From Camping to Covenant: Reframing Life in the 99 Per Cent

Last Thursday night, as Occupy Vermont – Burlington settled into the Sophia Fahs Community Room of our historic meetinghouse, as they talked, tweeted, ate and relaxed, something strange began to happen. Old people (like me) began arriving. Some, I suppose, were parents or other relatives coming with relief to collect their offspring and negotiate the many impromptu sleepovers that they, in their turn, would also be hosting. Several congregational leaders stopped in, a great support for those of us whose nights had now been Occupied. But I also recognized activists, including one tireless Veterans for Peace leader. None of these people said anything as the Occupiers held their General Assembly. The room filled with so much love and support that its power engulfs me, still.

But as the Occupiers disperse and regroup over the northern winter (and Zucotti Park is being cleared as I write this), the rest of us can more fully appreciate the gift they have given us. Here in Burlington, Vermont, where no one wound up with a police record in the dispersal, the Occupers hooted when Police Chief Michael Schirling said that he is part of the 99 per cent. But he certainly is, and the anger of public sector unions in Wisconsin and Ohio anti-union laws played a big part in igniting the consciousness that made the Occupations so successful.

When Mayor Bob Kiss was negotiating, he reconfirmed his own commitment to the political goals expressed by the Occupy movement. Since he is a Progressive, and our Congress member and one of our two US  Senators are in the Progressive Caucus (the other one is Patrick Leahy, no slouch on leftwing positions), the Mayor’s statement had credibility. Two days later, an unexpectedly huge turnout flooded our Democratic caucus to choose the next candidate for mayor, winding up in a dead heat between two more lefties, one of whom is also a Prog. So when the Mayor reconfirmed his commitment to Occupy goals, he spoke for a significant part of our electorate.

And on Sunday morning, as our congregation settled back into our difficult interim year, the community was overflowing with gratitude, pride and joy at having been able to serve as a means for keeping peace while affirming the dignity and inherent worth of even the house-less Occupiers by by hosting them overnight. My own favorite moment was remembering that we have an on-site dryer, so these fragile folks could do what so many of us take for granted: have another cup of coffee and a second bagel while the wet stuff spun around. It was a lovely moment of  dignity and equality.

Most UU meetinghouses are too small to offer such facilities, although in a pinch, I imagine they would manage to find room.  There are now three or more congregations who have chosen to be occupied as part of the dispersal process, which has pulled me up short in saying that social justice is basically nondenominational. Apparently at some point there might be a UU difference. If so, the sizes of our meetinghouses will not be that important.

But we must use the wisdom of these young people (sorry, I’m almost 60 and even the 40 somethings look young to me) to avoid the two things that have dogged liberal religions after heroic efforts in the past. If the efforts were controversial, we shrink through schism. If they were popular, we double down and soon succumb to burnout.

Schism is probably not a problem on this one, but burnout I really worry about.  If this large congregation produced fewer than ten people to do this work, then what can small congregations come up with? And what will be the cost to other programs and ministries, as the zero-sum equations of under-staffing and too-small leadership evolve into survival of the fittest?  We UUs must follow the example of the unions, as was done in Ohio and Wisconsin, to stand up for our rights to remain middle class and to give this same security and joy to our children and grandchildren, along with all our neighbors. Yes, the Parable of the Good Samaritan played through my head again and again last Thursday. But we would do well to remember, also, the story of Martha, whose ministry was simply to set a good table so others could work on their vision.

This will be a stretch, because UUs are notoriously hard-pressed to speak factually about finances. For one thing, as we look guiltily at our Unitarian past, we fail to distinguish between the small business leaders who were our backbone and the robber barons who literally killed off their workers. WE are the 99 per cent, just not the bottom of it. So we need to quit bowing to the 1 per cent by limiting what we think we can pay to do. That does not mean giving more from what we do not have, but joining the Occupiers — including the police chiefs and other public sector unions of the union protection movements — in calling for a national recommitment to the middle class dream, accessible and available to all. One of the most dangerous efforts in the UUA right now is the movement toward “volunteer staff,” that is, the move toward volunteers doing without pay the jobs for which others have gone into great debt to learn proper skills, tools and networks.  This is nothing but an attempt to accommodate the current power structures — including our own — rather than to acknowledge that many of us are now too poor to pledge at the level which will establish and maintain our religious values by supporting appropriate professionals in middle class personal journeys.

I know that this is a tough moment to say, “Let’s all remember that our police chief here in Burlington began his work by saying he is part of the 99 per cent.” I know that us Boomers, especially, remember when “middle class” had cultural as well as economic assumptions. Occupiers I met don’t see it that way. Most of them are loving their educations, but they want the careers that provide economic integrity in support of  lifelong learning and enriching family culture.

Chief Shirling and Mayor Kiss, by negotiating, showed a sense of kinship with these folks, who had been living in our park those previous three weeks. Now it’s up to the rest of us to join our unions and elected officials to do what Oakland Mayor Jean Quan suggested (no, she’s not my favorite person, either), and expand the movement beyond the encampments. As a religion, we  UUs have bent to these injustices long enough. Accommodation is not creativity.  Let us stand up again, and take our place with with those folks who flooded into the Burlington meetinghouse after the Occupiers were safe, to listen, to protect, and most of all, to learn. As our religious community looks beyond these weeks of being Occupied physically, let our spirits be Occupied with an aggressive search for covenant structures that let us pay for all the ministries and practical staffing needs the world needs us to offer, not just in crisis, but for the long haul. If our covenants are in order, the meetinghouses will all prove large enough.

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