Occupy "astonishing opportunity for clergy"

11/18/2011

The Rev. Monica Corsaro (left), pastor of Rainier Beach United Methodist Church, talks with participants in an Occupy Seattle encampment at Seattle Central Community College. Corsaro is one of many clergy who has volunteered to serve as a chaplain to the movement, which opposes corporate corruption and greed. A UMNS photo by Paul Jeffrey.The Rev. Monica Corsaro (left), pastor of Rainier Beach United Methodist Church,
talks with participants in an Occupy Seattle encampment at Seattle Central Community
College. Corsaro is one of many clergy who has volunteered to serve as a chaplain to
the movement, which opposes corporate corruption and greed. A UMNS photo by Paul Jeffrey.

He saw it as an opportunity to be present as a pastor and a peacemaker and went appropriately garbed in his clerical robes, stole and cross. When confrontation threatened, he said he felt called to be a buffer between the police and the protesters marching through Seattle’s downtown.

By the end of the day Nov. 15, The Rev. Rich Lang, senior pastor at Temple University United Methodist Church, was one of the six people hit by police with pepper spray. Others included 84-year-old Dorli Rainey and a 19-year-old pregnant woman.

Disturbed by the night’s events, Lang wrote a pastoral lament the next morning, describing his experience and his anguish.

In the message, he questions some of his clergy colleagues for failing to recognize what he sees as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

“The [Occupy] movement needs clergy for pastoral care and chaplaincy,” he said. “In Seattle, the campers are very young. They are kids and young adults, most unemployed, most on the fringes of society. Clergy are needed to be peacemakers and chaplains. It’s an astonishing opportunity for clergy to be with these young souls, the kids and young adults who don’t frequent our churches.

The Rev. Rich Lang was pepper-sprayed by police at Occupy Seattle. A UMNS web-only photo courtesy of Michael Lang.The Rev. Rich Lang was pepper-sprayed by police at Occupy Seattle. A UMNS web-only photo courtesy of Michael Lang. 

“If we had a little more evangelism in us, this is a remarkable opportunity to share the gospel through our pastoral care,” he said. “The pulpit is now in the streets.”

The rewards are great, he said. “Every time I go [to the camps], I come back full. I’m astonished how bright these people are. This is an opportunity to build relationships and open conversations.”

The camps, he said, eventually will be torn down.

“This is a moment when the church can be present and perhaps gain a more intimate understanding of homelessness, how we can be useful in helping the homeless. The great irony of [the Occupy movement] is that it has been the homeless who have helped these kids learn to build communities.”

Experience, wisdom, perspective

The church has much to offer the Occupy movement, Lang said.

“We have experience, wisdom, a larger perspective of building partnerships and what it means to be a partner,” he said. “We can see certain things. The movement needs clergy to be present for everybody.

“We have a ministry here — and [the opportunity is] only going to last momentarily.”

Demonstrators wave at passing traffic as they hold signs at an Occupy Seattle demonstration.  A UMNS photo by Paul Jeffrey.Demonstrators wave at passing traffic as they hold signs at an Occupy Seattle demonstration. A UMNS photo by Paul Jeffrey.

It was that ministry that inspired Lang to don his clerical robes and stole and walk alongside the protesters on Nov. 15.

Lang said “there was tension in the air from the beginning” as the Occupy Seattle camp and supporters marched to the center of the city to express solidarity with the Occupy Wall Street activists evicted from Zucotti Park.

“The march was peaceful but loud,” he said. “The police were all on bikes, and throughout the march, I began to observe a breakdown of their own discipline. Police [were] ramming people with their bikes. There was no reason for it. Some police getting involved in jawboning people back and forth.

"Police are well-trained," he said. “They’re extraordinary. Part of the role of the police is to protect the marchers, citizenry and property, but there was a breakdown in their own discipline.”

Sites where United Methodists share

The Occupy Movement, which started at Wall Street in September, has spread throughout the world primarily because of the Internet and social media. Websites, blogs, Facebook pages and Tweets have shared resources, videos and photographs and announced events.

United Methodists and interfaith groups have used these communications channels to organize, share ideas, discuss theological implications and gather food, clothing and other supplies to minister to the homeless and protesters. Here are some of the online sites where the United Methodist and the larger faith community are connecting:

As the protesters walked, Lang said he watched as a young woman and a police officer verbally provoked one another. The officer began bumping into her with his bike, Lang said, and she responded by using the little black flag symbolizing anarchy to swat his hand away. Lang watched as the officer grabbed the flag and pulling on it, inadvertently pulled down the young woman. When her friends stepped in to drag her away, a number of officers began spraying the crowd with pepper spray.

Walking between protesters

The crowd began to separate though Lang continued to walk between the protesters and police. As reported on Seattle news station KING5, Lang waved the marchers toward the sidewalk and moments later was hit with pepper spray.

“I felt the back of my alb being soaked down,” Lang said. “Finally, one officer stepped toward me and shot me full in the face.” Blinded, Lang was helped by a couple of the young protesters to the side of a nearby building.

For Lang, it was an instance of police provocation. “The police don’t need to bully the marchers. The marchers aren’t walking against the police. This [Occupy Seattle] has not been a violent movement; property has not been destroyed. There’s no precedent for the extreme reaction.”

Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn has apologized to those who were pepper-sprayed during the peaceful protest that day, telling The Associated Press he had called in Seattle Police Chief John Diaz and the command staff to review the actions.

*Brands is a freelance writer living in eastern Upstate New York.

News media contact, Maggie Hillery, Nashville, Tenn. (615)-742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.