[Reprinted from Immerse Journal Blog]
Maybe the most moving interaction I’ve had with the Occupy movement was in November in Vancouver. I was leading a retreat for youth workers in the United Church of Canada. One night I met up with my friend Blair, a pastor, theologian, and veteran youth worker. Blair took me out to dinner with a group of youth workers who were attending the Youth Specialties National Youth Worker Convention held at the downtown Hyatt Regency. We finished dinner, and I walked with the group back to the Hyatt. On the way, we passed the Occupy Vancouver people, camped across the street on the steps of the provincial courthouse. The temperature was near freezing and the rain coming down heavy. The rag-tag protesters were trying to keep dry beneath makeshift tarps, many standing on wood pallets to keep their feet out of the pooling water. It was a pitiful sight.
My youth worker companions were intrigued by the Occupy folks, so we walked into a tent that had posted a wooden sign reading, Information: We can respond to Where? How?, and What?. But you must answer Why? I walked up to a young woman bundled in a heavy orange parka, her head enclosed in a wool cap with ear flaps. “Can I ask what you’re doing here?”
She laughed and stepped toward me and the small group of youth workers. “Actually, I’m only here two days a week. I have job up in Whistler and only come down on my days off.”
We introduced ourselves, and then I asked a second time, “Why are you out here camped in the cold and rain?”
The 20-something woman looked at me and said rather plainly, “I’m trying to change the world.”
“How are you changing the world?” I countered.
“Well, 24 hours a day we have soup and bread for anyone who is hungry. Over there,” she gestured, “is a medical tent. You can get medical care, counseling, even acupuncture. Free to anyone who needs it. That’s two ways. The third is the way we’re interacting with each other. Every voice counts. Every idea matters. We try and treat each other with respect and dignity. So it starts small, but if everyone in every town and city starts doing these kinds of simple human things, eventually we’ll meet up and have a different kind of world.”
We stood, stunned by the simplicity and practicality of her dream, struck by how Christian it sounded (feed the hungry, care for the sick, treat others as you want to be treated) and by her obvious commitment. “I’m a Christian,” I confessed. “All of us here are Christians. We’re committed to creating something called the kingdom of God, where we make sure everyone gets fed, cared for, and loved. To me, it sounds like you’re doing what we’re supposed to be doing. We’re supposed to be out here caring for the needs of people.”
The young woman shrugged her shoulders. “I’m an atheist. But I know Christians are compassionate people, right?” We nodded. “Well, then you should come out here and join us.” We thanked her for her time, shook hands, and walked across the street to the Hyatt.
It’s the second Sunday in November, and our church is hosting Occupy Christmas. It began when a few church members invited the local Occupy folks (mostly college students) to come and tell the congregation what they were up to. The students sat in a circle with church members, and everyone was asked to respond to the question: What’s the greatest threat facing our country? Around the circle people responded: Economic disparity. An unjust economic system that privileges the rich. The loss of a sense of the sacred. Granting human rights to corporations. The degradation of human life. Climate change. The loss of a sense of community. Fear. Greed. Loss of God. Then one of our teenagers spoke up, “Never-ending war and violence.”
After the meeting the church decided to support the local Occupy movement. Our pastor read the Sermon on the Mount and said these words to the congregation: “In spite of how incredibly scary the world is, I feel the presence of God with us, the God who loves this world so much. As we look closely at our world problems, let us look also, in all places, for the healing presence of God. We don’t have to save the world ourselves; we need only see where God is already active and then join in the world-healing there.”
Following the meeting, a few members of the church decided to start Occupy Christmas, in order to offer an alternative to the consumer-driven craziness that often overshadows Christmas. As part of Occupy Christmas, the congregation is asked to consider three questions:
- What does Christmas mean to me? What, really, do I value?
- How does my behavior match (or fail to match) these values?
- What can I (can we) do differently this Christmas season?
Church members are invited to gather each Sunday afternoon in December to share food, make crafts, play music, play games, and enjoy the pleasure of being with one another as an alternative to the consumer-driven craziness. It’s a small, simple idea—to start doing Christmas in a different way—but the simplicity of it gives me, and my sons, hope.
It’s the first gathering of Occupy Christmas, and people from the church and community are making crafts, playing guitars, talking and drinking cider while children run around the sanctuary. The scene is folksy, homely, simple, and human with lots of laughter and conversation. Suddenly, I remember the young woman standing in the rain in Vancouver: “It starts small…but eventually, we’ll meet up with one another and have a different world.”
Lately it occurs to me that what my kids need me to do is to start living differently, to start doing small, creative acts of love that resist despair, that resist a world sickened by greed and violence. This is the hope my kids feel in the Occupy movement. This is what young people are waiting for—the adults in their lives to move out of anxiety and isolation, out of all the talking and worrying, out of their individual churches and hotels and into the streets, into the rain, into the simple, life-giving work of the kingdom of God.