The Common Good

A Church Sanctuary for the Occupy Movement

Sojomail - November 17, 2011


"We want social returns, as well as financial ones. When you look at the major financial institutions, you have to realize there is greed involved." - Sister Nora Nash of the Sisters of St. Francis of Philadelphia and the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility, on efforts to persuade banks and corporations to protect consumers, rein in executive pay, and remember the poor. (Source: New York Times)

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Hearts & Minds by Jim Wallis

A Church Sanctuary for the Occupy Movement

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It’s time to invite the Occupy Movement to church!

And Thanksgiving is the perfect occasion. Have some of the young protesters — the “99ers” as they’re becoming known — from this rapidly growing movement over for a big holiday dinner!

Our faith communities and organizations should swing their doors wide and greet the Occupiers with open arms, offering them a feast to say “thank you” for having the courage to raise the very religious and biblical issue of growing inequality in our society.

Concentrations of wealth and power, unfairness in our political process, the loss of opportunity — especially for the next generation — and the alarming rise of poverty in the world’s richest nation are all fundamental concerns for people of faith. So let’s invite the young occupiers into our churches and ministries for good conversation and a great meal.

If our mayors and police departments are making the Occupiers feel unwelcome, why don’t we welcome them to stay on our church property if they need someplace to go?

Open our church basements and parish halls as safe places to sleep — shelter and sanctuary as cold weather descends upon many of our cities.

It’s time both to embrace and engage this hopeful movement of young people who are articulating the underlying but often unexpressed feelings of a nation which, by a three-quarters majority, believes, with the protesters, that the economic structure of the country has become unfair and skewed to benefit the most wealthy.

These are gospel issues, and are therefore the business of the churches.

So let’s invite them to our Thanksgiving dinners all across the country, and have “table fellowship,” because that’s what church people do!

Bring them in out of the cold, and offer them the appreciation and warm hospitality of a thankful faith community. I’d imagine they must be tired of pizza by now and a turkey — or vegetarian — dinner with all the fixings is likely to attract a crowd (with vegan versions available, of course).

New York City’s Mayor Michael Bloomberg said he “takes full responsibility” for unleashing hundreds of his police in a highly militarized early Monday morning raid that evicted the young people encamped in Zuccotti Park. So let’s give him that responsibility.

Bloomberg is the poster child for the “1 percent.” He is the archetypal wealthy man who bought political power, and the uprising in his city to challenge what he himself stands for has made the mayor uncomfortable about the protests since the beginning.

That the protests in New York became the flagship of a global movement must be personally embarrassing for Bloomberg, and his clear signal that this movement for economic equity is not welcome in his city likely now will be mimicked by mayors and police chiefs around the country.

The Occupiers in New York already have returned to Zuccotti Park, but tensions and perpetual conflicts between their movement and city administrators and police will likely become the status quo dynamic in New York and across the nation.

The Occupy movement needs a sanctuary. And what better safe and welcome place could these young people find than with communities of faith?

As we provide that safe sanctuary for a new generation of protesters who dream of a better world, let us also engage them in the spirituality of the change they seek.

My experience with the young protesters in several cities suggests that they are open to that kind of conversation. Many have been studying other social movements where faith, spirituality, and moral sensibilities played a central role.

Jesus is a popular guy among the thousands of Occupy sites around the world, and faith is a lively topic — even if religion is suspect as an institution of an unjust society.

So as the young protesters are made to feel unwelcome by the municipal authorities in cities around the country, let us make them feel very genuinely welcomed in our faith communities.

This could be a great opportunity for hospitality, for ministry, for solidarity, for faith conversation and, yes, for prophetic witness as churches and people of faith speak up for the economic justice that is at the heart of biblical faith and is an integral part of the gospel.

It’s also a way to connect the generations in the context of a community for people of all ages. Because all social movements inevitably generate tension and even outright conflict, they need safe space, places to rest and rejuvenate. They need sanctuary.

Offering that sanctuary to the Occupiers — at our tables, on our property, in our parish halls and church basements, and in our sanctuaries for the quiet prayer and reflection that every movement needs to sustain itself — could be the beginning of a powerful relationship between the faith community and the leaders of an emerging generation that is so clearly and passionately committed to creating a better world.

Jim Wallis is the author of Rediscovering Values: A Guide for Economic and Moral Recovery, and CEO of Sojourners. He blogs at Follow Jim on Twitter @JimWallis.

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