Religion claims its place in Occupy Wall Street

Downtown Dewey Square is crammed with tents and tarps of Occupy Boston protesters, but organizers made sure from the start of this weeks-old encampment that there was room for the holy. No shoes are allowed in the "Sacred Space" tent here, but you can bring just about any faith or spiritual tradition.

A day's schedule finds people balancing their chakras, a "compassion meditation" and a discussion of a biblical passage in Luke. Inside, a Buddha statue sits near a picture of Jesus, while a hand-lettered sign in the corner points toward Mecca.

The tent is one way protesters here and in other cities have taken pains to include a spiritual component in their occupations. Still, Occupy Wall Street is not a religious movement, and signs of spiritually aren't evident at all protest sites.

Clergy emphasize they are participants in the aggressively leaderless movement, not people trying to co-opt it. Plus, in a movement that purports to represent the "99 percent" in society, the prominent religious groups are overwhelmingly liberal.

Religion might not fit into the movement seamlessly, but activist Dan Sieradski, who's helped organize Jewish services and events at Occupy Wall Street, said it must fit somewhere.

"We're a country full of religious people," he said. "Faith communities do need to be present and need to be welcomed in order for this to be an all-encompassing movement that embraces all sectors of society."

Religious imagery and events have been common since the protests began. In New York, clergy carried an Old Testament-style golden calf in the shape of the Wall Street bull to decry the false idol of greed. Sieradski organized a Yom Kippur service. About 70 Muslims kneeled to pray toward Mecca at a prayer service Friday.

A Chicago group, Interfaith Worker Justice, has published an interfaith prayer service guide for occupation protests nationwide.

Clergy who support the protests say they are a natural fit with many faiths, because they share traditional concerns about economic injustice. They also point to history, including the civil rights movement and abolition.

"Every movement for social change that has really made a difference has included the power of God, the power of the spirit and the power of people of conscience," said the Rev. Stephanie Sellers, one of the Episcopalian "protest chaplains" praying with protesters at different sites.

Sieradski said his Jewish faith's commitment to helping the powerless was one reason he was attracted to the movement, but he didn't intend to establish regular Jewish services. He announced his first event, a Sabbath potluck dinner, on online social networks, not knowing what to expect. The strong turnout led him to help organize the Yom Kippur service, activities during Sukkot, and what Sieradski hopes will be regular religious events.

In Boston, Marty Dagoberto said the Sacred Space was also created in an unforced way, after he suggested the idea at Occupy Boston's first general gathering. He said the space helps promote a spirit of calm and unity crucial to bringing change.

"I feel like it's really important for us to stay rooted in love, simply put," Dagoberto said.

Religious elements haven't sprouted up as visibly in other Occupy Wall Street movements nationwide, said Elizabeth Drescher, a lecturer on Christian spirituality at Santa Clara University, who has visited the occupations in Santa Cruz and St. Louis.

She said some protesters are wary because they don't recognize the authority of institutions, including religious ones, and are generally looking for clergy to be "ministering but not proselytizing." She recalled a conversation with an Occupy Santa Cruz protester while a man in a clerical collar picked up trash.

"(The protester) said, 'That dude's here with us. He's not handing out pamphlets and trying to save me. He's picking up trash,'" Drescher said.

While protesters are cautious about religious leaders, those leaders have concerns, as well. The Rev. Katharine Henderson, president of Auburn Theological Seminary in New York, has visited Occupy Wall Street and praised the movement for forcing society to re-examine its values. But she said the school is still trying to discern how much to be involved.

"There's so much polarization in our country now, and demonization of one side of the other. ... As religious leaders, we want to be 'repairers of the breach,'" she said, paraphrasing a passage in Isaiah. "So the question is how we can come together, Wall Street and Main Street, to come up with solutions that are going to work for all of us?"

Mark Tooley of the Institute on Religion and Democracy, an advocacy group for conservative mainline Protestants, said while Occupy Wall Street has succeeded in getting attention, it's limited because it's only attracting religious support from the left.

A call for government redistribution of wealth and reliance on street activism doesn't appeal to the swath of suburban churchgoers with conservative political and religious leanings, he said.

"It doesn't seem they put a lot of thought into expanding their support base beyond those who identify with 1960s-era protest action," he said.

The movement could still attract center-right religious support from the Roman Catholic Church, said Stephen Schneck, director of the Institute for Policy Research & Catholic Studies at the Catholic University of America. But he said it must be clear protesters in the still-fuzzily-defined movement share mainstream Catholic concerns about consumerism and an unfettered free market.

"If it becomes just another version of American progressivism, then I can imagine the church probably wouldn't want to cozy up to it too much," Schneck said.

Imam Al-Hajj Talib Abdur-Rashid, who helped organize Friday's Muslim prayer service in New York, believes religious groups have already amplified the movement's power. He sees his involvement as a duty, because so many in his congregation are affected by the nation's economic woes.

"If Moses or Jesus or Mohammed were alive in this day and time they'd be out there guiding and inspiring and teaching these young people," he said.


Associated Press reporter Karen Matthews in New York contributed to this report.