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How Occupy Wall Street got religion

Occupy Wall Street

A year ago around this time, Occupy Wall Street was celebrating Advent — the season when Christians anticipate the birth of Jesus at Christmas. In front of Trinity Church, right at the top of Wall Street along Broadway, Occupiers set up a little model tent with the statuettes of a nativity scene inside: Mary, Joseph and the Christ child in a manger, surrounded by animals. In the back, an angel held a tiny cardboard sign with a verse from Luke’s Gospel: “There was no room for them in the inn.” The reason for these activists’ interest in the liturgical calendar, of course, was the movement’s ongoing effort to convince Trinity to start acting less like a real estate corporation and more like a church, and to let the movement use a vacant property that Trinity owns.

How Occupy Wall Street got religion

by Nathan Schneider
Waging Nonviolence
December 20, 2012

A year ago around this time, Occupy Wall Street was celebrating Advent — the season when Christians anticipate the birth of Jesus at Christmas. In front of Trinity Church, right at the top of Wall Street along Broadway, Occupiers set up a little model tent with the statuettes of a nativity scene inside: Mary, Joseph and the Christ child in a manger, surrounded by animals. In the back, an angel held a tiny cardboard sign with a verse from Luke’s Gospel: “There was no room for them in the inn.” The reason for these activists’ interest in the liturgical calendar, of course, was the movement’s ongoing effort to convince Trinity to start acting less like a real estate corporation and more like a church, and to let the movement use a vacant property that Trinity owns.

A year later, even as a resilient few continue their 24-hour vigil on the sidewalk outside Trinity, churches and Occupiers are having a very different kind of Advent season together. Finding room in churches is no longer a problem for the movement.

The day after Hurricane Sandy struck New York in late October, Occupiers hustled to organize a massive popular relief effort, and Occupy Sandy came into being. By circumstance and necessity, it has mostly taken place in churches; they are the large public spaces available in affected areas, and they were the people willing to open their doors. Two churches on high ground in Brooklyn became organizing hubs, and others in the Rockaways, Coney Island, Staten Island and Red Hook became depots for getting supplies and support to devastated neighborhoods. To make this possible, Occupiers have had to win the locals’ trust — by helping clean up the damaged churches and by showing their determination to help those whom the state-sponsored relief effort was leaving behind. When the time for worship services came around, they’d cleared the supplies off the pews.

“Occupy Sandy has been miraculous for us, really,” said Bob Dennis, parish manager at St. Margaret Mary, a Catholic church in Staten Island. “They are doing exactly what Christ preached.” Before this, the police and firemen living in his neighborhood hadn’t had much good to say about Occupy Wall Street, but that has changed completely.

Religious leaders are organizing tours to show off the Occupy Sandy relief efforts of which they’ve been a part, and they’re speaking out against the failures of city, state and federal government. Congregations are getting to know Occupiers one on one by working together in a relief effort that every day — as the profiteering developers draw nearer — is growing into an act of resistance.

And that’s only one part of it. Months before Sandy, organizers with the Occupy Wall Street group Strike Debt made a concerted effort to reach out to religious allies for help on a new project they were calling the Rolling Jubilee; by buying up defaulted loans for pennies on the dollar, and then abolishing them, organizers hoped to spread the spirit of jubilee — an ancient biblical practice of debt forgiveness.

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