Seeing church in Occupy Austin

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Posted on October 6th, 2011 | Filed under Challenges, Community, Featured, Leadership, News, Social Issues
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Last evening I ventured to City Hall in Austin, TX where a mass of people gathered for the Occupy Austin General Assembly which is being held each night until the actual Occupation on Thursday, October 6th.

In the midst of the meeting, an upside down hat was passed around the group to collect donations so that flyers could be printed. As the hat was circulated, I overheard a young man quietly suggest to his friend that the occurring event was “like church, but for a good cause.” The assertion caught my attention as I was just thinking to myself how the experience unfolding before me was very similar to what the church intends to be.

In a sanctuary of sorts, I sat among the most diverse group of people present in one setting that I have seen in some time. The space was one in which each voice was valued. The agenda of the meeting was voted on by all present and those leading the meeting were volunteers who have to switch out after two meetings are complete. There is no one person in charge of the movement, no one person with the “right” perspective.  As the meeting proceeded, a young man carried around a bag of granola, offering each of us the opportunity to partake in the snack. As our stomachs and our communal hunger for justice were fed, we discussed the mission statement, tactics, and ambiguities of the days ahead. People were encouraged to watch for newcomers, filling them in on the story thus far and it was made clear that every person present was necessary for the job to be done well.

I don’t mean to claim it was a utopian experience.  It took us two hours just to approve the agenda for the evening, and let’s be honest--honoring every voice is hard work and often frustrating for everyone. But in and through the struggles of the evening, the vision was maintained, the meeting was a success, and all were included.

Throughout the meeting, I found myself reflecting on the Christian Ethics class I had just that morning. We’ve spent a lot of time lately discussing churches which are more concerned with maintaining safety and security than being a prophetic voice in society. The church has an incredible opportunity right now to be a forerunner for justice, but for the most part, it is only acquiescing to the status quo – if not reinforcing it. Poverty, political and corporate corruption, the whole long list of –isms beg for people courageous enough to speak out in response to their religious claims, even if that results in loss. In theory, the church is a counter-cultural space founded upon love and righteousness.

Yet, the young man who was present at the meeting sat amongst others who were concerned with equality, justice, and inclusion and the only connection he made to the church was the fact that money was being collected.

The Occupy Wall Street movement is growing quickly because people are sick and tired of nothing being done in response to mass injustices and a national framework which does not allow for the flourishing of all people. I am curious to see how the church will respond to this movement. Will it recognize the congruencies and be empowered to live into its own confessions by participating in the movement or creating a parallel response? Or will it let yet another opportunity to exhibit the love of Christ in the world pass it by? Whatever the means employed, I hope we soon give the young man at the meeting a reason to believe the church too is a “good cause.”

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6 Responses to “Seeing church in Occupy Austin”

  1. James Croft says:

    There’s something very intriguing about the parallel you draw between church and the experience you had at Occupy Austin. What strikes me is that the organizational design of Occupy Austin is quite different to that of many churches, with its flatter hierarchy, volunteer leadership, rotating positions of influence, and room for discussion.

    As we are slowly developing our ideas for Humanist community at Harvard we are considering precisely these questions of organizational design, asking “How can we structure our meetings so that more people can be heard, questions can be asked, and no single voice consistently prevails?” It’s a tough challenge, because there are definite benefits to a more leader-oriented model, and, as you note, real difficulties in ensuring every voice is heard.

    It’s interesting to consider whether one of the reasons many are turning away from church may be precisely the structure of the meetings rather than the theology itself. I imagine we have a lot to learn from Quakers and others whose meetings are designed differently.

    • Mary Ann says:

      James,

      I completely agree and find myself thinking about the Quakers quite often. To push the organizational structure even farther, the meetings are run with what’s called a “progressive stack.” I don’t know if you are familiar (I had never heard of it) but roughly, it means that when people are putting their names down to speak on an agenda item at the assemblies, diversity is actually taken into account. It encourages women and traditionally marginalized groups to speak before white straight men. I was quite moved by this, and especially to hear white straight men announcing it. I immediately wondered what the impact would be on the church if we did the same thing. “White straight men have been talking a very, very long time. Take a break. Let’s hear from the marginalized voices for a while…say…50 years.” These imaginings entertain me. :)

      • James Croft says:

        That’s a very interesting idea indeed. Perhaps we should try that at our meetings! There are also other ways to encourage traditionally marginalized voices to speak up. Sometimes we have runners collect written questions from people which are then read out on stage by a moderator. That can help those who might be uncomfortable about speaking up themselves. On the other hand it doesn’t do much who have concerns about their level of literacy.

        What I find really fascinating about this topic, though, is how infrequently it’s really discussed. Felix Adler, a big time Humanist, once said “the custom of meeting together in public assembly for the consideration of the most serious, the most exalted topics of human interest is too vitally precious to be lost.” I agree with him. But we so infrequently talk about HOW we should meet together, and what precisely we should do when we have so met. It’s a weird thing!

  2. [...] their personal participation: Mary Ann Kaiser wrote a great piece on her hands-on work as part of Occupy Austin and Anna DeWeese posted on her experience at Occupy Wall Street. Faith & Reason also has [...]

  3. Thank you for this post, Mary Ann. It helped me decide what to write my first post on, and i linked to yours because i hope that people of faith can become more connected to what their ideals are. People like you are leading the way in that area, while some want the movement to coalesce before deciding what to do. i respect that you and others are actually help shape the movement instead of waiting for others to do so first before deciding whether to jump on board.

  4. [...] reading the great theological reflections by Yaira Robinson, Mary Ann Keiser , and Anna DeWeese on this Occupy movement, it seems clear that people of all faiths can support a [...]

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Mary Ann is a graduate of Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary. She is currently working as the Youth Director and Justice Associate at a United Methodist Church. Her primary interests reside in the intersections of church and society, particularly in realms of sexuality, gender, race, and ecology. You can follow her on twitter at https://twitter.com/ladygadfly.


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