"How can there be a march and I'm not there?" This was the question that came from my mother, a feisty but proper Southern lady, when I told her I was headed downtown to see Occupy Wall Street for myself.
Her question was rhetorical since being in such a crowd would have exceeded the limits of her strength. And yet, it is what she, a civil rights activist in her day, has been asking for some time now: "How long will it be before people are marching in the street?" Marching for her was a default in times of national crisis, an appropriate collective cry of anguish "when the earth groans in travail and we ourselves" (Romans 8:22-23) and, in the same moment, an opportunity to draw energy and courage from the shared experience of being together. "You make the way by walking," the saying goes. My mother, a Depression baby, remembers meeting her father on the streets of Wilmington, N.C., right after the 1929 stock market crash, when he reported that $100 was all the money they had. She knows something of the fear and want that many Americans are experiencing today.
I guess it's in my DNA because at Occupy Wall Street I found the crowd energizing and welcoming. "Tell me what democracy looks like?" "This is what democracy looks like," was the through line of the chants and songs. And it was an apt description: a panoply of marchers of all colors and sizes, union members, nurses, students and organizers, talking about living wages, tax codes, corporate greed and the observation on a poster held by children who seemed to know from firsthand experience that "shelters are not family friendly."
The crowd was purposeful but not goal oriented, which seems right given the complexity of our current situation to which there are no easy solutions. We are beyond winnowing it all quickly down to bullet points and a neat list of demands. And it was heartening that though movements are aided by Facebook and Twitter, people need to be together in real time.
What I fantasized about mid-march was a surprise appearance by Warren Buffet. I am aware that some of those who have made their millions on Wall Street have actually traveled to Occupy Wall Street, perhaps incognito. And I have spoken to other Wall Street people who are fearful, curious, disdainful or defensive about Occupy Wall Street, not knowing how to engage it. Many across the economic spectrum are wrestling with how to find our way back to valuing the public good over individualism; a just economy over unbridled greed; compassion enacted through public policy.
The Christian tradition offers insight into the proper relationship to wealth: No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon." Wealth is not to be hoarded, either by individuals or institutions, but used productively for the common good. In a world of enormous poverty, wealth is relative, and we all have to make peace with how we define generosity individually and how we enact justice collectively.
Whatever you think about Occupy Wall Street, people are talking about it -- a lot. This was true for my colleague and her husband. Their conversation with their two kids was how was it that Dad was working on Wall Street when Mom was marching in Occupy Wall Street? It made for a complex, ethical, soul-deep conversation at the breakfast table.
My hope is that the protest will be a rallying cry for all Americans to remind us of our shared values, not simply the occasion for replicating the political polarization that already grips our country, our neighborhoods and even our families. At a time when there are 46.2 million people in the U.S. living in poverty, we cannot afford to demonize, stereotype and dismiss each other. We need everyone to come to Liberty Square and help each other find our way to a future where abundance is shared, no one is in need and the future looks brighter than today.
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