Watching Democracy Happen

By Jim Wallis 10-26-2011

Last week, I was a guest of the Duncan Littlefair Great Speakers Lecture Series. The event was hosted by Fountain Street Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan, celebrating the 100 year history of the congregation's ministry of bringing amazing speakers and musicians to Michigan's second largest city. The title of my talk came in the form of a simple question, "What Would Jesus Cut?" Here, I spoke to the growing economic disparity in our country and why the federal budget matters in that discussion. But since agreeing to the talk and topic many months ago, the "Occupy Movement" has come onto the national scene, and risen up in many places around the country and world - including Occupy Grand Rapids. So I had amended my subject to include, "And what might Jesus think of Occupation Wall Street?"

When some of these local young people heard about my event, and asked the church if they attend, the church graciously gave them free tickets. Apparently, the word spread and a big crowd of protesters descended on the already large audience. It soon became clear that Occupy Grand Rapids was in the house as they enthusiastically participated in the discussion, offering very civil, but also very challenging questions.

Among the pre-planned panel of community respondents to my talk was the Mayor of Grand Rapids, George Heartwell -- an ordained minister and a long-time advocate for social justice (Heartwell even committed civil disobedience in opposition to the apartheid regime in South Africa). During my talk I read from a letter I had written two weeks earlier, "An Open Letter to the Occupiers."

After the program ended, the young Occupy Grand Rapids activists asked if I would spend some time with them, to which I quickly agreed. But they also asked the Mayor to stay, and bravely, he also accepted - a decision I thought was in keeping with what a responsive democracy should look like.

jim occupy
Jim Wallis and George Heartwell, the mayor of Grand Rapids, meet with a group of 50 occupiers after a speaking event at Fountain Street Church in Michigan. Photos courtesy of Ruth Stein.

The scene in the church mezzanine on the second floor was wonderful to behold. Fifty young leaders of Occupy Grand Rapids (I know they don't like to name leaders, but these people truly were), seated in a circle with me and the Mayor of their city. It was the first time, at least that I am aware of, that the occupiers of a city were given a chance to meet and talk directly with their Mayor.

Their frustration was clear. We have an economy that isn't working well for the majority of Americans, while wealth piles on a small few. Approximately 538,649 children, or nearly 1 in 4 sons and daughters in Michigan live in poverty. Over the past 20 years that rate has climbed from 18 percent to over 23 percent. These realities, whether or not people know the exact numbers, are hitting a greater number of people; the occupation is a heart cry in response to a fundamental, dangerous inequality.

Like the forum, the small discussion was challenging, but remained very civil. The protesters voiced their concerns about the direction their nation and world had taken, but also whether they would be allowed to sleep in the public park in the coming weeks. Mayor Heartwell listened very well, put good questions back to them, said honestly what he could and couldn't change, and then invited a delegation of the young occupiers to come and speak to the City Commission the following Tuesday night.
jim and occupiers 2
For over an hour, the young citizens of Grand Rapids engaged their elected city leader on their deepest questions about their society. The mayor made himself vulnerable -- as politicians almost never do -- to those questions, and in so doing, demonstrated what a public servant is supposed to be. It was a delight to behold, facilitate, and enjoy an unexpected consequence of a typical speaking event, that, all of a sudden, became much more than that.

In my Sojomail and Huffington Post column last week, I gave two pointers about how Christians and Churches should engage the Occupy Movement:

1. Don't expect the Occupy Wall Street movement and sites across the nation and world to produce a set of demands. They are instead raising some fundamental questions about the un-economy, and creating the space for a new cultural and political conversation about it. It's our job now to push that conversation forward- an especially good role for the faith community as our biblical values and theological assertions are integrally involved in these matters. It's time to put our faith values forward in the midst of what could become a new global conversation about what a fair, sustainable, stable, and happy economy might look like.

2. Don't worry about endorsing the Occupy Wall Street movement (all the diverse elements involved wouldn't even endorse each other!), but rather engage it. I asked a young African-American man I met at Occupy Wall Street what churches could do to help. He suggested three things: inspiration, consultation, and presence. I think that's a very good guide. Worship services are already being held at many of the sites, led by local clergy of many faiths. Take a potluck meal down to the site as a chance to sit, eat, and talk with the people there. Take your youth group or members of your congregation down there after church just to see, meet, and listen. Offer the occupiers support-material and spiritual-along with prayer and love.

Let's all try that and see how it works. What I saw was certainly hopeful in Grand Rapids last week.

portrait-jim-wallis1Jim Wallis is the author of Rediscovering Values: On Wall Street, Main Street, and Your Street - A Moral Compass for the New Economy, and CEO of Sojourners. He blogs at Follow Jim on Twitter @JimWallis.

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