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#OccupyWallStreet: Without a Vision, the People Will Perish

There's a verse in Proverbs that speaks to this kind of moment in the movement's story. I learned it in the Baptist traditions as, "Without a vision, the people will perish."
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The Occupy Wall Street movement is a month old.

Now what?

On Sunday afternoon, I stood in Zuccotti Park with several thousand other folks trying to take in the veritable circus that is the Occupation site sandwiched between Wall Street and Trinity Episcopal Church.

Who is working here? Who is loafing? Which ones are performing for attention and spare change like so many street mimes? Who is actually sincere in their attempts to foment a new kind of justice in our world? And will any of this make a difference another month from now?

The Kumbaya-quotient is off the charts in Zuccotti Park and much of it rings authentic. The smell of Nag Champa incense hangs in the air mixed with the odors from nearby falafel, pretzel and Sabrett hot dog carts. There are lots of dread-locked white kids with nose rings and bare feet, plenty of tie dye, Che Guevera T-shirts and fresh-faced, lightly tattooed young mothers breastfeeding a few yards away from an impromptu meditation circle. There were also multi-generational family outings, where a grandmother was teaching her teenage granddaughter about the Catholic Worker movement, and small bands of young Lubavitch Chabad Jewish men -- carrying date palm, willow and myrtle branches (and some impressive citron, or etrog, specimens) -- who stopped passersby whom they presumed to be Jewish as well to ask whether they were celebrating Sukkot (the feast of booths) and offering to daven (pray) with any willing men.

About 3:30 p.m. a contingent of Roman-collar-wearing clergy men and women -- Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, Buddhist, Native American and many others -- arrived carrying the now-famous papier mache golden calf aloft like a effigy to excess or a statue of San Gennaro. The religious leaders and other people of faith gathered for the now-weekly Multi-Faith Service, that included litanies of prayers, petitions, scripture reading and a lot of singing, accompanied by acoustic guitars and at least one auto-harp.

After an hour or so of echoing statements of faith, prayers and petitions aloud and in unison, when the hundreds-strong crowd began to disperse, I caught up with one of the event's organizers, the Rev. Michael Ellick of New York City's Judson Memorial Church.

Standing at the top of a flight of stone stairs at the west end of the park, looking down on the massive crowd as it moved through the rabbit warren of tarpaulins, lean-tos and the occasional portable sukkah (it is Sukkot, after all) below, I turned to the vaguely weary clergyman and asked, "So ... what now?"

"We're organizing faith communities around issues of economic justice and we see this as the mark to do it," Ellick said before making a small motion toward the Zuccotti Park crowds and adding, "This will fade. This will fade tomorrow."

Ellick has been involved with the Occupation, as it's come to be known, since its genesis. While he doesn't camp at the park and isn't there each day, he is a part of a larger organization of clergy and spiritual leaders who have made a point of showing their solidarity with demonstrators and pointing out the parts of the movement and its concerns that have deep moral resonance.

So Ellick's "fade" comment at first caught me off guard, which I'm guessing he saw in my face.

"I don't put a lot of stake in it," Ellick explained. "And I don't think we should tie our wagon. But we are putting together these [summit] meetings with faith leaders in the city to talk about what it has meant for us in the larger, long-term economic message."

New York City's faith leaders are working on something unique -- you could call it radical or even revolutionary.

Ellick didn't want to give too much away (a public announcement is expected sometime late today or tomorrow), but he did say, "I basically have an idea that I want to have us all come around and how to take all this energy and put it into a goal that is both moral -- reframing it as a spiritual issue -- but also gives us a concrete, legislative avenue to something

"The sneak peek is that it's going to be a Constitutional amendment," he said, delivering the punch line as a quiet aside.

"Wow, that's new and different," I said.

"It is," Ellick said. "And it bypasses the Congress because the Congress is plutocratic and cannot function. There's a way to do it. It takes long-term organizing and a deep-vision future, but faith communities have to be the ones to do it. We're the only ones who can carry that kind of message so that all the little messages don't eat us up.

"Right now everyone wants their own little piece of it. We have to find something that everybody will agree has something. We're going to start talking about it with all the faith leaders that we've assembled through this -- that's really what this is, assembling faith leaders so that they can get excited and now do what we've always wanted to do: talk about economic justice in a bigger way," he said.

Ellick certainly has a point. As I walked around the Occupation site in Lower Manhattan this past weekend, each outpost or outcropping -- with our without a tarp, flag and clever signage -- seemed to be carving out disparate pieces of the same (peace) pie. From the legalization and taxation of marijuana and the ethical treatment of animals, to Kundalini yogis chanting for peace and the homeless blogger/performance artists mugging for the tourists' cameras. It's a bit of free for all in both the best and worst of ways.

"But, yeah, this?" Ellick began, cringing a bit as he glanced back at the growing late-afternoon crowd. "Frankly I've been really against some of the ways they've acted in the last few days. I did not like the way it was handled last night," Ellick said, referring to clashes between protesters and police in New York's Times Square on Saturday (more than 90 people were arrested, which is half the number arrested in Chicago at a similar demonstration the same evening.) "Yesterday in New York City was insane. It was really crazy. A lot of panic. A lot of unnecessary stuff. So we're glad no one was hurt. We're glad they didn't try to take what they have."

"They're doing something amazing," he said. "But simultaneously there are a lot of people with a lot of different agendas. And as they have no clear vision to move forward, things are naturally going to turn violent at times."

There's a verse in Proverbs that speaks to this kind of moment in the movement's story. Ellick and I learned it in our Baptist traditions as, "Without a vision, the people will perish."

In the New Revised Standard Version and other more contemporary versions, it says: Where there is no prophecy, the people cast off restraint, but happy are those who keep the law (Proverbs 39:18).

"We're totally committed to the nonviolent part of this," Ellick said, as his colleagues decided whether to take their golden calf on a march through the streets near Zuccotti as they had a week earlier. "You can't organize with violence -- you've got to think big picture."

WATCH an interview with Salman Rushdie at #OWS:

Cathleen Falsani is Web Editor and Director of New Media for Sojourners. Her latest book, BELIEBER!: Fame, Faith and the Heart of Justin Bieber, was released last month.

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