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Protest Chaplains: Five Lessons for Social Change (Part 3)

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This is the third 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 the second post, I shared the findings from interviews with some of the chaplains.

In this excerpt, I explore five lessons that I distilled from studying the Protest Chaplains.

1. The Importance of Creating a Positive Field of Action at the Outset

Creating the field for whatever follows next is critically important, whether as a chaplain who is initiating a pastoral relationship with an individual, or as a movement that is starting to address societal suffering. The seeds that are planted at the beginning of an endeavor are the ones that will grow throughout its life-cycle.

My observation is that Occupy Wall Street and the ensuing Occupy Movement has had a very different tone from other mass protests over the past decade. There certainly are people expressing anger about corporate greed, but as a whole the movement feels less about anger and more about community and creativity. In fact, one sign from Zuccotti Park proclaimed,

This is not a protest, it’s a conversation!

While there have been the usual markers of a protest – large groups of people, chants and slogans, signs – Occupy has been different. From the beginning, there was a sense of possibility rather than simply unrest, and a sense of vitality and optimism. In an October 27, 2011, article for Harvard Divinity School News, Dave Woessner wrote:

Occupation takes a lot of work and a lot of collaboration; 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 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. (Woessner, 2011)

I found it fascinating that the Protest Chaplains were at OWS from the start (September 17th) with their commitment to “ground the day in love” (in Dave’s words) and to help create a container of inclusivity and safety for everyone present, including the police. I believe that their presence at the beginning of this movement (in both New York and Boston) has been one of the factors that has helped to give Occupy a more spiritual core.

Heather shared this with me:

One of the defining moments for me was one of the first nights of Occupy Boston. We decided with some of the other protestors that there would be a faith and spirituality group and that we would have a space that would be our own. The first night of the protest we didn’t have a tent, but we had brought blankets and yoga mats and sleeping bags to put on the ground, and we had battery-operated candles and a few religious trinkets…

Within our group, we had this protest prayer and song book we had put together and we sat down and started doing liturgies from the book. People came and sat with us. That was recognition and validation of the idea that something like the Sacred Space tent was really needed among protestors. That night defined for me the kind of purpose that we were going to have in the movement, long-term.

2. Protest Chaplaincy: A paradigm of participation rather than expertise

The entire Occupy movement is based on a value system of democracy and participation. The movement proudly proclaims that it has no leaders, but rather each person is encouraged to develop their own leadership qualities and contribute to the effort. This has carried over into the way the Protest Chaplains have manifested.

While most members of the original group of PCs were graduate students at Harvard Divinity School, few of them were actually training to be professional chaplains. Of the four people I interviewed, only Harrison was formally trained in chaplaincy and pastoral care. I did not interview Protest Chaplains in other cities for this project, but from material I’ve read I surmise that few of them have professional training as chaplains. And yet they felt called to offer spiritual support to this movement in the form of chaplaincy.

Harrison had completed 2 units of CPE (Clinical Pastoral Education) and had experience working as a chaplain in a hospital setting. He told me how he found this training helped him to be a Protest Chaplain:

In my own case, doing some overnight shifts as a hospital chaplain, waking up at 3 in the morning going to an emergency room, dealing in my own body with my heart rate going faster, seeing a body in any state of injury or surgery, seeing what family members might be in the room… [prepared me for] the speed at which chaplains, at least in some cases, need to process their own internal responses and still be available to respond to others’ responses and reactions across the whole spectrum.

A few nights ago [at the Occupy Boston site] I heard someone call for “Medic.” I felt that training helped me to quickly get out of my sleeping bag—hearing the word “Medic” and realizing there could be something wrong—and then providing background support to someone who had a head injury, and then helping to prevent further escalation in a violent conflict that had happened earlier.

Harrison observed,

There are ways of being a chaplain that are somewhat universal. There are people who can be great at doing chaplaincy work who don’t have training and there are people who do have training who aren’t necessarily good at doing the work. I don’t know if it makes so much sense to say you need to have done formal training to be a Protest Chaplain, and yet…there should be some things you should be good at.

Some of the qualities that Harrison noted as important for Protest Chaplains (as well as all chaplains) included focusing on listening more than speaking and not proselytizing. He said he agreed with all of the guidelines that the Protest Chaplains had developed and published on their website.

The Protest Chaplains have made efforts to document and share their learnings so that there is some sense of shared values across these ad hoc chaplain individuals and groups. They have done a lot of this through their website as well as social media (they maintain a Facebook page and Twitter account), and Dave is in contact with Protest Chaplains from other cities to share experiences and guidance.

3. Dealing With Moral Dilemmas and Burnout

Just like chaplains in other settings, the Protest Chaplains have had to face moral dilemmas as well as the specter of burnout.

During the time that I followed and documented the Protest Chaplains (mid-October to mid-November), the Occupy Boston site (as well as many other Occupy sites in colder climates) was dealing with colder weather that significantly changed the population at the campsite. Many who had come out in the early days of the occupation and stayed overnight had returned to their homes. The site was becoming a home to a more transient population, and that shift brought numerous challenges.

For the Protest Chaplains, one of the biggest challenges was how to find the balance between being inclusive with maintaining the integrity and purpose of the Sacred Space tent. Heather spoke of how she looked at this situation from a spiritual perspective:

“We have made a point of being radically welcoming to any individual who comes into the camp. The whole camp has said that if we’re going to be a movement that claims to be representative of the 99%, we need to let the 99% be here and be a part of the movement. If they want to be here and they’re being semi-respectful, they’re welcome. But with that has come a lot of things that we didn’t really expect.

Over the last week and a half, there have been a lot of drugs and alcohol brought into the camp. This is something that the camp as a whole doesn’t know how to deal with… We have people coming in who are seeking shelter in the Sacred Space tent, seeing that as a place of refuge. But then some people are disrespecting the sacredness of that space. People wake up in the middle of the night and don’t want to go outside to go to the bathroom, so they do it inside the tent. And when there are lots of people sleeping in the tent at 6 or 7 at night, then we can’t have the workshops that are supposed to be going on.

In a Christian context, it’s hard… you hear a lot of people ask, “What would Jesus do?” in this situation. You want to be welcoming of diversity and try to be compassionate to all people, but it’s hard when the people you’re reaching out to are disrespectful of what you’re trying to accomplish. That’s been the hardest thing for me to reconcile, and I still don’t have the answers.”

Robin told me how his perspective on the movement as a whole and its relationship with the police changed after a particularly brutal night when the Boston police force raided the second encampment and forcibly removed people. He shared what he learned about developing resilience as a chaplain:

“We’ve realized that, as individuals and as Protest Chaplains, we need to always hold our affiliation with the movement with a certain degree of lightness. That we don’t equate the movement so much with our own ideology that once there is a dissonance between the two that we all of the sudden feel despair…. One of these days, let’s face it, we’re going to get evicted… the movement will, if not end, will at the very least take on a different shape. If we’re not prepared to be flexible in our relationship with it, then it will be heartbreaking.”


4. How the Occupy Movement and the Protest Chaplains Embody “Being With Not Knowing”

As I listened to the stories of the Protest Chaplains, I was struck by how the approach and attitude that they were taking echoed the first tenet of the Zen Peacemaker Order: “Being With Not Knowing.” The Protest Chaplains are a kind of microcosm of the whole Occupy movement, and this willingness and even excitement to let a process emerge rather than control it can be seen there as well.

This shows up in all kinds of ways. In the Occupy movement, there are no leaders and no explicit demands, and participatory democracy is the basis for process and consensus is the decision-making method.

Within the Protest Chaplains, I heard the first tenet embodied in Dave’s story about telling his clergy colleagues in NY and Boston to simply go and visit the Occupation sites and see what they felt called to do. There was no imperative, no plan, no imposition of a schedule or hierarchy, but an organic process of seeing who felt called to be part of this movement and what were the needs of the people on the ground. As Dave noted, some of the clergy people felt immediately inspired and wanted to contribute in some way to the movement, while others were turned off and left right away. Both responses were fine.

When I explained the concept of “Being With Not Knowing” to Dave, he nodded his head in agreement. “Right,” he said, “the approach really is, ‘Let’s show up here and see what we are responding to… and see what is called for as the next step.’”

Dave went on to tell me, “Keeping that alive and real as the connection is tricky when you think about how this grows, what’s the next step. This is where we are at now.”

5. Protest Chaplains, Occupy, and Systems Change

In her seminal article on systems change, “Leverage Points: Places to Intervene in a System,” Donella Meadows (1999) offers a list of 12 points to focus on in order to transform a system. Her list may be roughly divided into three sections: the first four can be categorized as the physical components of a system, the next four pertain to information flow and control, and the final four have to do with our ideas and mental formations about systems. Meadows explains that the more that we can work in this last realm of ideas and paradigms, the more powerful an influence we can exert on a system.

In both the Occupy movement and among the Protest Chaplains, I witnessed people leveraging that third group of points related to ideas and paradigms.

The Occupy movement has been criticized by some for having no explicit demands. But as a number of people have pointed out, creating demands means giving legitimacy and tacit approval to the state and the current system. Instead, many in the movement resonate with this perspective from Charles Eisenstein (2011):

Occupy Wall Street has been criticized for its lack of clear demands, but how do we issue demands when what we really want is nothing less than the more beautiful world our hearts tell us is possible? No demand is big enough.

Protest Chaplain Dave Woessner spoke with me about how some people resist the Occupy movement because they feel, to use his paraphrase, “We have the best economic system possible now, given that people will always be greedy and self-interested.” Dave responds to them by asking, “Well, what would it take for you to think otherwise? If you keep telling yourself that, you’ll keep seeing that.”

Dave’s words reminded me of something that Acharya Fleet Maull spoke about in a teaching on how to transform the “Drama Triangle” (originally mapped out by Karpman, 1968) into an “Empowerment Triangle” (2010).  Fleet noted that the role of “Persecutor” on the Drama Triangle can become the “Challenger” on the Empowerment Triangle. As chaplains, he suggested, we can practice being skillful challengers. We can explore how to not comply with unwise decisions that are driven by systemic fear.

In the case of the Occupy movement and similar social change movements, chaplains can play a role in challenging the stories that have been handed down to us and inviting people to create new stories and possibilities, both individually and collectively. As Dave put it so eloquently to me, “People live into the stories that they’re given.”

The Protest Chaplains have helped to cast the whole Occupy Movement in a more spiritual light and have contributed to a paradigm shift in how many of us now think about the economic crisis. Again, a reflection from Dave:

“From the very beginning… We thought that 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. To say that we tout these [justice and love] as priorities, but do we live that?”


Next time (final post in this series): Closing reflections on 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.

4 responses »

  1. Pingback: Protest Chaplains: Five Lessons for Social Change (Part 3) « The … | Occupy Wall Street Info

  2. secundra beasley

    Thank you for posting your thesis. I have enjoyed reading about the chaplains.

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

  4. Pingback: acknowledging anger’s function (since a whole spirit is inclusive) « JRFibonacci's blog: partnering with reality

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