I can't think of a more perfect, poetic description of my experience yesterday in Zuccotti Park, just a few steps away from Trinity Episcopal Church on Wall Street and around the corner from the NY Stock Exchange.
The juxtaposition of these two landmarks provides an ironic, symbolic statement that speaks volumes about the deep, widening chasm between business and ethics and the failure of the church to be a voice of morality in our society and culture.
If you can grasp that image, you can begin to get a sense of what this movement looks like to those who pass by or walk around Zuccotti Park.
When you enter into center of the large, wandering masses of humanity in the Park, and try to wind your way around piles of sleeping bags and clothes covered by sheets of blue plastic and baskets of donated fruit and vegetables and large containers of fresh water and juice, you begin to feel the vibrations of that 'primal scream'.
At the very heart of this movement is a deep sense of betrayal of all we thought it meant to be American and live in a democratic state.
Let me be clear: There is anger present. It bubbles just under the surface of the sometimes carnival atmosphere.
The anger is directed in all sorts of places - some of it misplaced. There are people there who are concerned about how the environment is being compromised in this financial crisis and others who are angry that technology is increasingly only available to the very rich who can afford it.
The anger is, nevertheless, very real and very present.
Which is why the NYPD hovers around the perimeter of Zuccotti Park, keeping vigilant watch so that peace will prevail.
No one is protesting luxury.
No one is protesting technology.
Indeed, most of the protesters, young and old, are clearly well dressed, well educated people - young and old - who walk around with their cell phones, iPads and MacBook Air or PC Notebooks.
They are protesting the loss of their sense of dignity.
They are protesting the loss of their sense of liberty.
They are protesting the debt schemes that got us into this financial crisis because it feels like a form of slavery.
Greed that is so consuming that it dulls the senses to the real cost of doing business.
Greed that blinds the eye to the suffering which "acquisition and mergers" can cause to employees who become "collateral damage" in the dirty war of doing business.
Greed that deafens the ear to the cries of misery and puts profits before people.
According to the C.I.A.’s own ranking of countries by income inequality, the United States is more unequal a society than either Tunisia or Egypt.
Three factoids underscore that inequality:
+ The 400 wealthiest Americans have a greater combined net worth than the bottom 150 million Americans.As NY Times journalist, Catherine Rampell, noted a few days ago, in 1981, the average salary in the securities industry in New York City was twice the average in other private sector jobs. At last count, in 2010, it was 5.5 times as much. (In case you want to gnash your teeth, the average is now $361,330.)
+ The top 1 percent of Americans possess more wealth than the entire bottom 90 percent.
+ In the Bush expansion from 2002 to 2007, 65 percent of economic gains went to the richest 1 percent.
I intentionally wore my clerical collar so my purpose in being there would be easily identifiable - hoping the best of my intentions would show but prepared to be told that, as clergy, I was part of the problem if I was not part of the solution.
One of the people I spoke with was a young man who called himself Damian. He said he was 23 and had just finished a four year stint in the Army.
He looked sad and forelorn, sitting there at the entrance to Zuccotti Park. I put a dollar into his plastic container and asked him why he was there.
At first, he gave me a line about why he needed to get back home to his family in Chicago, but his story was so full of holes (and beans) that I actually had to call him out on it, right there in front of God and everybody.
That's when I got him to smile.
"Are you a pastor," he asked, looking at my clergy collar.
"I am," I said.
"You're not like any pastor I ever met," he said
"And, you're not like any GI I ever met."
I had several conversations with him throughout the day. Each time, a little more of his story would come tumbling out.
Turns out, he did an 18 month tour of duty in Afghanistan. He can't forget what he saw. He can't forget what he did. He is fairly paralyzed by PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) and depression.
I asked him, flat out, if he was going to use the money he collected on alcohol and drugs. "Umm....," he said, ".....maybe not tonight but I won't lie. Maybe tomorrow. Probably before the week is out."
He looked away and then looked back at me and said, "Sometimes, you know, when there's no hope. When I feel so goddamn alone my bones ache and I feel like an old man. When I feel like I'm going to go right over the edge and fall into a deep, dark hole again and not be able to get myself out this time, it just helps to check out for a while."
He turned his face toward the row of fast food carts that lined the street and, when he looked back, a tear rolled down his cheek. I found myself weeping with him. And then, he put down his sign and put his arms around me and hugged me as he wept in my arms.
"Yes," I said softly. "That's why I'm here today."
"Then," he said, "you have to promise me, pastor. Please tell the story of what's going on here. From your pulpit.
Let those good Christian people know that, if Jesus were here today, he would be turning over some tables on Wall Street and the Stock Exchange here in the Apple, and he'd be turning over the tables where the brass sit at the Pentagon and all the politicians in Congress in DC."
"Tell them, please. Promise me," he said.
I did. And, I'm doing just that. Right now.
Another man I spoke with also asked me to use the pulpit to tell the story of OWS. Indeed, it was a condition of his talking with me at all.
|Elizabeth Kaeton and Elisabeth Jacobs|
He also worked part time as a Paramedic/EMT but that position has also been eliminated. He continues to volunteer, "just so I won't lose my mind completely".
He then told me that he had heard a recent interview with Warren Buffet on CNBC who said, "I could end the deficit in 5 minutes. You just pass a law that says that anytime there is a deficit of more than 3% of the GDP, all sitting members of Congress are ineligible for re-election."
I laughed sarcastically but he said, "You know, this really isn't as complex a problem as people make it out to be. We just do that so we don't have to do anything. There really is a simple solution to most any supposed "complex" problem. You just have to understand what's causing the problem before you attempt to find a solution. The problem is GREED. Once you know that, an effective, simple solution becomes possible."
"And," he said, "that's why I'm here. That's why I come here. I want to be listened to. I want this to be heard. So, you'll make sure this gets preached, right? You'll promise me that you tell those good Christian followers that Jesus wants and needs leaders? Please promise me you'll do that?"
Promise kept, my friend.
Here's the thing - the thought that kept me up most of last night as I kept hearing the primal scream under all the words and the sea of faces and the sound of drums.
I get it.
Corporate greed needs to be challenged and corporations need to be taxed and regulated. The gap between the haves and the have-nots in the U.S. needs to be reduced. The Bush tax cuts for the wealthy need to be repealed. Student loans need to be forgiven. Banks that were bailed out by the taxpayers shouldn’t keep on screwing their customers over. And the USSC ruling that decreed that corporations are persons and can thus buy off our politicians and get them to do their bidding needs to be rescinded.
As difficult as it is, that's the easy part to listen to and hear. I agree with all of those things I heard people say. It has deep resonance with my American heritage as well as my understanding of the teachings of Jesus.
But, that's just a return to the status quo in this country. Even if we did all those things, our blindness would continue, allowing us to blithely maintain our obliviousness to the unjust global status quo where 5% of the world’s population (the U.S.) consumes nearly 1/3 of the world’s natural resources and disproportionally spews out more trash and pollution than the other nations do.
It would mean returning to a situation where the U.S. gives only a meager 1/10th of 1% of our GDP to humanitarian aid to other countries. We could cut hunger in Africa in half in 15 years if we were to tax every American 1 penny per day. But we don’t and apparently aren’t about to. No one is protesting or occupying on behalf of the many millions of people in the world who are actually being screwed over the most.
What are we going to do about THAT? About THEM?
It was a beautiful Autumn day, and, at one point, I got something cold to drink and sat outside in one of the lovely courtyards on the side of Trinity Church.
There is this interesting sculpture there - made of iron - which looks at the root system of a tree that has been cut down from under the ground.
I watched as tourists from around the country and all over the world posed for goofy pictures, mugging silly grins from within the branches.
I couldn't find any information about the piece, although I confess that I didn't try too hard. I really wanted to return to hang out with the folks in Zuccotti Park.
I suspect the sculpture was designed to be a symbol of hope - a message about the fact that, even in the face of disaster and hardship, our spiritual roots run deep beneath the surface.
I felt it a call to rediscover or uncover the roots of our faith and belief systems which hold us together. A primal message about the ways in which we are all interconnected in an often undetectable mesh of life and hope and promise.
I think, in its essence, the Occupy Wall Street Movement is asking us not to return to organizing the effort to return to the establishment of an upwardly mobile middle class. Rather, I think this movement is asking us to step back a few paces, and reconsider our roots to rediscover our goals, our priorities and our commitments - as individuals, as communities of faith, and as a nation which is part of a world of nations and tribes of individual people.
She told me of one man who made a substantial contribution to the cause she represents. His daily commute is about an hour and a half - one way - which causes him to leave his beautiful home in the suburbs before his children get up in the morning, and return home to his castle long after they have gone to bed.
He told her that, when he reads a bedtime story to his children on Sunday night, they say to him, "Goodnight, Daddy. See you next Saturday."
"Isn't that so sad?," she said. "Is that really a way to live?" my daughter asked.
"Well," I said, "it's certainly one way. The way he has chosen. Does it make it right? Does it make it good? I don't know," I said, "You tell me."
Beyond the banners and signs and the hoopla and the marches and the drums, these are the questions this movement is asking us to consider.
Al Gore is quite correct. This is a primal scream of democracy.
I think it's also a primal scream of our lives of faith.
The question is: Will we listen?