NEW YORK -- Faith leaders from across the country met at the Judson Memorial Church in downtown New York City on Tuesday to discuss their role in the future of the Occupy Wall Street movement. The meeting came just days after the three-month anniversary of Occupy Wall Street in New York; demonstrators trespassed on a vacant lot owned by the Trinity Church to hold a rally and protest, ending in dozens of arrests.
Father Paul Mayer, who worked with Martin Luther King Jr. during the civil rights era, was one of those arrested on Saturday. "These young people are raising the issue of social justice and economic justice and equity and a fair distribution of the riches of this Earth between all peoples in a way that our churches should be raising it," he said at the meeting.
Participants of Occupy Faith NYC, a faith-based protest group, handed out pamphlets at the meeting to explain the "Occupy Christmas" event scheduled for Christmas Eve in Zuccotti Park. Protesters plan to stage a 24-hour vigil with music and food beginning at midnight. The pamphlets entitled, "Why Occupy Christmas?," explained that a bible passage commonly read in church during the Christmas season inspired the idea for the event.
"It says in your narrative for Christmas day, that the people who walk in darkness have seen a great light. And this whole movement has come together because of that darkness," explained Matt Carson, 26, an Occupier and seminary student who is helping to organize the event.
At the Church of St. Paul & St. Andrew on Manhattan's Upper West Side, Occupiers have been welcomed with open arms since the Nov. 15 raid of Zuccotti Park. Associate pastor Shiboan Sargent recently recalled those first hectic days. "They felt really violated, all their stuff got taken and as a result when they came here they needed to have a moment of peace and healing," she said.
The church has been doing just that, providing the protesters with a place to sleep in its sanctuary and the usage of its kitchen on most nights. For the last month, it has hosted 60-90 protesters on average each night. The protesters are required to sign in for the night with a volunteer receptionist who sits at the main entrance. A list of rules on a paper handout explains that drugs and alcohol are strictly forbidden and that the church will not allow protesters to arrive past midnight. They can arrive as early as 8:30 p.m. and are asked to leave by 8:30 a.m.
"The whole goal is that we're helping them to change the world and they're not here to just hang out here and sleep all day," Sargent said.
On a recent night, some protesters borrowed cushions from the church pews to use as makeshift mattresses, while others put sleeping bags on the floor of the sanctuary. Eric Smith, who The Huffington Post profiled in November in its "Faces of Zuccotti Park" video series, was getting ready to go to bed for the night on the sanctuary floor.
"I've never been in a house or an apartment that had such beautiful high ceilings," he said, looking skyward toward the church's antique dome interior.
Teddy Mapes, 46, was working in construction as a pipefitter before he was lured into the movement by what he described as Zuccotti Park's "Woodstock vibe." He had just finished preparing a dinner of franks, beans, and white bread for his fellow Occupiers. Mapes said he felt like the church gave the protesters a "big bear hug" after their eviction from Zuccotti. "If it wasn't for St. Paul and St. Andrew, there would have been a lot of people that were lost," he said.
Back at the meeting of national faith leaders, Reverend James Lawson, who also worked closely with Martin Luther King Jr. during the civil rights movement, was giving Occupy Wall Street his stamp of approval. "You first start out be saying no, resisting the oppression and the pain and suffering that's going on and staying together, and then you begin to move further down the line," he said.
The vacant lot next to Duarte Square was eerily silent after Saturday's protest. Decorations left over from the rally hung from a tree and a police car was stationed next to the chain link fence -- which had been quickly repaired after protesters scaled it or crawled under it to get to lot. Graffiti scribbled on a wooden park bench sent a message about the future intentions of the Occupiers. "It's far from over," it read.