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Faith Groups Lend Diverse Voices to the Occupy Movement

Organizations of All Beliefs Join in Protest Against Inequality

A clear achievement of the Occupy movement is an inclusive religious and spiritual push for economic justice.

Now in its second month, the movement is gathering steam in more than 900 cities in the United States and around the world. There are already a few notable successes.

First, protesters widened the tent poles of our national economic debate from “cutting the deficit” to “economic inequality” and from “debt” to “jobs.” Their impact can be seen in recent interviews with GOP leaders such as House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA), who in a week’s time went from calling the protesters “mobs” to reassuring the public that he “cares about economic inequality.”

The press, too, is taking note. Think Progress reports that MSNBC, Fox News, and CNN mentioned the word “debt” more than 7,000 times during the last week of July, while “unemployed” was mentioned only 75 times. But by the week of October 10, things drastically shifted. These same networks mentioned “debt” only 398 times, while mentioning “jobs” 2,738 times, “Occupy” 1,278 times, and “Wall Street” 2,378 times.

A less-reported but equally significant success lies in faith groups’ increasingly enthusiastic embrace of the movement. Progressive Christian groups such as Sojourners—an early supporter of the protests—are being joined by growing numbers of Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Protestant, and Catholic congregations, as well as interfaith groups that are lending their voices, bodies, buildings, and pulpits.

For instance, Rev. Brian Merritt of the Palisades Community Church in Washington, D.C., is a vocal supporter of Occupy DC. He gives supporters spiritual guidance and peanut butter sandwiches, and often serves as a spokesman for the group.

Just blocks from where the protests began in New York, Trinity Wall Street Episcopal Church opened its doors to protesters who need a place to rest. A Yom Kippur prayer service was held in Zuccotti Park, complete with a sermon given in call-and-response to compensate for the lack of sound equipment. And in South Carolina, a rabbi joined an African Methodist Episcopal pastor, among others, to help organize protests in Florence.

What unifies these diverse groups is a shared spiritual conviction that protesting injustice and inequality, defending the weak, and caring for the poor are key religious tenets. And they are sorely needed at this time in our history.

In addition, Occupy Wall Street seeks compelling symbols to express the movement’s essence, and a number of faith-related sights and signs are resonating with protesters and gaining visibility in the news.

The “Protest Chaplains” from Boston made headlines for their calls and hymns for economic justice while clad in white robes and carrying homemade crosses. Meanwhile, Jewish activists and founders of Occupy Sukkot built sukkah tents in Zuccotti Park; McPherson Square in Washington, D.C.; and seven other cities around the United States. The tents are built each year during the Sukkot celebration of the harvest and call us to remember those affected by injustice. And a creative interfaith group, including Judson Memorial Church in New York City, carried a golden calf to Wall Street in a striking protest against the “idol” of corporate greed.

One of the most illustrative images of interfaith partnerships, however, is the “faith and spirituality tent” built by faith leaders in Occupy Boston. Designed to give space to all beliefs, including nonreligious traditions such as atheism and humanism, the tent has hosted Zen Buddhist meditations, Muslim prayer services, and Jewish celebrations for Yom Kippur, as well as providing food, shelter, and a welcome for anyone who comes by.

Such inclusive spirituality is echoed in the work of national faith-based groups such as Faith in Public Life and Interfaith Worker Justice. FPL organized religious leaders and promoted their role in the movement, while IWJ created congregational discussion guides and resources for interfaith prayer services. To date, 235 religious leaders signed a statement supporting “the spirit” of Occupy Wall Street and committing themselves to the struggle against injustice.

All this activity raises the question: Did Occupy Wall Street trigger faith groups’ involvement, or did the original occupiers “get religion”? There is a sense of both happening. Commentators remark on the movement’s moral clarity and articulation that the “soul” of America is lost to corporate tricks and greed.

At the same time, faith groups prove remarkably willing to work within the movement’s language and framework, supporting—not co-opting—the energy on the streets. Some groups, such as the Protest Chaplains, have strict codes against proselytizing, and despite the visibility of congregations such as the Judson Memorial, no single leader or denomination dominates a gathering.

The Occupy movement’s expansion of the national debate allows many faith voices to join the conversation. The result is a multifaith collaboration and integration radically different from the narrowly judgmental and exclusive brand of religion that too often claims to represent all religion in America. This is a true success of the movement—99 percent of Americans who believe in diverse spiritual collaborations for economic justice and a better America.

Catherine Woodiwiss is a Special Assistant to the Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative and Progressive Studies. Jake Paysour is an intern with the Faith Initiative and a student at Wesley Theological Seminary.

For more on the Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative visit its project page.

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