Mystery Worshipper: Acton Bell
Church: Occupy Wall Street
Location: Zuccotti Park, New York City, USA
Date of visit: Sunday, 16 October 2011, 3:30pm
The event took place at Zuccotti Park, located between Trinity Episcopal Church and Wall Street in lower Manhattan. The park is a block-long, privately owned public space of about 33,000 square feet, created in 1968 in return for allowing the building One Liberty Plaza, then under construction, an additional five floors. By the terms of the agreement it must remain accessible to the public 24 hours a day and is not subject to the city-imposed park curfew of 11.00pm. It is this requirement that is being exploited by the protesters, as the city can't legally evict them. Originally called Liberty Park, the park was controversially renamed in honor of John Zuccotti, chairman of Brookfield Properties, the park's owner. Many of the protesters have started to refer to the park by its original name. The park is home to the monumental sculpture Joie de Vivre by Mark di Suvero, which the protesters have taken to calling "the Thing" and which has become almost totemic to the protest. Activities and meetings all begin at "the Thing," as did our service. When unoccupied, the park has tables and chairs and is a popular lunch spot for the many office workers in the area.
Judson Memorial Church is United Church of Christ, but the service was inter-faith, with representatives of Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, Buddhist, Muslim and Native American denominations present. There is a prominent spiritual dimension to the movement. Inside Zuccotti Park is a makeshift community altar, where protestors of all faiths come to pray or meditate. There are also protest chaplains many of them seminary students who minster to the protesters during the week.
This is the financial district in lower Manhattan, which holds the offices or headquarters of many of the the world's major financial institutions, including the New York Stock Exchange and the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. The area comprises almost all of the colonial New Amsterdam settlement, and the layout of streets follows the more haphazard 17th century pattern it doesn't follow the grid pattern typical of the rest of Manhattan. There are small streets barely wide enough for a single lane of traffic, bordered on both sides by some of the tallest buildings in the city, creating rather sunless "canyons." Zoning in the rest of the city is extremely strict precisely to avoid replicating this canyon phenomenon elsewhere. The area's architecture is generally rooted in the Gilded Age, though there are also some Art Deco and mid-century modern glass-and-steel towers.
The Revd Michael Ellick, pastor of Judson Memorial Church, was one of the participants. I recognized him from news reports on TV. There were seven others, but they didn't introduce themselves, so I have no idea who they were.
What was the name of the service?Bringing the Sabbath to Occupy Wall Street
How full was the building?
The park was simply teeming with humanity, bursting at the seams, with several thousand people. I would say there were roughly 400 in our section actively participating in the service, but that is just a guess, as there was plenty of movement in the crowd. It was impossible to count.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
Yes. When we arrived, someone at "the Thing" pointed us to a relatively empty spot.
Was your pew comfortable?
No pews, standing room only. It really wasn't that bad, as we all kind of shifted about, not standing in one place for too long.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
The service was supposed to have started at 3.30, with participants marching from Washington Square Park in Greenwich Village to lower Manhattan, carrying what is now their iconic papier-mache statue of a golden calf entitled Greed. They must have made great time, as the service was already underway when we arrived at 3.10.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Susan B. Anthony, pray for us." (It was the first thing I heard when we walked up, as the intercessions were already underway.)
What books did the congregation use during the service?
What musical instruments were played?
Two guitars and an autoharp. Musically, the Kumbaya-quotient was off the charts it might as well have been legendary folk singer Pete Seeger's greatest hits. Interestingly, the 92 year-old Seeger showed up and gave an impromptu concert for the occupiers a week or so after this service.
Did anything distract you?
There were a couple of thousand people milling about, as well as buses full of tourists passing by. Also more policemen than I've ever seen congregated in one place, some with riot gear. So the distractions were too many to count. Since there were no microphones, each sentence said by the speakers was shouted back by the crowd, something they called "mic check." I found that a bit difficult to follow at times. Also there were some people in the crowd who would hold their hands up and shake them. It took me a minute to realize that they weren't doing "jazz hands" a la Bob Fosse, which was what I first thought, but were clapping in American Sign Language.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
There were litanies of prayers, intercessions, petitions, short sermons and lots of singing. I don't think I'd ever asked some of these worthies to pray for me before: Hugo Chavez, Margaret Mead, or Dorothy Day. But it probably can't hurt and it certainly didn't ring as insincere.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
The total service lasted roughly an hour. There were five short sermons that were interspersed between hymns and prayers. One sermon was delivered by the leader of a Native American church, one by the dean of the Drew Theological School, and two by rabbis, with the final one by Pastor Ellick of Judson. Almost all identified themselves by denomination, but nobody identified themselves by name, which I found puzzling.
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
4 – The styles ran the gamut from folksy to strident, call-and-response to speech-read-from-notes.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
I can't summarize all of the sermons here, but almost all were centered around social justice, calling attention to the widening gap between rich and poor, the haves and the have nots. Some made note to mark out our responsibility to do more to help our brothers and sisters by reviving our economy with a more equitable distribution of wealth and power.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
Talking about economic justice in a such a big way and among such an unlikely and disparate group of people. My friend and I both found that very moving.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
When the leader of the Native American church said, "The Square is a village in which we have all come together under all of our gods, our many gods, to work for change," several of the people interrupted the service with shouts of "There is only one God!" and "That's the Holy Spirit! It's the Holy Spirit! Holy Spirit!" Somehow, surrounded by cops in riot gear, tourists on tour buses, and folk of all conceivable colors, ages, and and creeds, it hardly seemed to be the time or place to hash out the finer points of religious differences. It was also massively rude.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
There wasn't a coffee hour but there was a hip-hop circus performance (!) to raise money to help those that had been arrested. I really wasn't sure what that would entail, but was guessing it involved very loud clowns. Since I'm not really all that down with the hip-hop or clowns, we gave it a pass.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
Oddly enough, after all the peace, love and righteous anger, it all ended on a note of exclusion. We saw a group of people gathered across the street in front of the Brown Brothers Harriman investment bank building, and we wandered over to check it out. As we approached, a man hastily ran up to us and rudely told us to leave, as the group was exclusively "for Muslims" or "people of color." It was really strange, leaving a definite sour taste, especially after the feel-good service we'd just attended. But our mood instantly brightened when we were approached by a bunch of young Lubavitch Chabad Jewish men carrying fronds of date palm, willow and myrtle, as well as the biggest citrons I'd ever seen. They were stopping passers-by whom they presumed to be Jewish to ask if they were celebrating Sukkot (the feast of booths) and offering to pray with with any willing men. I had to decline, since I'm not Jewish, but with some reluctance. I wanted to find out what that was all about.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
N/A – While sympathetic to the cause, I'm only able to Kumbaya with impunity infrequently.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Indeed it did. I was reminded of Proverbs 29:18 "Where there is no vision, the people perish."
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
Cops in riot gear. I found the police presence an overreaction and deeply disturbing.