by George Packard
After the dustup with Trinity Church over Duarte Park in Manhattan and my arrest I thought it was a good idea to put the past aside and gather some Episcopalians for coffee one block north of Zuccotti Park. Before arriving I spent a half hour staring at that infamous space with its barricades set aside and chained together, made irrelevant by the court order favoring Occupy Wall Street. Still, there was an ominous and newly-erected watch tower glowering down on the far corner. It bristled with TV cameras. The tower, a collapsible assembly hoisted up and down for better police vantage, was tactically sensible, but given the strident tone of police behavior it gave the look of Damascus. As our meeting awaited, I shuddered, thinking, “Would the Church cope or collude with this kind of future?”
Seven of us assembled at a corner table in the restaurant. As an after-thought, I invited the bishop-elect of the Diocese of New York, Andy Dietsche. We probably should have had two separate meetings. Andy, bright and earnest, had a lot to say. Since half of the clergy were from New York there was an understandable deference given to him. He told us that the Diocesan Convention had passed by a large majority a resolution supporting OWS and civil disobedience yet he was sure that diocesan clergy were unanimously opposed to the Duarte action and the subsequent arrests. Considering four arrestees were present around the table I wondered what the effect of that news was supposed to have. So I asked him. He said that he wanted to state that so we could move on.
It’s where we “moved on” to that troubled me. The Church always seems to stumble here–it occurred in the Trinity negotiations for Duarte and now again over coffee with this new bishop-elect eager to declare a fresh direction. It seems, as blogger and Lutheran pastor Keith Anderson writes, to be the disposition of the Church to ask small questions instead of big ones, even though in Baptism we begin this Christian life asking and answering the biggest of all: “Whose will you be?” Challenging questions diminish from here.
Bishop-elect Dietsche said an e-letter would be going out the next day enlisting chaplain/counselors for Charlotte’s Place. During the nicer stages of negotiation with Trinity the rector and his staff took me on a tour of that outreach center and they were rightfully proud of it. The parish coffee house/drop-in center had been established in memory of a parishioner. Its opening pre-dated OWS yet it was ready-made for such with refreshment and bathroom facilities, counseling on request, albeit only if those needs occurred during the hours of 12-6 PM, Monday-Friday. During my tour I asked about extending the hours since extraordinary times seemed to require a more intense response. I was told–and it was repeated often-that Trinity had taken the “day shift” support of OWS. Still, “If this was such an embattled population in need of chaplain/counselor support wouldn’t it make sense to review those hours of availability?”
Andy said that many of the OWS protesters were from out of town, and, in addition to being homeless, probably had emotional problems. Providing counselors seemed to be the decent thing to do. We thought this was a good step–quibbled awhile about how many protesters were in this state—but supported it nonetheless. No one wanted to make tending this needful population into a tug-of-war. It was a small question, asked and answered. Yet, we urged that the letter include information about why protesters had come to the metro area in the first place…the larger question and essential to them. Indeed, this was not a suffering band drifting to and fro. Theirs is a message we needed to hear.
Frankly, OWS had been waiting for this Wall Street parish to make an attempt at rectitude after the debacle of Duarte. The cynical among OWS said the parish would revert to type and promote its charitable work. The sort of thing a corporate mind would come up with, they said. And here it was: the Diocese of New York had formed an alliance to push the most vulnerable of the OWS population to the front of the stage, changing the focus. I thought that conclusion was ungenerous; it was more related to the Church’s love affair with small questions. Moreover, when I asked Dietsche if he had reached out to OWS about this population, attended any of the open forums, working groups, or General Assemblies all of which happened nightly in public and private spaces only blocks away he said, “No.”
This penchant to shy away from complication and adhere to reduction brings us back to the Church’s proclivity to settle for charity at the expense of advocacy. Rev. Peter van Eys wrote, “Churches need (afflicted) people around in order to be involved in charity rather than justice.” Such acts salve consciences, momentarily answering the smaller questions, but they do nothing to address the larger ones. For Martin Luther King, society is not educated by the Samaritan story (charity) but by the larger question of why injustice plagues the entire Jericho Road (justice).
We urged, we pleaded, that the e-letter include a reference to the motive of protesters. It was part of their story. My family and I had first-hand experience with this mistake and its correction. Over Christmas we were delighted to host an OWS hunger striker. It felt good to ply this person–now eating again–with food and a warm hearthside. While we enjoyed the cozy feeling of doing good, our guest rose every day, read the paper thoroughly, and gently educated us on why there was disenfranchisement. We saw only the smaller question, but our traveler brought the revelation of the larger one to us.
I am beginning to think the Church’s salvation may lie in support to Emergent Churches, ones whose street sense and relevance keeps discernment clearer and truer. If the Emergent Churches are not encumbered, they could restore a priority to questions posed for us. The path we’re on now is one to irrelevance…if we’re not there already.
The Rt. Rev. George E. Packard retired as the Bishop Suffragan of the Armed Services and Federal Ministries in 2010. He writes a blog called, “Occupied Bishop.” He and his wife Brook are active supporters of the Occupy Movement and live in Rye, NY.