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Jeremiah Sierra

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What Is the Clergy's Role in Occupy Wall Street?

Posted: 10/13/11 07:20 PM ET

I'm not much of a shouter or a marcher, but I wanted to demonstrate my discontent, so last week I made my way to Foley Square to join the Occupy Wall Street march to the Financial District. Also, I'm currently unemployed, so I had time.

I stood in the square and observed teachers, union members and a man holding a unicycle above his head as he tried to maneuver within the crowd of thousands. There were CUNY professors, someone handing out apples, plenty of college students and a woman holding a sign that read "Minor Literary Celebrities for Economic Equality." I tried to speak to her, but she was preoccupied with figuring out why the march didn't seem to be moving.

The march was moving, but slowly. During the two hours or so it took me to get from Foley Square to Liberty Square (a little over half a mile), I learned via Facebook that my friend Martin Malzahn, a Lutheran pastor, was somewhere in the crowd, wearing his clergy shirt and collar. I saw a group of ministers from Greenpoint Reformed Church in their collars as well. My father is an Episcopal priest, and I wondered whether there were any Episcopalians in the march.

I attend a small church that meets in Brooklyn called St. Lydia's. One of our members is homeless, in need of social services and a job. Others are unemployed, some are just barely getting by. Certainly part of the 99 percent. What role should my church -- any church -- and the clergy have in this burgeoning movement?

I spoke the next day to Martin about this. "I was personally curious so that's what drew me, and I wore a clerical collar," he told me. "I was there as a public person of faith, so other people would know that people of faith are there in solidarity."

"I have family members who work on Wall Street," Martin added. I'm sure many clergy in Manhattan have millionaires in their congregations, and friends and family who work in the financial industry. Martin was still working out his role in addressing the issue of economic inequality. "The church can speak to people who work on Wall Street and those in positions of power as well as people who have been marginalized."

Later I spoke with the Rev. Dr. Donna Schaper, the minister of Judson Memorial Church. On Friday, 50 clergy (including a large number of Episcopal priests, rabbis and protestant ministers) met to discuss how clergy could support the Occupy Wall Street movement. "Our best role is a supportive one," she told me, adding that the clergy can also offer moral and ideological leadership. Judson is already taking a leadership role in the Occupy Wall Street movement, organizing a multifaith service this past Sunday, which included parading a golden calf through the park. "Religions don't agree on everything," Reverend Schaper said, "but we do agree about idolatry and the golden rule."

As everyone is quick to point out, the movement is still working out its message. At the march, I was handed socialist newspapers, information about the tar sands project and Troy Davis's execution. But the majority of the signs, the cheers and the things I overheard made it clear that we're almost all in agreement: the problem of economic inequality in our country must be addressed by our political and economic leaders. This could mean tax reform, better regulation of the financial industry or (my favorite) debt forgiveness.

I don't expect every church to parade a golden calf into the park, nor every clergy member to attend a march. Trinity Wall Street has opened its community center, Charlotte's Place, to protestors, and the clergy have issued supportive and thoughtful statements calling for prayer and mutual understanding. This is certainly a good start.

Ultimately, collective action is necessary to address many of the problems facing our country. The mainline church should be integral to supporting this change. Faith communities in New York City, where the wealthy and the unemployed worship together, are the very communities where dialogue is most difficult and also most necessary. They can places where a march grows into a movement without anger turning into hate.

Economic inequality can be addressed without demonizing bankers and financial workers. "We don't need any more enemies," Rev. Schaper said to me. At the march I saw a woman wearing a suit and holding a sign reading "Paying taxes is patriotic. Raise my taxes." Clearly, there is some common ground to be found.

I hope that in New York and across the country the clergy continue to be brave and vocal in fostering and supporting change in the service to the economically disadvantaged, the poor and unemployed, the least of these.