St. Matthew's Episcopal

Occupying the Kingdom

Posted on: November 12th, 2011 by Robin Jarrell

November 13, 2011


When I first came upon Zuccotti Park (named by the Occupiers “Liberty Park”) I was astounded by how tiny it was.  Not even half a block wide and covered with small tents of every color and kind (blue tarps strung here and there) like awkward burgeoning mushrooms in an already crowded field.  There were various paths winding through the  stations  whose names were organically etched with plastic in netting strung above the uppermost branches of the trees– “food” being in the center – “sanitation,” “women’s tent,” “info media,” “volunteer station.”  There was even tunnel shaped L I B R A R Y spelled out over the tent in bright duct-tape letters.

My first thought was, “God, this is so small” whether because on CNN the camera shots would always pan slowly  through what seemed like unending chaos, or because everything in New York City is always by nature supposed to be large and “in charge.”  From Broadway, one descends down the steps into the park where folks are living, walking, milling, playing music, being bored, laughing, arguing, sleeping, in conversation, pensive – doing what humans do.  The logistics of organization were enough to boggle the mind – it seemed that all aspects of living in a tightly-packed community had been equitably figured out and fairly distributed:  who cooks?  who serves?  who cleans?  who does  what?  seemed to be in the process of being smoothly accomplished.  And every one I engaged was open to my queries – which I hoped were not seen as invasive – but on whose  faces registered a genuine invitation to ask.  Their demeanor quickly told me, “we’re here for a very public reason.  Come on in.  Want some tea?”

It was my friend’s idea – why we were here at all – we who were ensconced with the 1% two blocks up at the Millennium Hilton.  And so we had ventured from our small town of Lewisburg, PA to come and see (as they say in John’s Gospel).  Because when I told people I just wanted to see the whole Occupy for myself, without the media filter and actually talk to the people – most folks said, “Yeah.  Do that.  And  come back and tell me what it’s all about, because I just don’t get it.”  Or, “Don’t be getting arrested so we have to come and bail you out ha ha ha.”  My friend thought it would be good to bring along much needed winter gear:  gloves, scarves, hats.  “Occupy Lewisburg” had donated a whole bin full of stuff and we dropped it off at the United Teachers Federation before we came to poke around.

Around the perimeter of the park were “Good Neighbor” policy signs – the OccupyWallStreet community rules – that we silently agreed to follow because we were entering this Occupying community.  Did I mention the drumming?  It was going full blast the whole time and spilling out into the rest of the other blocks.  “That would drive me crazy” I yelled to my friend.  She pointed to the “Good Neighbor” sign that called for quiet time starting at 11 pm.  I shrugged  and in we went.  I am ashamed to admit that my first concerns selfishly centered around seeing myself in these environs: how would I brush my teeth?  or wash my face?  or put on lotion?  I can’t survive without lotion.   Or … oh heaven above!  make a pee in the wee hours?  Let’s face it:  I’m too old to do this … to be wrapped in a cocoon sleeping bag perched above  some cardboard infrastructure.  God help me!  What am I saying?  Please God, help THEM!

We started by just asking questions.  We asked and we listened.  I promised myself that I would not ask challenging questions, but only ask questions that invited answers, questions that sought out the dignity of every human being who would speak with me.  And, of course, being New York City, lots of folks were curious too, pulling out cell phones to take pictures and video.  No one seemed to mind.  After the first go-around, I decided to take some video as well, and that’s when it hit me.  The reason I expected OccupyWallStreet to take up a vast physical space is because I wanted to be reassured that it didn’t need me.  Even though I desperately wanted things to change, if the space the movement occupied were huge, it would overwhelm.  I would be just another speck in the sand.  I could stay an onlooker, a hanger on, a curiosity seeker.  But now, as my cell phone panned across the tiny park, what had at first seemed so powerful and large looked so ephemeral, so vulnerable.   I saw the truth:  Not only did they need me, they needed everyone else, too.  And so I was struck with another realization.  This OccupyWallStreet whatever-it-was needed to survive.  They needed to keep momentum.  They needed to remain.  They were the nucleus whose existence guaranteed the expansion of the global Occupy Movement.  I thought of the early Church in Jerusalem, the Ebionites (the Poor), whose existence was essential if nascent Christianity were to continue.  Jerusalem was where the originally Christniks started and needed to remain.  And that’s why churches in Rome and Corinth and Thessalonia always sent money to “the Poor.”  Send something back home to James who kept the fire burning at the nucleus in Jerusalem.  Not just because it is where Christianity started, but because it anchored the outlying Christians to the core.

I had heard vaguely that I was on sacred ground here at the park (yes, even the bronze statue of the “suit” with his briefcase included) but I wanted to see if it were true.  And I know there are many folks who would not agree with the sacred ground idea.  Too many mohawks and longbeards and tattoos and dreads and piercings and all that.  Too many peace signs and sign-up tables.  Too many drums and dobros and guitars.  But I would also say too many old women sitting in chairs knitting, too many intellectuals, too many clean-cut veterans, too many regular New Yorkers and New Jerseyites, too many toddlers being chased by parents, too many people in motorized wheelchairs, too many normal people, too many unemployed, too many without healthcare,  and way, way too many working poor.  Yes, in that cramped and crowded place, there were just too many human beings of every sort.

When darkness fell, the park was alight and everything came alive.  We were told that the General Assembly (not held every evening)  was going to be something to experience and so we gathered on the Broadway side.  If you are interested in the mechanics of how to run such a “meeting,”  you can go to the website and see for yourself.  What I saw, what I experienced was unlike anything I had ever witnessed  in my entire life.  Interested community members were communicating clearly, making decisions carefully, with such a level of inclusion, without rancor, without blame.  People were holding people accountable – gently.  People were talking.  People were listening.  People were being heard.  Oh, yeah.  And things were actually being accomplished.  Right before our very eyes.

Holy Mother of God if only my vestry meetings would go like this!  Wait!  Why just the vestry?  The crowd was huge here – and consensus was being achieved and people were walking away smiling.  Why couldn’t an entire congregation make decisions like this?  “This is a very feminine way of doing things,” my friend remarked.  And to be honest, I had just a few weeks ago ordered the latest issue of the Episcopal Women’s Caucus’ RUACH which had several pieces on new models for facilitating decision making and empowering folks for leadership – but this was taking decision-making/inclusion/leadership/action to a whole new level.

Back at the hotel room – I was nearly vibrating with what I had seen and heard.  One more walk-though the next morning and my friend and I were headed home, processing what we could of our experience.  I kept trying to articulate what had just happened to me but couldn’t seem to come up with the cogent expression I was definitely going to need when I got home and people started asking, “So?  How was it?”

Finally my friend said, “Those people were not ‘working’ toward a common goal … they were living the solution.”  Living the solution.  Living the solution to economic disparity, to injustice, to oppression, to too much/too little government …

If that isn’t the inbreaking of the Kingdom of God, then I don’t want to call myself a Christian.  What I experienced was not a longed-for model of first century Christianity, but a breathing and vibrant Way of living out the mandate given to us by Jesus whom we proclaim the Christ:  that we love one another.



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