Is this the Church’s Moment?

Christopher Hedges recently gave a speech challenging churches, in particular Trinity Church, in the wake of Occupy Wall Street.  When Christopher Hedges boldly proclaims this is the church’s moment, my ears perk up.    Christopher Hedges knows religion, he knows church, and he’s philosophically sophisticated.  And I’m sympathetic, but as someone in the religion business, here are some instructions about how to reach out to church leaders and congregations.

Most pastors are an open-minded, well-read, sympathetic bunch.  And like everyone else they have their anxieties.

But of you want to engage or make demands upon churches, learn who they are.

It’s not hard.  Call the church and make an appointment.  Don’t make demands or ask for a favor.  Just to learn about the priest and the challenges of running a modern church.

In a busy church you may instead talk to a curate or a priest for community formation.  Get to know them also, though they might not be in charge.

Meet the sexton, the person who cares for the building.  Also meet the lay leader who has some authority in the church.

Why? Those people get work done.  Church people are hard workers.  They gather in order to solve problems.  They want to help.   They’re doing a lot of the unsexy serving that happens on a regular basis.   Over the last 40 years, they’ve done lots of work that has been ignored by the media.

In bigger churches, it will be easier if you are an “institutional representative.”  If you’re not intending on joining the parish, it’s easier to get some time if you have connections with other people.  That’s what “institutional representation” is:  a way of verifying you’re not just some random person who wants time, but someone who has relationships and represents what others believe.   Clergy sometimes are very available, but in busy parishes, like corporations, they allocate their time and have gatekeepers.

Our culture has become so radically balkanized between church people (who feel besieged) and the non-religious (who are perplexed).   Churches have been burned by social justice groups.  And social justice groups seem to find most churches ideologically suspect.

I can affirm that when I visited Occupy Wall Street, I was met with unexpecedly friendly and supportive faces.  I’mused to people fleeing when I’m in my collar, as the world puts me in an unsavory category.   Here, instead, they sought my blessing.     And I, instead, felt myself blessed.

However, our institutions have resisted, by and large, commodification.  Although we are imperfect, we’ve been negotiating the public-private debate for decades.   We’re private organizations who exist for the public.   This makes us responsible in a way that our government is not.

And we may get things wrong.  But I’m sure, in the case of Trinity Wall Street, that Dr. Cooper has a lot on his plate.   He has many voices he needs to consider, and his sympathies are most likely pulled in multiple directions.  I would argue that it is not his role to take sides, but to maintain connections.    And for this reason, it is crucial that an institutional representative of Occupy Wall Street sit down with any clergy for the sole reason to help every priest discern what is actually going on.

Because occupying property owned by Trinity Church isn’t actually occupying Wall Street.  That would mean trying to enter the buildings that house the institutions of power.  Trinity might actually be able to help the occupiers, but offering space might be the least effective way it can help.  But we don’t know.

Any movement, whether Occupy Wall Street or the Tea Party, that does not lay a foundation by getting to know the players in other institutions such as the church, may find itself disappointed in the church’s reaction.  This is not because we aren’t sympathetic:  but we seek to fulfill our obligations also to all sorts of conditions, including those who are not part of whatever movement is around us.  Our reticence is not disapproval.  And our hesitation should not be interpreted as cowardice.

When I was asked in my class about how I felt about Occupy Wall Street, I hemmed and hawed.  I said I was sympathetic:  the social contract had been undermined over the last forty years; those who’d been most responsible had not been brought to justice; and our system seemed devoid of character and virtue.

But over the last few weeks, it has simply been: I don’t always know what is going on.   I’m sometimes skeptical of authority, while appreciative of its effectiveness.  I think it is an emerging movement rather than a focused one.  I’m baffled by those taking it to the university (why there?) or the ports.  But I’m attracted to its energy.  It’s intriguing how social media has transformed the national dialogue about wealth.   I hope it will invite a better discussion of how our nation builds wealth, and the complexities of class.  But as a priest, I still exist in the world of face-to-face relationships and am instinctively wary of ideological posturing or movement politics.

Chris Hedges is surely right to ask churches where they stand.  We must be more open about talking about our economic condition, the roots of our current malaise, and clear about the system’s shortcomings.

But churches do not properly engage movements.  They engage individuals.  When there is danger, of course the church must offer shelter.  But sustained engagement, one that offers the hospitality of the church, requires first that people in the movement and in the church do the necessary work of listening and learning about one another.  It is through these relationships we can build the bonds that can sustain us as we critique our disastrous system.  Occupy Wall Street will only strengthen if it builds relationships with other institutions, or else the movement will fizzle.

This is hard work.   We are in a culture that values immediacy and quick answers.  To ask OWS and churches to sit down first and learn about each other seems like a waste of time.  I suggest that this view of “time” suggests that capital itself controls the game, commodifying the work it takes to strengthen the bonds of trust that can build alternative organizations.  It is when we first sit down, without demands, to listen to each other that we can understand what is actually going on; and from there, what work needs to be done.

And that work is the challenge.

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