On Leading a Church Parade During Occupy Wall Street

I led a parade in the Greenpoint section of Brooklyn last week at around the same time the police clashed with the Occupy Wall Street march in Lower Manhattan.

In Greenpoint, we were celebrating the 165th anniversary of our church. Occupy Wall Street was protesting against the 1% of our citizens who call the shots in the United States. Protesters at the latter were beaten by a few spoilers from the New York Police Department for opposing the culture of greed that is strangling the planet. No one got hassled by the cops in our old-fashioned demonstration. One showed a nation in jeopardy, the other provided a snapshot of the Church's decline with the evidence of its survival. My choice of venue that day revealed the connections and differences between my past as an activist (I've worked with various characters as disparate as Daniel Quinn, Derrick Jensen, Ted Kaczynski, Markos Moulitsas, and former UNSCOM inspector Scott Ritter) and my present as an activist with heroes like Thich Nhat Hanh, Reverend Daniel Berrigan, Pema Chödrön and others. The one constant is that after a lot of change for the worse, I still believe change for the better is possible.

It was a grey day. We met near a park where the business district peters out. Having waited a while for any latecomers, we set out marching, surrounded on all sides by police officers from the 94th Precinct. I was out front as the standard bearer. My daughters walked behind me, fifteen or twenty paces back, occasionally bickering over the finer points of "doing it right" while carrying the crisp new banner for the Church of Ascension. A mile or so away as the crow flies, those rogue cops we've all seen on You Tube were making international news in Manhattan.

Ella and Esther are seven and nine years old respectively, and they were the only children in the parade. There are other families with kids in the parish, but they did not show up. Maybe they were helping to occupy Wall Street. It was a rainy stretch of days. The app on my phone said it was going to rain on our parade. Only the hardcore were in attendance; mostly older women parishioners--the ones who also show up for the evening prayer service on Wednesdays and the first-Tuesday-of-the-month lunches at the rectory. The priest was there, of course, and a few others.

My job was to carry the flag of the Episcopal Church. I was one of the only regular parishioners in attendance who was physically able to do it, so there was no particular distinction in the assignment. A stiff leather harness made it much easier than it would have been walking the half mile or so in a light breeze that pushed the heavy fabric of the flag this way and that, requiring adjustments up and down and sideways, all the while my brand new notions about parade protocol making me also aware of the small cross at the top of the mast and which way it was pointing. I took it all seriously.

The pace was slow. A bagpiper played reels. The music bounced off the tenement buildings of Manhattan Avenue and in front of me there were police vehicles blocking traffic from side streets and leading the way up ahead of us and beyond that, on the far bank of the East River, rose the Citicorp building in midtown Manhattan.

It was an object lesson in the importance of showing up and the power of good spacing (we spread out to look a little bigger than wee) not to mention the joys of walking down the busiest street in our tragically hip neighborhood in the middle of the morning on a Saturday to let people know the church on Kent Street was still there and had been since 1846.

I was acutely aware of how uncool this was. Occupy Wall Street was cool. Church? Not so much. The flag was cumbersome. Thank God, because it kept me busy. Soon enough, I was surprised and happy to find that the experience itself was far more interesting than my feelings about its uncoolness. I talked with the auxiliary police officer assigned to make sure that I didn't get hit by a car, nodded at confused friends who spotted me while they were out and about, and smiled at strangers. People came out of shops to see what the parade was for, nodded and gawked. Cars on side streets were a block deep waiting for us to pass.

Ever since my confirmation in 1982, after which I decided mostly not to go to Sunday services, my spiritual life has been private--so private sometimes that even I was unaware of it. I prayed pretty consistently, but it was between God and me. I could--and vehemently did--justify my spiritual practice with that bit from the Sermon on the Mount: "When you pray, don't be like the hypocrites who love to pray publicly on the street corners and in the synagogues where everyone can see them. I assure you, that is all the reward they will ever get. But when you pray go away by yourself, shut the door behind you, and pray to your Father secretly. Then your Father, who knows all secrets, will reward you."

There is nothing cool these days about a hipster dad, without irony, expressing desire for spirituality from a non-Asian source. Mention Jesus, and you lose 99.9% of the people 99.9% of the time. I even feel squeamish writing the name because I know the effect it will have on people reading this. I can make things sound cooler by explaining my approach as a spiritual practice--monastic in character, replete with set meditations, a stability of order, prayer, and all the rest--wrapped around a few stories and parables about justice and peace, and letters by Paul that provide a design for living in a world that is intense (at least to me) on the best of days, and sometimes quite perplexing.

Thinking back now, it almost seems like marching for my church was the intellectual or hipster equivalent of "coming out of the closet" in a Christian Right setting; coming out as a person who has particular religious commitments. The fact is that I approach people just as defensively as they do the tradition I embrace.

When people look confused about my religious orientation, I tell them there is solidarity between our little march and something like the occupation of Wall Street, that my religion says there is an immensity of experience and world "out there" that trump the pursuit of power and wealth, and we're saying and thinking the same things on Sunday over on Kent Street as they are saying and thinking at the occupation and anywhere else people take issue with oppression or greed and the countless destructive forces both "out there" and "right here". We're seeing this with the unemployed and working-poor that can't exist in the giant shadow of a miniscule privileged class that increasingly lords it over everyone. There is a crisis in this country, and the cause is the pursuit of happiness for the few at the expense of everyone else. My spiritual practice is all about crisis and change. It's all about telling the fat cats to fast if they want to survive.

Secrecy cuts both ways. Keeping my spiritual life to myself allows me to manage any potential failures--which are countless if we measure that by bad behavior--but it also separates me from a larger community of people who might be able to help me find my way, and vice versa--if only we were all open to that sort of interaction. Too often, I think, we operate on the principle that what others don't know about us can't affect their opinion of us. The problem is that what we know about ourselves, and the ways that knowledge boosts or destroys our self-esteem and sense of belongingness to the larger community changes the way we interact with others, and so there is only one degree of separation between what people don't know about us, and the damage that ignorance can inflict on them. Morality and a spiritual outlook change that. And it needs to be a public discussion. Wall Street would be gone in an instant if everyone were to shift and change what matters and what has value. Marching in the church's parade was my way of being cool with that uncool truth, and even the first glimmer of me sharing it with my friends and neighbors.

There is a lack of generosity in the secret life. A secret revealed in the right situation can bridge the solitude of individuality in a society that only comes together experientially around things that go pop, whether that be a march or a car accident. The stuff that deepens our understanding of what it means to be human--the lower-case "c" catholic outlook--isn't easy whether you live in the Alps or Mount Fuji, along the banks of the Hudson or the Yangtze. True stories honestly told about life lived well or badly and the lessons learned are harder to find, but infinitely more useful than a car crash or a parade.

The reminder of a modest parade for a little church that has been around for 165 years is simply that places like the Church of the Ascension have been a gateway for that deeper stuff--empire-killing knowledge--for a long, long time.