached a crisis stage. There might not be another chance to realize the Beloved Community. This was not one I could sit out.
During October, most of the "action" was in Oakland. Given my ministries with San Francisco's homeless and its immigrant hotel workers, however, I gravitated to Occupy San Francisco, working with people I knew in Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice (CLUE). Early on, we spun off a soon-larger, more focused group – San Francisco Interfaith Allies of Occupy (SF-IAO). I wrote a "theological statement" for the group – "A Call to Shalom" – which was circulated far and wide, including on Episcopal News Service (http://www.ecusa.anglican.org/80050_130332_ENG_HTM.htm - and we set about embedding ourselves in Occupy SF witnessing with our bodies and our voices to our solidarity with it.
That witnessing began peacefully enough on October 24, when about two hundred members of the faith community from both sides of the Bay gathered at Justin Herman Plaza for a march up Market Street, carrying a golden calf of greed sculpted by seminarians at Berkley's Pacific School of Religion and stopping at several financial institutions for street-theater burials of that false god.
Two nights later, however, things turned violent in Oakland, when police unleashed a para-military assault on the encampment at Frank Ogawa Plaza, resulting in a night of one-sided confrontations in the downtown area and the wounding – critically – of Scott Olsen, a Marine veteran of Iraq.
Learning that the next night's general assembly at Occupy San Francisco would center on Scott's wounding, I made it a point to end my day at that meeting on Justin Herman Plaza.
I filled a shopping bag with bananas and tortillas and headed for the Plaza. The general assembly was just starting. Remembering from earlier visits where the food tent was, I joined the line and emptied the bag on the serving table. A little girl – maybe five - delighted in a banana. I said "Hi!' to her single-parent mom and pet their tiny dog.
All the while, I could hear the stream of announcements from the bull horn and the repeated "Mike check!" from each person moving forward to speak to the bowl-shaped crowd of intent, well-behaved youngsters who mixed comfortably with those joining after work in their suits, cellphones in hand.
I asked the young lady taking notes in front of me whether I too could make an "announcement" to the assembly. "Sure, get on Maria's lineup of speakers."
I made my way to Maria. She asked my name and I was handed the bullhorn. I had been there long enough to understand the cadence – short bursts repeated "amen corner"-style by the crowd to ensure that everyone heard the message.
I began…"Mike check!...My name's Vicki…I'm here tonight to say…[pointing at my collar] we've heard you…and they've heard us…I'm here to wish you Shalom…not the silence of the graveyard…but the true peace of justice…No justice, no peace!...the peace of truly shared prosperity…We are with you!"
And from the smiles, "amens," and high-fives as I melted back into the crowd, I knew that we were, indeed, with each other…that clergy were
numbered among the 99% and most welcome in the movement.
As November dawned I found myself fully immersed in all aspects of Occupy SF, pulled along in the undertow of a movement that was palpably spiritual and that cried out for expression.
Called to "serve all people, particularly the poor" and to "make Christ and his redemptive love known…by word and example," I felt a need to draw closer to the young people who were speaking - and acting – on behalf of the growing ranks of the poor in ways that the church was not. I joined the OSF visioning group that is trying to shape a concrete statement of demands from the inchoate cry of unfairness and inequality that gave birth to the movement. I spoke at press conferences and marched in countless actions – always in collar and diaconal stole. In one, in solidarity with labor, I carried our golden calf of greed down Market to the front door of Wells Fargo. In another, on Human Rights Day, we stopped the cable cars on Powell and occupied Union Square. And in yet another – to mark the infamous Citizens United decision that conferred personhood on corporations – our Interfaith Allies gathered on the plaza before Bank of America with shofars and vuvuzelas to call down its walls of greed.
But it was in the camps…at Justin Herman Plaza (to us now Bradley Manning Plaza) and, later, before the Federal Reserve at 101 Market – in one-on-one conversations and at general assemblies - that I felt truly one with Occupy.
We found our oneness breaking bread together. On Black Friday, when everyone else was at the mall, about two-hundred of us – campers and allies - shared Thanksgiving "leftovers" from our congregations in an outdoor feast at Bradley Manning Plaza. We called it "This is what democracy tastes like." It was the sort of meal we shared again Christmas afternoon on the sidewalk before 101 Market. Unspoken was the prayer "We are all one body, because we share one bread."
That sense of solidarity was perhaps strongest that late November evening, as we waited in the drizzle for a rumored police crackdown and sought courage in community – union members, Veterans for Peace, students crushed by college debt, the newly homeless, those long homeless and hungry, some talented musicians, a young lawyer, a fire department paramedic named Rachel, Diamond Dave and Dr. B …and not nearly enough clergy. It came my turn once more to speak. My words were short and simple: "This is something the church – my church – should have been doing a long time ago. Thank you for leading us. Thank you for showing us what we should be doing. Stay strong. We're with you!" And the crowd again said: "Amen!"
And, a few nights later, after the police rousted the campers from 101 Market and the Council of Elders, leaders of the 20th Century movements for civil rights and social justice, joined them in the middle of the trolley tracks on Market, I felt myself in the midst of what Josh Griffin, a twenty-something priest in Portland, has called "public liturgy of the finest sort." Facing a skirmish line of police, the youngsters among us put up five tents and sat silently around a circle of candles, while the rest of us sang "We Shall Not Be Moved." A retired bishop and I held a private conversation with a self-described anarchist who wanted to know when violence in the face of violence – something that seemed imminent – was justified. The bishop spoke of Gandhi and King, and I added Jesus, explaining the meaning of "turn the other cheek." And among the preachers that night (that ended peaceably) was a particular hero of mine - Vincent Harding, a close associate of Martin's who had written several of his speeches. One of those was Martin's 1967 Riverside speech opposing the Vietnam War. It contains the memorable line: "There is a time when silence is betrayal." As Vincent spoke into the bullhorn of the humanity of the individual police officers and offered us his "We are with you," I thought to myself "There is, indeed, a time and it has come again."
THE SILENCE OF THE CHURCH
The time has come again. And, as it has, I've been dismayed by the silence of the church and, indeed, the dismissiveness of some bishops.
For my part, I feel that it's urgent for the church get off the sidelines and embrace the Occupy movement. For it seeks the same over-arching goal we say we do - a society that is fair and just and loving...a Beloved Community of Shalom. As I said in an Advent sermon, our legitimacy is on the line. Do we truly believe Jesus' words and ours? Are we prepared to speak and act - dangerously - on our beliefs? Are we prepared to follow those bishops like George Packard and Gene Robinson who are?
Young people, in particular, are waiting for our answers and, I assure you, anxious to embrace us. I have found them calling us to do what we as a church should have been doing a long time ago. Are we listening? Are we ready, as people of faith, to act?
WHAT DO THEY WANT? WHAT MUST WE DO?
Probably the biggest excuse for inaction is the contention that it's all too fuzzy. Over and over – from our bishops and the people in the pews – we hear "What do they want?" Wrong question! The proper question is "What do we want?" Are we in the church not part of the 99%? Do we not have eyes and ears and hearts to see and hear and feel what Stephane Hessel calls the "unbearable things all around us" – the myriad injustices and indignities heaped upon us by out-of-control capitalism and a democracy corrupted by money. Do we not want to convince even the 1% to join a new, more humane consensus? Must we rely on the courageous campers who have opened our eyes to those unbearable things to also fill our minds, grown flaccid, with ready-made answers? Have we not minds of our own? Can we not engage? Dare we not join the changed and broadening conversation about necessary and, yes, obvious solutions? Can we not exert ourselves, and, through such exertion, tone up our capacity to think for ourselves and, together, shape our answers. As Hessel writes in Time for Outrage, "The worst attitude is indifference."
There is, indeed, a time when silence is betrayal. We cannot be silent in the face of a patently unfair economy that devours the poor. Nor can we be indifferent to a political system that ignores our pain. We must speak truth to the powers-that-be, be they on Wall Street, Lafayette Square, or Nob Hill. We must "interpret to the Church the needs, concerns, and hopes of the world." Isn't that what our bishops called us to do? Didn't we answer "I believe I am so called"? Aren't we now deacons? Let's get on with it!