by Rev. John Collins, retired United Methodist pastor
Last week, I took a walk on Wall Street and had myself a religious experience. My wife, Sheila, and I had decided to join the Occupy Wall Street rally to show our support for the young people who had been camping out in a small park near Wall Street for the past few weeks. I wore my clerical collar because I wanted the marchers to see they have some support from the religious community (Also, the collar comes in handy if there is a disturbance).
We gathered for the rally in front of the federal courthouse in Foley Square where Bernie Madoff was sentenced to 150 years for stealing $60 billion. There were more police on hand than ever went after Bernie and the banks. The words inscribed over the courthouse steps were “The True Administration of Justice is the Foundation of all Good Government.” It seemed that the crowd was an appeal to those words.
Because the crowd was so big and the sound system so inadequate, we couldn’t hear the speeches, so we occupied ourselves in talking with those around us as the march proceeded slowly down Centre, Chambers and then Broadway. It was in these encounters with other marchers that I had my religious experience.
- A man in his ‘50’s, noticing my walking sticks and my unsteady gait, said “I’m walking with a 6-inch hernia protruding from my gut – I’ve got it in a pouch at my waist.” “When are you going to have it repaired?” I asked. “As soon as I can get $5000.” He is an unemployed jazz musician who last year did a 25-city tour in Germany.
- The march was difficult because the police herded us onto the narrow sidewalks, slowing the march to a snail’s pace. I spotted an officer whose white shirt denoted higher rank, and said “Why don’t you let us walk in the street? It’s closed to traffic.” Not surprisingly he refused, but a Black woman nearby said “Thanks for trying.”
- One of the cops was a community relations officer. I held up my sign saying “JOBS FOR ALL AT DECENT PAY” and asked her “Do you agree with that?” She said “I can’t comment” but she was smiling.
- A young woman marching near us came over. “We can’t tell you how inspiring it is for us to have you here.” I don’t know if she was referring to the collar or our age, but it was lovely either way.
- I told another marcher who was taking time off from work that I had to cancel a session with my therapist to be there. He replied “This is the best form of therapy!” He had a point.
- The faith community was not very visible. I walked for a while with a woman from the Community Church of New York, which is Unitarian.. A little later we passed a woman minister holding a sign which said “On earth as in heaven.” But as we passed St Paul’s Chapel, which still has George Washington’s pew, the great iron gates were locked – no sign saying come in, rest and have a cup of water.” That’s when I realized Jesus was in the street with us.
- We heard a cheer ahead and soon we were passing a group of young doctors from Montefiore Hospital in the Bronx, wearing their white jackets and stethoscopes, holding signs to support the march. I walked over to one of them and said, “Since you’re here, Doc, I have this sore knee.” We both laughed.
- There was a noisy contingent from the Socialist Workers Party, along with schoolteachers, public employees, and the unemployed in great numbers.
- There were straightforward signs like “Good Jobs for All,” held by a friend from the Consumers Union. He engaged in conversation with a West Indian who wanted to know “Where are you going to get the money for those jobs?”
- There were other, less subtle signs, like “Screw You, Alabama’” a reference to George Wallace’s state’s passage of new Jim Crow laws for immigrants. Another advised “Take all your money and invest it in Pepper Spray.”
- Suddenly, while greeting Connie Hogarth, a long time fighter for peace and justice, I was embraced from behind – it was Amir, who three years ago was in a class I taught in an upstate prison. He is out on parole and studying to become a social worker so he can aid others coming out of prison.
- Finally, as darkness descended, and feeling my bad back and knees, we left the march at Murray Street to get a bite at the Stage Door Deli. Before I could sit down, a young man with a camera asked “were you on the march?” When I said yes he asked if he could interview me. He is a documentary film maker, originally from Poland who makes films to support himself so he can make the ones he really cares about. Today was the latter, and for half an hour he questioned me about whether Christianity and Jesus have anything to say about Occupy Wall Street and the issues which gave rise to it. We talked about Jesus’ parables of the Laborers in the Vineyard and the Wicked Tenants, the Sermon on the Mount and the Beatitudes. He seemed pleasantly surprised to find a Christian minister linking Jesus’ teachings to class struggle and the cause of the poor and the earth.
- While I was being interviewed, Sheila fell into conversation with two young women marchers from Jersey City. Both were unemployed. One had worked for Verizon in retail but quit because of the pressure to sell things to people even if they couldn’t afford it. “Only the sharks succeed” was the way she summed it up.
- I asked the other what her last job was, and she said “retail.” What kind?” “Shoes – nothing important.” “No work is unimportant,” “What do you do while not working?” “I write poetry.” Can you share one with us? And she recited from memory and with passion a beautiful poem. Then the other woman said “I have one on my phone,” and she graced us with a wonderfully humorous piece. They are both performance poets. We exchanged emails.
- As we trudged to the A train for the ride uptown. I realized again that I was having a religious experience – 4 hours on the streets of Manhattan and I connected with more people than I usually do in a year – and I am pretty gregarious. People were friendly, shared their personal struggles and hopes, exchanged emails and did all the things I never thought could happen in the public square. We were a COMMUNITY.
- Whatever else these young people are doing, they are rediscovering political hope in solidarity. I hope to God the rest of us support them. We don’t have a lot of time.