The Rev. Faith Ballenger wears her collar at Zuccotti Park in New York City. Amidst the banging of drums, chants for change, and urban noise, she talks with protesters about their politics, their economics, and especially about their spirits.
Ballenger is the interim pastor at Transfiguration Lutheran Church in Harlem. She knew right away she’d be spending time at Occupy Wall Street, which is, she says, a tense place to be—there is a heavy police presence and the occupiers are often very tired.
“Clergy should be down there,” Ballenger says. “When people don’t go to church, you go to where the people are.”
Ballenger encourages religious communities to join the movement and spend time on Wall Street or in the financial districts in cities across the world. “Faith is an action word,” she says. “This is what faith in action looks like.”
Ballenger is one of many clerics around the nation heeding a call to join the Occupy movement—a movement, leaders across all faith traditions are saying, that is asking tough moral questions.
“Anybody with roots in Christianity knows the first person to express outrage about Wall Street economics was Jesus—turning over the tables of the moneychangers,” said the Rev. Kate Lore, the Minister of Social Justice at First Unitarian church in Portland, Ore.
Lore is serving on the finance and morale committees at Occupy Portland. She works with perfect strangers, now brothers and sisters in the movement, during committee meetings and at the General Assembly, where the Occupy community makes most of its decisions. What is increasingly valuable, Lore said, is people of faith spending time at the Occupy encampments: “What the people of Occupy Portland want is for people of faith to get down here too.”
In a movement known for its intentional lack of central leadership and streamlined message, finding hope amidst the loud dissent can be difficult for some.
But many in the movement are deeply influenced by the social teachings of various faith traditions, according to some spending time at the occupation sites, and clergy are beginning to share that message with their congregations.
Interfaith Worker Justice (IWJ), a nonprofit group organizing, educating, and advocating at the intersection of faith and work, developed congregational discussion guides and an interfaith prayer service for clergy to help connect the communities occupying Wall Street and other sites to the teachings of their faith traditions.
“The occupiers are lifting up issues that people of faith are—or ought to be—thinking and doing something about,” says Kim Bobo, executive director of IWJ. “Religious leaders have a responsibility to help them do that.”
One challenge is finding ways to talk about what’s happening in the Occupy movement with religious people who may be uncomfortable with the idea of protesting.
“We are a church, and we want to be connected to our brothers and sisters,” said Jake Olzen, a Catholic Worker who is occupying Chicago. “We’re bringing about the Kingdom of God. It’s helpful to use that language to those who may be a little more socially conservative.”
In Oakland, Calif., the Buddhist Peace Fellowship (BPF) is working on connecting Buddhists across the country to social movements. Leaders from the BPF said the Occupy movement connects all the systems that create suffering and challenges the conditions of inequality, in hopes for a peaceful 100 percent.
The BPF hosts meditations at Occupy Oakland, a site that has received much media attention—first, for a violent police raid in October; and then for the port shut-down during a general strike last week. More than half of those who came to the BPF's first meditation session had never spent time at Occupy Oakland before the event, organizers said.
“Many in our community have very progressive ideals and values, yet there is a gap between holding those convictions and drawing towards action,” said Sarah Weinstraub, executive director of BPF. “We want to open many doors for people to enter into action.”
Others at Occupy Oakland encouraged them to come back, she added.
Many occupiers come informed by their own faith traditions. As more people of faith understand what the Occupy movement is calling attention to, more seek to join it. And faith leaders play a role in delivering the message to congregations.
“Faith leaders of churches need to get down there,” Olzen said of Occupy Chicago, where his community spends time and encourages friends to join the General Assembly. “If they’re not bringing their congregations down to the occupation, they need to bring the occupiers’ message to the people.”
Developing a Faith Presence
At McPherson Square in Washington, D.C., 200 people of Jewish faith met simultaneously with the General Assembly to participate in a Kol Nidre service. Some occupiers came to watch the prayer service, and after, some from the service joined the General Assembly.
Stephen Lerner, a Jewish labor organizer, flew to the capital to take part. “It was incredibly moving,” he said. “[Being at Occupy DC] made everything more real. People were both moved and excited because it brought their religious beliefs to life. … It’s something that is normally done in a synagogue, and added to these wonderful prayers were questions of income inequality.”
Matt Moore worked on a similar service in Philadelphia. Moore is a Christian and a member of the newly developed faith working group. People of faith have already organized prayer services and Yom Kippur and Sukkah services for the Jewish New Year. The working group aims at working with the occupiers at their General Assemblies to address their spirits.
“The food tents and communal dining that takes place around tents and benches reminds me of the Agape meals [“love feasts”] Christians shared after worship,” Moore said. And as the community develops and grows, he cannot help but connect it to church:
“In my observations at the Philly encampment, I have seen people—including myself—making friends, sharing shelter, and helping one another.”