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Protest Chaplains: “It’s All About Love” (Part 2)

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Robin Lutjohan

This is the second installment from my thesis for the Upaya Buddhist Chaplaincy Program. In the first post, I covered the context and background of the Protest Chaplains as well as the Occupy Wall Street Movement. In this section, I share the findings from interviews with four chaplains.

A) The Creation Story

The group of 10 students from Harvard Divinity School (HDS) that was to become the Protest Chaplains was present at Occupy Wall Street from day one. I asked Dave Woessner to tell me how it all got started. This is the story he shared with me:

It began with no intention [Dave laughs]…. We heard about this protest on Wall Street, organized by Adbusters…It was just a complete and total word-of-mouth thing. Marissa [Dave’s friend and another Harvard student] and I talked about what we could do. It was real casual – I can’t really underscore how flash-in-the pan this seemed. She sent around a couple of emails to a bunch of our friends. We started talking about what we wanted to do there. We came up with this vague sense of protest and social justice action as liturgy. We started kicking around ideas, in a very casual way. A few people dropped out at the last minute, a few came at the last minute.

We had two cars, we went around and raided all the sacristies we knew to get albs [white liturgical robes]. A lot of us were Episcopalian, some with a church called the Crossing. We also had students from HDS, a Catholic, and a Lutheran-agnostic. Right from the get-go we were interdenominational. [Later on, Harrison, a Buddhist chaplain, would join the group.]

We drove down to New York and we found a great priest at St Mary’s Church in Harlem, Earl Koopercamp. He said we could crash on the floor of the rectory. We left about 6 in the evening and got down there about midnight. A lot of us hadn’t met before. We shook hands and said hello. We had a prayer group on Friday night, held hands around a circle, and said let’s just see what hits us. I think it was in that moment that we had a sense of being something, doing something different.

We took the train down from Harlem on the morning of the 17th, wore albs the whole way, had 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 on Wall Street, and so we went there. At the beginning it was us and one guy from Veterans for Peace who was waving a flag. We started singing hymns and taize chants. Tourists were walking by and taking pictures of us.

Then a scruffy looking guy came up with a sign that said, “End corporate greed.” They told us to come down to the bull statue because something was going to happen there. Within an hour, there were well over a couple of hundred folks there, and we all started circling around the bull. More and more people joined in….

We discussed how we were going to prepare for this. We agreed it was all about love. No one was coming from the point of view of trying to proselytize. It was all about going and protesting and being there with other people who felt called to act.

A lot of people [at the protest] 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. That was the very basic call.

Then in a broader sense, as Christians we were called to say, “Blessed are the poor, blessed are the peacemakers.” Where are these priorities in our international dialogue?

So our goal really was to do those two things: Anybody who believes those things, we are allies with, and then second, to be a visible presence for Christians looking from the outside, for them to say, “Oh yeah, those are my guys! Maybe I’m not in tune with this system that we’ve built.” Just to create that very dissonance. One of the slogans that was there the first day was “Wake up!”

Since that first day in September, both the movement and the need for Protest Chaplains exploded. The original group of 10 people who traveled to New York that day returned to Boston and became an integral part of setting up the Occupy Boston site. None of them had planned for this new role in their lives; in the ensuing months, each had to figure out how to balance the demands of their new role with the rest of their life – classes, study, jobs, and, in some cases family. Everyone seemed overwhelmed, and yet at the same time absolutely dedicated to their new ministry.

I asked each person I interviewed about their personal reasons for doing this and what being a Protest Chaplain meant to them. Heather’s answer was representative of what many of them said:

I grew up in the Lutheran Church, but solely identifying as a Christian isn’t something I can do any more, because I’ve seen the negative things that Christianity has done in the world. Sometimes I feel like I’ve got my foot half in and half out of the Christian tradition. Part of being a Protest Chaplain is trying to reclaim Christianity and what I would want it to be in the world. Getting the people out of the churches and into the streets to help impact change, and get people involved with social justice work….

Just going into the protest environment and listening to people when they’re frustrated, giving them a hug when they’re crying, praying with them when they want to pray. It’s fundamentally being with people in their struggles, their suffering, and their joy. Most simply, that’s what being a Protest Chaplain means to me.

B) The Physical Setting: The Sacred Space Tent at Occupy Boston

Occupy Boston started at the end of September 2011, about ten days after Occupy Wall Street got its start in New York City. The organizers decided to follow in the spirit of OWS and chose Dewey Square as the site because it was situated in the center of the city’s financial district. Right in front of the South Street “T” station (Boston’s public transportation system), Dewey Square is surrounded by branches of all major banks as well as the federal reserve bank.

Skyscrapers tower over the Occupy tent city and businessmen and women are constantly walking by the site. A nine-foot statue of Mohandas Gandhi (donated by The Peace Abbey of Sherborn, Massachusetts) sits at the intersection of two of the ‘roads’ that make up the Occupy Boston village. If you turn right at the Gandhi statue and walk about halfway down this narrow lane, you run into the Sacred Space tent. This is the locus for most of the spiritually-based events and meetings at the Occupy Boston site.

The tent and the happenings in it are facilitated by the Faith and Spirituality Working Group as well as by the Protest Chaplains. While the F & S group and the Protest Chaplains are not the same entity, there is some overlap. Several of the members of the PC group, including Robin, were instrumental in setting up the physical space that became the Sacred Space Tent. However, in the spirit of the Occupy movement, there is no hierarchy or ownership assigned to oversee this (or any other) dimension of Occupy Boston. Rather, there is a lateral network of people who commit to being stewards for the Sacred Space, including the Protest Chaplains.

The space itself is a tent big enough to accommodate about 10 people at any given time. At the doorway of the tent is a sign that reads:

Sacred Space Guidelines

Respect others and the space
Remove shoes
Finish food outside
Be mindful when speaking: words carry vibration so please keep it positive!
Minimize conversations (unless otherwise agreed) and limit cellphone use/texting, etc.
Bring items to help co-create this sacred space! (tapestries, pieces of nature, incense, photos, totems, other beautiful/sacred objects)
Do not leave personal items in the space. Anything left is to be considered an offering to the space.

A sign-up sheet at the front of the tent invites anyone to offer a workshop or ritual inside the tent during open time slots. One does not need to be a religious “expert” or “authority” to do so. Like everything else at Occupy, the Sacred Space tent reflects a participatory democratic process.

During the days I visited, there was a Bible study group led by a college student, a Tibetan Buddhist meditation group led by another college student, a journaling workshop offered by a writing teacher, and a talk “finding light in dark times” by a Rastafarian man from Haiti.

At the time that I visited Occupy Boston, the Protest Chaplains had committed to having at least one of them stay overnight at the campsite each night, either in the Sacred Space tent or in another tent. As the weather began to get colder, they were in the process of discussing how that presence might change and evolve through the winter months.

C) What Does a Protest Chaplain Do?

This statement appears on the Protest Chaplains’ website:

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.

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. We’re not out to evangelize anyone – seriously…

…we’re bringing the spiritual practices and our sense of the world as sacred to Wall Street and we hope to be of use to everyone who’s camping out. Because protesters have souls too!

This says something about how the chaplains envision their role. But I wanted to get a better sense of what a typical day in the life of a Protest Chaplain looks like, both from my own observations as well as speaking with the chaplains themselves.

As it turned out, I didn’t get as much of a chance as I had hoped to watch the Protest Chaplains interact with individual campers at the Occupy site. During the four days that I was in Boston, all four of my interviewees weren’t spending as much time at the camp as they had in the previous weeks because of a severe snowstorm and it was also a busy time in their academic schedule.

In our interview, Dave told me this about his experience of the need to offer pastoral care to individual occupiers during the first month of Occupy:

“When they found out that we largely agreed with what they were saying, they just began to pour out their souls and telling their stories. I’m here because I’m really sad about the direction our country is moving in, I can’t pay my bills, we can’t pay for medical care… I never had any idea that people from church would do something like this because in the church I grew up in, nobody talked about this.

We did services and everyone was invited. We did the inter- and no faith blessing at the first meal at Zuccotti Park. Some people came up to us and said this was the first time they’d done anything religious… some said they had never been invited to anything like this before.”

On one of the late afternoons that I visited Occupy Boston, Heather had organized members of a Lutheran congregation to come and offer a liturgy. I joined in as a circle of about 10 people from the congregation gathered at the Occupy site to light a candle, read from the scriptures, and offer prayers.

As it turned out, Protest Chaplains also had a role to play in serving to help people who might normally be turned off by protests to connect with the movement. Robin told me this story:

“[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.”

As a postscript, I received this information in an email from Marisa Egerstrom in January 2012, not long after the Occupy Boston site was finally evicted and dismantled in December 2011:

I’ve been doing a lot of counseling with people’s grief [after the eviction] and also their fears around the NDAA [the National Defense Authorization Act, signed into law on December 31, 2011]. It’s interesting, because I didn’t spend time overnight at Occupy Boston, but have been focusing on strategy & outreach to churches, as well as coordinating with other faith efforts in other cities. What’s come out of that is that I’ve built relationships with people who were never involved with the F&S tent, but when shit went down, they came to me.

I was sort of freaked out. I know how to be a good & compassionate listener, but I have no formal training. Yet they sought me out because these are folks who don’t consider themselves religious, and yet recognized something religious in their grief and fear, and I was the person they trusted. So it’s been an experiment in “revolutionary pastoral care” developed on the fly: as one woman said to me, “I have a therapist, but I can’t talk to him about this stuff.”

From my conversations with Dave, Heather, Robin, and Harrison, I compiled this list of the responsibilities that the Protest Chaplains, at least in their Boston iteration, have taken on since the start of OWS:

  • Provide ministry/pastoral counseling to protestors. Help people make meaning of the situation, “being with” them in struggles and despair.
  • Lead liturgies, services, and ceremonies at the Occupy site.
  • Participate in the Faith and Spirituality working group and help to figure out the infrastructure and logistics to keep this group going, and to maintain a spiritual presence at Occupy Boston.
  • Commit to an overnight presence at the campsite.
  • Act as liaison to churches, congregations, synagogues to educate them on the OWS and to mobilize their involvement and support.
  • Create an atmosphere of equanimity and safety for everyone in OWS; build a bridge for good relationships with groups that interact with the protestors and where this is potential for conflict, such as the police.
  • Take part in GA (general assembly) meetings in order to bring a voice of nonviolence and spiritual grounding into the governance of Occupy sites.
  • Connect with Protest Chaplains in other locations and share ideas and resources. This was primarily Dave’s role and is being done in a very emergent way. There is not an organized network of Protest Chaplains, simply informal connections and linkages through social media, phone calls, and sometimes in-person visitors from other Occupy sites.

Next: Five Lessons from the Protest Chaplains



About Maia

I've been practicing and studying the Buddha way since 1994, and exploring the question "What is engaged Buddhism?" since the late 90s. As former executive director of the Buddhist Peace Fellowship and editor of its journal, Turning Wheel, I had the honor of meeting and working with many practitioners of engaged dharma, including Roshi Joan Halifax, Joanna Macy, Alan Senauke, and Robert Aitken Roshi. I write about socially engaged Buddhism on my blog, "The Jizo Chronicles," as well as on the theme of personal and collective freedom on my website, "The Liberated Life Project." Through my Five Directions Consulting, I offer support to individuals and organizations who aspire to integrate awareness into their work.

2 responses »

  1. Pingback: Protest Chaplains: Five Lessons for Social Change (Part 3) « The Jizo Chronicles

  2. Pingback: The Protest Chaplains (Part 4): Conclusion and What It Means to Be a Revolutionary Chaplain « The Jizo Chronicles

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