Faith groups aided Occupy as winter, police moved in

November 29, 2011

As Occupy camps nationwide dealt with police crackdowns and the
inevitable onset of winter temperatures, religious communities of all
stripes stepped in with offers of shelter and solidarity.

Soon
after police forcibly evicted the original Occupy Wall Street camp in
New York's Zuccotti Park on November 15, many of the protesters began
sleeping and gathering in church buildings, including Judson Memorial
Church in Greenwich Village.

"The eviction . . . really shifts
what happens here, and it really boomed the movement, because
immediately there was this network in place that we'd developed of
communities throughout New York that were willing to open up their doors
and house the movement," said Michael Ellick, a pastor at Judson
Memorial.

Ellick and his colleagues got involved early on,
marching to Zuccotti Park with a golden calf fashioned to look like the
iconic Wall Street bull statue. After that, phones were "ringing off the
hook" with churches, synagogues, mosques, temples and monasteries
wanting to get involved in some way, he said.

Various religious
groups have held ser­vices at Zuccotti Park, which in turn have
"reradicalized" their congregations, Ellick said. "Initially it was just
sort of a few churches who work a lot together on these issues," he
said. "Now it's actually a pretty hefty power base in New York City."

A
recent poll by the Public Religion Research Institute and Religion News
Service found that fewer than a third of Americans say the Occupy
movement represents their concern over the widening disparity between
rich and poor, but the police evictions seem to have boosted religious
support for the movement.

According to Ellick, more than 1,400
faith leaders from around the country signed a pledge of solidarity with
Occupy protesters, many of them jumping in only after police cleared
Zuccotti Park.

In the nation's capital, about a dozen Christian
activists started an ecumenical Occupy Church at Washington's Occupy K
Street encampment. The Occupy Church held a prayer service every
Satur­day at noon and tried to establish a full-time, rotating
chaplaincy for the protesters. An interfaith coalition calling itself
"Occupy Faith DC" hosted a free Thanks­giving meal at a historic
Wash­ington church for about 300 of the protesters.

On the West
Coast, a network of religious communities sprang up in Port­land,
Oregon, to support Occupy Port­land after police cleared the camp on
November 13. Since the eviction, the city's First Congre­gational Church
and First Uni­tar­ian Church have hosted meetings of the movement.
While many of the campers search for places to stay, First Unitarian has
been housing their gear and the media tent, making the church Occupy
Portland's unofficial hub.

About 25 clergy and religious leaders
spent the night before the eviction at the camp, praying and providing
nonviolence counseling. They included Chuck Currie, a United Church of
Christ minister, who said a number of young people thanked or prayed
with the religious emissaries. That was "astounding," especially because
only one in four Oregonians identify with a faith tradition, Currie
said. "A number of people expressed surprise that we were there. They
did not realize that the church had an interest in these issues."

In
the somewhat milder clime of Los Angeles, a shifting number of
protesters had camped out on the downtown Civic Center lawns since
October 1. City council leaders had welcomed the protesters, though
health and safety concerns led to a previously announced police sweep to
disperse the area in the early hours of November 30.

A protest
was registered by members of the Occupy L.A. Interfaith Leaders Support
Network, which said that there had been "an unacceptable level of
violence" as police arrested 292 protesters. Clergy leaders, including
two Episcopal priests, objected to rough treatment after two months of
peaceful occupation.

Legal observers and clergy were invited by
the police to witness the sweep and to help defuse tensions. Rabbi
Jonathan Klein, who was involved in Occupy L.A. from its start, cheered
fellow protesters who cooperated with the police.

 After a meeting
November 29 of  Interfaith Leaders Support Network with Police Chief
Charlie Beck and Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, a statement
issued by the group reflected on common goals of faith leaders,
protesters and civic officials. Villaraigosa, the current president of
the National Conference of Mayors, expressed his appreciation for the
protesters and "echoed clergy leaders in highlighting the power of
nonviolent civil disobedience for the sake of righteous causes."

A New York Times
article noting the closing of major Occupy gatherings quoted David S.
Meyer, a professor at the University of California, Irvine, on what
might be the movement's legacy:  "Occupy takes its name from the
occupation. If Occupy continues without occupations, what provides
continuity with those people in Zuccotti Park? The slogan 'We are the 99
percent.'" —RNS, other sources