I read with interest, and reposted, the Rev. John Merz’ open letter to his bishop regarding the background for his non-violent protest with OWS against Trinity, Wall Street regarding the refusal of Trinity to accede to the OWS demands for use of a vacant lot Trinity owns.
My friend, and a former priest of this diocese, the Rev. Daniel Simons, posted a comment on John’s letter, saying, in part, that Trinity’s outreach was something quite different in his experience than presented by John.
In light of Daniel’s comments, and in the midst of the continued unfolding around Occupy, I’d like to report my experience with Trinity and Occupy and make some larger observations.
Back in November Sheila and I were in New York and contacted Daniel in order to see first hand what Trinity was doing with Occupy. Daniel took us to the basement level of the Trinity office building, where a bright, inviting space had been opened up to the street level, an open meeting place with tables, and wifi, out of the elements. The space is named Charlotte’s Place in honor and memory of a generous benefactor who was known for her hospitality.
Charlotte’s Place opened last winter, months before the manifestation of Occupy. Jennifer Chinn heads up Charlotte’s Place. Sheila and I talked with Jennifer, and were impressed by how she fosters a sense of community among the many who drift (or come with great intentionality) into Charlotte’s Place all day long. “If a person is here for more than two hours,” she said, “I speak with them and say they are welcome to stay as long as you’d like, but please understand that from this moment on you are a co-host of this space with me.” I thought this was brilliant. It alerted passive users to the momentary, fleeting but real possibilities of community forming if we open ourselves to it, and are attentive.
After speaking with Jennifer I went over to two Occupy protestors. They were young, I would say in their early 20s, and had been part of Occupy from the first week of the occupation. Interestingly, both had come from Austin, Texas, but hadn’t known each other before Occupy. They were in Charlotte’s Place to work on an economic model for Occupy that they intended to present in the General Assembly that week.
We talked for about two hours that afternoon. I was very moved by their sincerity, their motivation, their self-understanding. I asked them why they had gotten involved. Sergio spoke first and said that after Mohamed Bouazizi’s self-immolation in Tunisia last winter he determined that he would find a way to help prevent other young people from despairing. Gabe responded by saying that he had been looking for a way to be part of societal change that was not ephemeral, like a protest, a march, a demonstration is.
I asked them if there was a spiritual or religious grounding in their involvement with Occupy. Sergio said, “I was raised Roman Catholic and became pretty disillusioned with religion through that. I would have called myself an atheist until recently, but now I can say this – I think the whole world is a living being, and that it is sacred.” Gabe heard this, and said, “ I am an atheist, and I can also say that I think everything in this world is interconnected.”
The above is only a small portion of our conversation. I give them to you because they show how earnest and thoughtful these representatives of OWS were, and to point beyond that to Trinity’s providing the container for all that reflection, work, and conversation.
Let me end with a couple of observations about Occupy. As I’ve written before, I believed, as we all watched the Arab Spring happen, that the movement there would become global. The two places in particular that I thought about the Arab Spring being enacted were Israel and the United States. Focusing on only our own country for now, the income inequality is so severe here that addressing it is bound to be galvanic in terms of the response from both those who suffer on one end of the scale and those who benefit on the other. Regarding Occupy as a global phenomenon seems to be important to me; that is, we should keep thinking about this, and consciously communicating in world-wide terms. We should remember the careful two-year planning that drew on global sources for peaceful, non-violent action in Tunisia.
From a localized point of view, with the current conflict between Trinity and OWS in mind, I’d like to further observe the following: I have seen several suggestions that Occupy needs to move on, find new tactics than the physical occupation of Wall Street and the financial district here in San Francisco, to name two prominent examples. Yes, movements must evolve in order to truly live. On the other hand, I can understand the continued focus on being present in places that have made concerted efforts in the past to keep the poor out (for instance, look at the historic development of urban public transportation pathways, and particularly where such transportation routes did not go). The basic bringing together of people who have been separated allows for mutual transformation.
Further, I’m grateful for Trinity’s hospitality to OWS, and am taking it as a model for how we in the Diocese of California can think about our own responses to Occupy here in the Bay Area. My intention is that Trinity’s Charlotte’s Place serve as a metaphor for us, not as a direct transfer – how could Trinity’s example of hospitality be enacted in our own context? What can we learn from the impasse between these two institutions, both of which exist for good?
Finally, I’m taking my time with my own responses to Occupy, not because I’m nervous about it – The Arab Spring and this global movement are in fact deeply hopeful. Not because those occupying are not all people who have lost jobs and homes in the current economic crisis, and are in fact in part our “normal” homeless people, street people. It is a good thing that all our invisible brothers and sisters are made visible by this movement, and far from invalidating the movement, the presence of the homeless alongside all others who are protesting is a positive sign. And not because there is not a specific ask; I take some occupiers’ point that a too-specific ask puts a built-in end point to the movement – when this bill is passed we will quietly melt away, for instance. Rather, this movement is about societal transformation, as I understand it. Thus, I’m acting in a way that believes that transformation is possible; I don’t have to hurry and make my point or act right away or I will have missed all the action. My deliberation is an act of faith that Martin Luther King, Jr. was right when he said that the arc of history bends towards justice. Or, put another way, the mills of the Lord grind slow but exceeding fine.