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Occupy Faith National Conference: Let the walls come crumbling down!

By Nichola Torbett

Report from Berkeley, California

 Conferees at the Occupy Faith National Gathering in Berkeley, California.

Conferees at the Occupy Faith National Gathering in Berkeley, California.

Just before noon on March 20, in Berkeley, California, Rabbi Arthur Waskow blew the shofar, an act most often associated with the call to repentance on the morning of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. Some say that the shofar, famous for causing the walls of Jericho to fall, awakens the Divine within each hearer.

In this case, the shofar was blown to call all within earshot to the beginning of the Occupy Faith National Gathering, the second meeting of a growing group of interfaith leaders (clergy and lay) in solidarity with Occupy Wall Street and the Occupy movement. Over the next 48 hours, more than one hundred people representing all of the major faith traditions in the U.S. and at least twelve different Occupied cities across the country came to “Holy Hill,” the seminary community in Berkeley, to pray, plan, debate, and discuss how best to support the national movement for economic and social justice.

Many at the gathering stressed that the Occupy movement offers not just secular political change but the possibility of renewal for our faith traditions, if our communities are willing to answer the call. “We have as much or more to gain from this movement as we have to give,” said Rev. Michael Ellick, minister at Judson Memorial Church and an active participant at Occupy Wall Street.

Alluded to by speaker after speaker was the sense that there is a deep spirituality embedded in the Occupy movement, one that calls us to re-examine the economic teachings at the heart of the Abrahamic traditions and resonating economically with Hindu and Buddhist teaching. Signs at the front of the room read “Usury: There Oughtta Be a Law,” “Let My People Go!” and “Blessed are the Poor.”

Many conversations revolved around what it actually means — and what it costs — to be in solidarity with those most affected by the current economic crisis, not to mention the long legacy of slavery and genocide in the U.S. We must learn to listen even when it’s painful: “One way you learn how to dance in an earthquake is listening to those who have been dancing all their lives — people of color, women, poor people,” said Rev. Phil Lawson, veteran of the civil rights movement. Some of the white participants talked of acknowledging and harnessing their white privilege to work for the dismantling of the racial spoils system. This may mean not only learning to listen to voices seldom amplified, but also putting our bodies on the line. Some shared stories of inserting themselves as a buffer line between the other protesters and police in riot gear.

 The police allow the Interfaith canopy to remain after the other tents at Oscar Grant Plaza were removed.

The police allow the Interfaith canopy to remain after the other tents at Oscar Grant Plaza were removed.

On the second day of the national gathering, participants put their bodies on the line in downtown Oakland. We donned bandanas and face masks and offered sanctuary under the Interfaith Canopy in Oscar Grant Plaza in solidarity with protesters who had received stay-away orders forbidding them from setting foot there, former site of the Occupy Oakland encampment and ongoing site of general assemblies for the movement.

We don’t actually know whether people with stay-away orders attended; we did not check under the masks, so it was impossible to tell us from them. What we do know is that many with covered faces joined us that night for an interfaith solidarity service in honor of Trayvon Martin, the occupation of Union Square Park in New York, and the ongoing spirit of love and justice alive in the Occupy movement.

Plans for the Coming Year

Aside from the worshiping, relationship-building, mutual inspiration, and agitation that took place, the major work of the Occupy Faith National Gathering was to design a national action to be carried out over the coming year. After much discussion, we decided on a three-part agenda consisting of a storytelling initiative, starting May 29 and continuing nationwide throughout 2012; a Truth Tour by bus this summer, in which interfaith leaders will hold renewal services and truth-telling hearings in Occupied cities around the country; and a final truth commission in Washington, DC, in January, designed to coincide with the presidential inauguration and Martin Luther King weekend.

In one lively breakout session, occupiers of faith debated definitions of nonviolence. Although many felt that the faith community is uniquely positioned to urge protesters to remain nonviolent, some in the group stressed that we cannot call ourselves nonviolent while participating in and supporting systems and structures that perpetuate violence in our names, whether those are military actions, incarceration, worker exploitation, or brutal racist police actions. The best we can hope for is to become as anti-violent as we can be cogging the machinery of systemic violence. One participant reminded us, “We need to help people become dangerous again — dangerous to the unjust status quo.”

As the gathering drew to a close, I found myself reflecting on the opening sound of the shofar. While I might have thought initially that the ram’s horn was calling the 1% to repentance, I realized by the end of the gathering that I myself was called to repent. The walls that need to come crumbling down are the walls of privilege for some that is maintained by the suffering of many. We are called to bring down the walls that separate us from them, that keep “us” safe inside our congregations and sanghas while “they“ languish outside.

Let the walls come crumbling down! Whose walls? Our walls!