Bay Area clergy give active religious presence to Occupy Oakland protesters

Pastors Kurt Kuhsman (l) and Rita Nakashima Brock join hands as Brock leads a chant outside the interfaith tent at the Occupy Oakland encampment on Frank Ogawa Plaza on November 2, the day of the general strike. Photo by Amina Waheed.

Pastors Kurt Kuhsman (l) and Rita Nakashima Brock join hands as Brock leads a chant outside the interfaith tent at the Occupy Oakland encampment on Frank Ogawa Plaza on November 2, the day of the general strike. Photo by Amina Waheed.

Every village needs a church—or perhaps a non-denominational interfaith tent—to fill the spiritual needs of its inhabitants, and according to a recently formed group of Bay Area clergy, the Occupy Oakland encampment at Frank Ogawa Plaza is no different.

Down by the former site of Occupy Oakland’s kitchen, near the corner of 14th and Broadway, religious organizers recently installed a new canopy outside city hall.  It has since moved to a larger space, but the intent has not changed. They’re calling it an interfaith tent, and for now, its purpose is still the subject of a lively and ongoing discussion.  For the most part, everyone has agreed that that the tent will be a site for religious people to gather—or at least organize other places to gather. Religious services will also be held there. The rest of its functions said Jeremy Nickel, a thirty-something pony-tailed Unitarian Universalist minister from Hayward, will be up to the protesters to decide.

“What we’re about is not telling the movement what it should be, but trying to discern what the movement wants us to be,” he said.

Around the world, Occupy groups are re-imagining public space, civic participation, and protest.  Now, clergy sympathetic to the protesters are also charting new forms of religious engagement.  In Boston, local Christian, Jewish, Sikh, and Buddhist leaders have performed rituals and held services at Dewey Square.  In the UK, the founding Occupy London camp has been located in front of St. Paul’s Cathedral since mid-October. (“I could imagine Jesus being born in the camp,” the Cathedral’s outgoing canon chancellor told the Guardian in the protesters’ defense.)  In New York, clergy members carried a golden calf through Zucotti Park while reciting lines from the Beatitudes. “Righteous are the poor! Righteous are the meek!” they chanted in a call-and-response with protesters.

Seeking to support the Occupy protest in their own backyard and re-apply a spiritual mindset to the lives of the young people driving it, some progressive Bay Area clergy have decided it’s time Occupy Oakland had an active religious presence of its own. After the October 25 raid, when Occupy Oakland residents were evicted by a multitude of law enforcement agencies, the clergy group had its first meeting to discuss promoting non-violent resistance among protesters.  By their second meeting on Monday, October 31, attendance had doubled, with more than 20 pastors and other religious leaders joining the discussion, coming from churches as far away as Fremont to the south and Vacaville to the north.

fAt the end of that meeting, the clergy reaffirmed their commitment to non-violence and agreed that having a tent at the Occupy Oakland encampment would be essential to diffusing those values among its inhabitants. “When we see people practicing our values in the streets,” said Rabbi Michael Lerner, of the Beyt Tikkun synagogue in San Francisco, “we want to be there with them.”

* * *

A woman named Sri Louise, a yoga instructor and member of the Plymouth United Church of Christ (UCC) in Oakland, was appointed the role of finding a space and manning the tent, since she had spent the most time at the site of anyone from the group and had established connections with organizers.

Dressed in brown leather pants, a puffy skirt, and a fuzzy white hat with a feather in it, Louise was easily the least clergy-like of all members at the group’s second meeting.  In fact, she was the only one without ordination of any kind.  A yoga instructor for 17 years and a vegan for 20, a substantial part of her professional and personal life was vested in the New Age movement, she said, but she had found its adherents apathetic to any social cause.  Over the years, she said, she had tried to organize yoga studios into getting involved in various campaigns, but no one seemed to care. “I think the New Age movement has come from privilege which has allowed it to be a feel-good movement,” she said.

Louise’s involvement with her church—or any church, for that matter—only began in late September, when she joined a vigil at Plymouth United Church on the night that Troy Davis, a man widely believed to be wrongly convicted of murdering a police officer, was executed by the state of Georgia. The next week, she returned for a service and has been going back ever since.

Only a half an hour after the clergy group’s October 31st meeting ended, Louise secured a plot at the center of Occupy Oakland’s nascent service district, near the Plaza’s 14th and Broadway entrance. Alexandra Childs, a UCC pastor and liturgical artist with the First Congregational Church of Alameda, purchased a tent—or canopy, rather—in Emeryville with $99 of her own money.  Together, they set it up next to a separate “Jewish Contingent” housed under an identical canopy under the purview of Rabbis Lerner and David J. Cooper of the Kehilla Community Synagogue in Piedmont.

The next morning, Childs hung colored fabric to the canopy’s sides.  While she and Louise were out running errands that afternoon, someone placed a folding table under it.  Childs returned later with a roll of canvas and art supplies to make a banner to hold at the “general strike” that Occupy protesters were organizing for November 2, as well as a more visible sign to identify their tent among the sea of tents crowding the plaza.

“This is what we’re calling the group,” she said, pointing to a cursive line scribbled in her notes: “Interfaith Coalition @ Occupy Oakland.”

As Childs decorated that afternoon, Deborah Lee, a UCC minister and director of the Interfaith Immigrant Rights Project, joined a few another local clergy member in puzzling over the space’s name.  Lee said she thought the term “interfaith” might exclude evangelicals or anyone else wanting to practice their religion without fusing it to someone else’s.  “What about ‘multi-faith space’?” she asked.

“I think it’s alright as is,” said Bob Matthews, a retired UCC minister, after considering it for a few moments.  “Besides, Alexandra already made the sign.”

But Matthews had other concerns.  Someone would need to stay with the tent at all times to make its presence effective, he said.  More importantly, the clergy’s efforts needed to be focused, he said, even when others seemed to want to make the Occupy cause about everything and anything.  “I’ve seen the message shift from Wall Street to Oscar Grant to who knows what,” he said.  Someone he spoke with recently suggested that at its next meeting, UCC leaders call on Congress to introduce a Constitutional amendment abolishing corporate person-hood, the law that allows corporations to be recognized as people with individual rights.

“Concentrating on things like that, that keeps the focus on the message,” he said.  “The message has to be the same.  We have to keep our eye on the prize.”

* * *

When the clergy met again outside the tent on November 2, the day of the general strike, most were uncertain about what their presence meant or how it would be interpreted by the masses already gathering.

Posters and fliers had been distributed by Occupy organizers throughout the week, urging people to leave school and take off work to meet in downtown Oakland.  Several large rallies, or “convergences,” were planned throughout the day, leading up to a march on the Port of Oakland with the intent to shut it down for the day.

By 8 a.m., the plaza was abuzz.  A flatbed truck was parked on 14th Street, from which organizers would make announcements throughout the day, and hundreds of people were already gathered around it.

Outside the tent, Nickel, the Unitarian minister from Hayward, stood with the Reverend Kurt Kuhwald, also a Unitarian and a professor at the Starr King School for the Ministry in Berkeley, both dressed in walking shoes and fleeces. They were joined by the Reverend Rita Nakashima Brock, a Disciples of Christ minister from Oakland.  The epitome of a 21st century clergyman, Kuhwald wore a black baseball cap with the word “PASTOR” embroidered in white letters.

Protesters gather around the interfaith tent on the day of the general strike. Like the group they serve, the clergy are a diverse crowd, representing a number of denominations, ages, and ethnic groups. Photo by Amina Waheed.

Matthews joined the group within the hour, dressed in robes and a collar.  As he arrived, Brock also donned a long yellow robe—handmade by Palestinian women, she said.  All were wearing stolls—the scarf-like fabric clergy drape around their necks.  Nearby at the Jewish Contingent tent, Rabbi Cooper led a group of ten people through a Hebrew chant.

The plan was for Nickel to man the tent throughout the day and hold services before each “convergence” leading up to the march on the port.  The others would move around the crowd, acting in whatever capacity they were needed.  After a review of the day’s proposed events, the clergy hung an agenda on the side of their tent to accommodate every religious group which had so far expressed an interest in gathering there.

At noon, the agenda read, there would be a “Gathering of Unitarian Universalists.”

At 1 pm, there would be an “Afro Cuban Orisha’s Presence.”

At 3:30 pm, there would be a “Gaia Field Meditation.”

Just before the day’s first scheduled “convergence” at 14th and Broadway, the group held a prayer session.  Twenty people joined the circle, wearing bike helmets and guitars on their backs.  One had a baby on her chest, another clutched a sketch pad.  All were invited to put down anything they were holding and join hands.  Nickel said a few words, then Brock led the group in chant:

“We are all in this together, and we are striking for our lives,” the group sang, clapping to the rhythm.  “We are a justice seeking people, and we are striking for our lives.”

Throughout the morning and early afternoon, ministers from across the region were drawn to the tent, including two Lutheran seminarians, also wearing collars, who rode their bikes to the event. During a meditation session in the morning, 30 people showed up to participate.

Sometime in the early afternoon, word came through Sri Louise that protest organizers wanted the tent to move.  It had become too large and crowded for the common area.  But off the trampled grass and down on the plaza floor by Tully’s Coffee only a few feet away, a camp resident named Jimmy had anticipated the need for another canopy and had one already erected—more than twice as large as the first—to accommodate the group.

As the day progressed, the big tent seemed to accommodate the wants of anyone who walked into it.  At 1:30 p.m., the group held an “interfaith meeting,” at which about forty people discussed the services the space could provide to the rest of the encampment. To talk over the buzz of the PA system emanating from the flatbed truck nearby, they used the call-and-response method that’s been employed at general assembly meetings since Occupy Oakland began.

“I think,” Sri Louise said.

I think, the group responded.

“It’s a good idea that this group…”

It’s a good idea that this group…

“In particular offer services through the other groups…”

In particular offer services through the other groups….

“Like the children’s tent…”

Like the children’s tent…

“To people in need of mental health services.”

To people in need of mental health services.

The group discussed how to use the space to accommodate different religious services.  Another woman suggested that the group make itself available to be trained as instructors on how to offer non-violent resistance.

Most of the clergy were elsewhere at the time, but Nickel stayed on to observe. Kuhwald sat next to Louise toward the back of the tent, taking notes, occasionally nodding, and saying nothing.

“Young people are really brand sensitive, and I think the religion brand is something they’ve become very weary of,” Nickel said, smiling as he watched the meeting in progress. “If we had a guy standing on a pedestal here saying, ‘You’re all going to hell,’ no one would listen.  But when you create a space for people with that spiritual mindset to come together without any brand, they do.  The proof is right here.”

* * *

As media observers would note the following day, the thousands of protesters at the plaza during the strike represented a cross-section of the region’s population, with every class and ethnicity seemingly represented among that great mass of humanity.  The clergy, too, came from a multitude of ethnic and religious backgrounds.  Nickel later commented that the October 31st meeting was “the most diverse gathering of pastors I’ve ever seen.”  Nonetheless, despite its unmistakable diversity, most of the clergy at either the meeting or the plaza that day were white.

Standing alone near the interfaith tent, a tall African American minister wore a suit, hat, and collar and held a hand-printed “Hella Occupy Oakland” poster.  “I think a lot of people here have been praying and crying for this moment for a long time,” said the Reverend Brian “BK” Woodson of the Oakland church Bay Area Christian Connection, gesturing towards some of the pastors.  “My role now is to try to bring more African American clergy into the movement.”

Why weren’t there more African American clergy here today?

“I think they’re suspicious of it.  Our entire history teaches us to be suspicious, and this movement came without asking their permission,” Woodson said.  “But in the scripture, people missed Christ because Christ came not like people expected him to.”  He paused.  “I don’t think they see this as the extension of the Civil Rights movement. Yet.”

But there was something else, he said, “and this is very important.  This is a youth-led movement.  Most of our youth are in jail.”

Bob Matthews, a retired United Church of Christ pastor, was at first hesitant to come to the plaza because some of the protesters had been hostile to the clergy. “I think when they see us in solidarity with them, they’ll accept us," he said the day before the general strike. Photo by Amina Waheed.

Even some of the clergy who had shown up for the protest had their doubts.  Matthews, the retired UCC minister, was in Oakland during the ‘60s, when he joined a group trying to block the port in protest of the Vietnam War.  To stop them, police had used tear gas and batons swipes across the face— all methods of crowd control which he said he feared could be employed later that day.

Matthews said he was initially leery of the clergy’s involvement in Occupy Oakland.

The way some of the clergy were talking, it sounded like they wanted to incite the rage of police, he said.  Civil disobedience fine as a tactic, he said, but it wasn’t an end to itself.  Besides, he said, the people at the encampment didn’t seem receptive to any kind of religious presence.

“I’ve walked around with my collar,” he said.  “But I’ve heard the remarks, like ‘What the hell is he doing here?’  To them, a collar is just another authority figure, another person telling them what to do like the police or anyone else.”

But with his collar off, Matthews had spoken to people at the encampment the day after the October 31 meeting, he said, and it had changed his perspective.  Speaking the night before the general strike, he said he was still unsure what, if any purpose he had there, but he said that his views were changing.

“We are different than the people camped here, there’s no question,” he said.  “But in a much, much bigger way, we’re just like them.  We are all suffering the consequences of this system, and we’re all in this together.”

“I think when they see us in solidarity with them, they’ll accept us,” he said.  “I don’t know what it is exactly, but there’s something happening here, and it’s important that the religious community is here to support it.”

* * *

By early afternoon, most of the clergy had been separated from one another.  The strike’s organizers had decided to launch two marches to the port, one at 4 p.m. and the other at 5 p.m. Word came through Sri Louise that they were asking to bus in a number of clergy ahead of the 4 p.m. march to intervene in any outbreak of violence that might result, anticipating that the earlier group would be the most likely to draw resistance from police.

But the approximately 30 clergy members in attendance were by then already dispersed among the crowd of thousands at Frank Ogawa Plaza and in the surrounding streets. Word of the 4 p.m. march failed to reach most of them.  A little before 4, Brock left for the port on a bus with a group of protesters to await the first wave—one of only two clergy members in the group.

Arriving at the port, the hundred or so protesters who had been bussed in by organizers encountered a semi truck trying to leave the area and tried to block it.  Identifying her as a clergy member, a member of the International Longshoremen and Warehouse Union asked Brock to help direct the protesters away from the truck. “’He’s part of the 99 percent; he’s just trying to get home,’” Brock later remembered the man saying.

Shortly after Brock helped to redirect the protesters, she said, she could see the first wave of marchers walking the overpass toward them.

Kuhwald, meanwhile, had missed the bus and was walking in the march.  “Look behind you!” he shouted to the crowd, first at the top of the overpass and then at the bottom of it, overwhelmed by the sight of thousands of other marchers.

Nickel stayed behind to look after the tent, but joined the marchers at 5 p.m.  Marching to the port with the several thousand remaining protesters felt “just so positive,” he said later.

Most of the clergy would not meet each other again for the rest of the night. Up until that point, the day’s protests had largely been peaceful, although a few people broke the windows of the Whole Foods on Harrison Street after a false rumor circulated that the store would fire any employee who took part in the strike, and several other protesters smashed bank windows and blocked ATMs. But otherwise, the port had been shut down without any violence, and after it closed, thousands of protesters returned to Frank Ogawa Plaza, playing music and holding their signs.

Everyone but Childs—who stayed at the tent until 2:30 a.m.—went home by 10 p.m., exhausted, feeling victorious.

But after midnight, more businesses were targeted by a smaller group of more aggressive protesters further downtown, and a confrontation with police ensued.  A small group of violent protesters dressed in black erected barricades and lit them on fire.  The police deployed tear gas and over 100 arrests were made.

News of the late night violence only came to the clergy in the morning.

 * * *

On Thursday, November 3, the strike was the first topic of discussion on KQED Radio’s Forum program, a show that reaches an estimated 40,000 listeners throughout Northern California.

“Coming up in our opening half hour, we’ll take stock of yesterday’s general strike that took place in Oakland and descended from peaceful protest in the day to chaos after midnight,” host Michael Krasny said as he introduced the call-in show.  With his main guest, a San Francisco Chronicle reporter who had covered the incidents of late nightv iolence, the two discussed the vandalism that occurred well after most of the protesters had returned home.

Jeremy Nickel, a Unitarian Universality minister from Hayward, watched over the tent the day of the general strike. “What we're about is not telling the movement what it should be, but trying to discern what the movement wants us to be,” he said. Photo by Amina Waheed.

On the third call, Krasny said hello to “Jeremy from Fremont.”  It was Jeremy Nickel.

“I just want to say how disappointed I am, actually, of you to be focusing on what you are today,” Nickel said after introducing himself as a minister.  “We had tens of thousands of people all day, and any time violence reared its angry head at those bank windows or anywhere else, people immediately, peacefully intervened, and it was beautiful, and that’s what we should be talking about today, to spread that message across our country.  That’s what we need to focus on.”

Nickel spoke for almost a minute before Krasny cut him off. “The gentleman might want to emphasize the peaceful side of it and that’s all to the good,” the host said. “But you can hardly ignore what happened last night.  It’s foolish to say it ought to be eclipsed.”

While Krasny welcomed another on-air caller, Kuhwald had already gone to the plaza to also take stock of the previous night’s damage.  Much of the camp’s perimeter was wrecked, either by police or protesters.  Childs’ canopy—which had housed the original interfaith tent—was strewn with litter.  The Jewish Contingent’s canopy was completely trashed.

As he walked around the camp, Kuhwald spoke to a number of people, trying to piece together the night’s events, including one person, he said, who admitted “half-apologetically” that he had thrown an object into one of the fires.

No one from the clergy group spent that night or any other on the plaza.  But a man named Preston Walker, who came to the plaza on Tuesday to participate in the strike, slept there after the friend who he shared a tent with left, fleeing the tear gas. As it turned out, Walker was himself an ordained Baptist minister.  Walker says he came to the interfaith tent by chance that night, steeling himself against the elements and praying to God for guidance, unsure where he would stay in the encampment or if he would stay at all.

Jimmy, the camp resident who secured the larger tent on the day of the general strike, found Walker in the tent Thursday morning.  Walker said that Jimmy walked him to the big tent on the plaza floor which he had found the day before and asked him a question: Would he be willing to stay here, at the tent, to provide the constant presence it so badly needed but which the clergy could not provide themselves?

Walker agreed, and designated himself “armor bearer”—guardian of other pastors and caretaker of the new space, he said.

 * * *

By the weekend following the general strike, the Jewish Contingent was planning to rebuild its presence on the plaza.  The clergy were beginning to process the events of the strike, the march, and the spate of violence which followed.  After a meeting on Sunday, November 6 to discuss next steps, Brock said they intended to go to the City Council meeting on Tuesday to advocate for “a moral police force,” adding that the clergy’s role in Occupy Oakland has become more defined since the general strike.  While avoiding a position of leadership, she said, they hoped to find a niche as advocates of nonviolence.

Last Sunday, Walker planned to host an interfaith service at the tent, but canceled it because of a scheduling conflict. “It was only a trial run this week,” he said.

Meanwhile, Childs had found an online guide by a clergy group at Occupy Boston on how to furnish a sacred space, and Walker followed it as he remade the interior of the big tent with materials donated to him by other camp residents.  The tent now has a table with books and literature on spiritual topics, blankets and pillows to sit, meditate, or pray on, and, in one corner, an interfaith shrine assembled from found objects.

On Sunday afternoon,Walker sat behind a folding table, reading a Bible by a battery-powered LED lamp that was donated by a man who teaches yoga every day at noon on the plaza.  Always wanting to make himself available to passers by, he said he planned to never stray far from the space. “The Holy Spirit directed me to this tent,” he said.

This story has been amended from the original. The man the Reverend Kuhwald spoke to after the strike did not throw an object at police, but into a fire.  A quote was also falsely attributed to Reverend Kuhwald.  The quote has been deleted.  Oakland North regrets the error, with apologies to the Reverend Kuhwald. 

You can see Oakland North’s complete coverage of Occupy Oakland here. 

One Comment

  1. One of the most beautiful things about Occupy is that everyone who comes in a spirit of genuine desire to participate and contribute is welcome. I’m not a religious person but I’m glad to see the ministers finding ways to help and lend their voices. This is about building a real directly democratic voice for our community and their voices are a part of that. Thank you for running this article talking about their journey.

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