Protesters outside 26 Federal Plaza, where religious activists stage a weekly prayer demonstration against immigration policies.

Photo by: Adi Talwar

Protesters outside 26 Federal Plaza, where religious activists stage a weekly prayer demonstration against immigration policies.

Thirty-two days after they had been evicted from their Zuccotti Park encampment in Lower Manhattan, approximately 1,000 Occupy Wall Street activists rallied together to take over another public space for their movement. They hoped to occupy Juan Pablo Duarte Square and the adjoining lot at the juncture of Canal Street and Sixth Avenue, which is owned by Trinity Episcopal Church. Protesters were soon detained by police after trespassing onto the fenced-in section next to the park. Trinity clergy quickly labeled the movement’s action excessive. “In a country where all people can vote, and Trinity’s door to dialogue is open, it is not necessary to forcibly break into property,” the church said in a statement.

The would-be occupiers disagreed.

“If you have a church, and you build a moat around it so that the community cannot penetrate it,” Juan Carlos Ruiz explained later, “it becomes a medieval castle that looks at the outside world as the enemy. Many church leaders build their walls high enough to isolate their congregation from the outside world.”

Ruiz knows a few things about churches. He is a non-active Catholic priest who now assists a Lutheran parish as a spiritual leader in Sunset Park. And he is part of a growing group of religious activists within the larger Occupy movement.

If the popular image of an Occupy Wall Street believer is of a secular, native-born, white activist, Ruiz challenges the stereotype. But he and other religious leaders who’ve embraced OWS face their own challenge: getting their flocks to see the connection between faith and action.

A conversion on the road

While the Occupy movement is an important influence for interfaith activists, much of Ruiz’s political action is inspired by Liberation theology, which views Jesus as a model for social justice, and uses his teachings to protest unjust economic, political, and social conditions.

“It is the responsibility of religious people to make sure that the spirit of Jesus lives as a social movement within the church,” said Ruiz. “There is an assumption that disconnects religious figures from political activism that is based on the idea that Jesus was not a political person. But in fact, if you examine why he was killed, every reason was political.”

Growing up in Mexico, Ruiz’s parents were progressive activists in a Catholic movement, and encouraged him to commit to social justice through the Church. Ruiz entered a seminar at the age of 13, where he studied the life and work of progressive priests like Fr. Miguel Hidalgo—who led a peasant revolt in 1810 against Spanish colonialists under the banner of the Virgin of Guadalupe—and the Spanish Dominican friar Antonio de Montesinos, who was one of the first Catholic leaders to publicly denounce the injustices of Spanish colonialism. “Tell me, by what right or by what interpretation of justice do you keep these Indians in such a cruel and horrible servitude?” Montesinos asked a packed congregation of Spanish elite on the island of Hispaniola (modern day Dominican Republic and Haiti) in 1511. “By what authority have you waged such detestable wars against people who were once living so quietly and peacefully in their own land?”

Ruiz became disillusioned by the dichotomy between faith and action that he encountered in many classmates at his seminary in Chicago, and then later with colleagues in the priesthood. This led him to embrace other churches, like the Lutheran parish he assists in, where he has found more flexibility to reconnect with God through his social activism.

A broader movement

Many interfaith activists who are veterans of civil rights, immigration justice, women’s, labor, and other movements, found in Occupy Wall Street a new generation willing to fight for social justice and democracy. For them, the Occupy movement is a major breakthrough in organizing because it showed young activists that without face-to-face contact there can be no change.

“1960s activism was about building a physical connection,” recalled Sally Bermanzohn, 64, a veteran of the civil rights and anti-Vietnam War movement who now participates in projects with Occupy Faith. “It was before the Internet, before the cellphone, and Xerox machines had just become available, so communication was all done through word of mouth… Occupy Wall Street is similar because the work group that physically meets is the basic unit that gets things done, and in my experience of civil rights, we organized in groups to take action.”

While the Internet is an effective tool for bringing people together, some religious leaders argue that it cannot replicate the spontaneity and energy of sharing an experience with others in public. This sentiment is particularly relevant for interfaith organizers who have made the Occupy movement’s communal spirit and the emphasis on human networks focal points of their ministries. “The church needs to be a place that makes you feel human,” says Ruiz.

Throughout American history, from the abolitionist movement to today’s immigration activism, churches have provided a platform for people to address social injustices. Today, however, the political profile of organized religion is more closely associated with moral advocacy, like opposition to abortion rights, contraception or same-sex marriage. For Ruiz, like many interfaith Occupiers, this perception is a tremendous setback.

The chain-link fence

On the overcast Saturday when Occupiers gathered to take over Duarte Park, livestream video showed George Packard, a former Episcopal bishop, dressed in a purple robe, climbing a wooden ladder that protesters had raised over the fence and dropping to the ground inside Trinity’s lot. Other interfaith protestors, including Ruiz, followed.

The group of religious activists had tried to mediate an agreement with Trinity for a new encampment in the lot. But when that effort broke down, the OWS supporters saw an opportunity to raise public consciousness by trespassing onto the property. Tearing down the chain-link fence that encloses Trinity’s lot was, in their view, a symbolic action that could encourage other religious believers and the church itself to tear down the walls that separate them from society.

OWS supporters also pointed out that Trinity’s connection to power justified the occupation of its fenced-in lot. The church is the third-largest landowner in New York City, holding 6 million feet of real estate, and its board members include leaders from large finance companies like Citigroup and Merrill Lynch.

While refusing to provide access to the lot, Trinity maintained its support for OWS by continuing to offer other facilities as workspaces. The church also emphasized that even while it is against breaking the law, it still shares the same objectives as the Occupy movement: “OWS protestors call out for social and economic justice,” it said in a statement, “Trinity has been supporting these goals for more than 300 years. The protestors say they want to improve housing and economic development; Trinity is actively engaged in such efforts in the poorest neighborhoods in New York City and indeed around the world. We do not, however, believe that erecting a tent city at Duarte Square enhances their mission or ours.”

The critical tension

Ruiz sees the disagreement between Occupy and Trinity as part of a larger tension between the spirit of religion, which seeks a radical reordering of society according to moral teachings, and the operation of religion, which defends the church as an institution, and therefore has a stake in the status quo.

That tension between law and spirit set the theme of the fifth service on the third Sunday of Lent at St. Jacobi Church. “The ten commandments were implemented in the churches to outline a path that will reconnect us with the spirit of God,” Ruiz said in his sermon. “But if Jesus were present today, he would drive us out of the temples. And up to a certain point encourage us to reoccupy them, take them over as a community, because they are vastly empty.”

Located on Fourth Avenue between 54th and 55th Streets in Sunset Park, St. Jacobi looks like a large overturned ship that has been landlocked and abandoned. But the scaffolding outside of its entrance is a clear sign that the spark of a community still lives inside. It was originally founded by German immigrants in 1889, when they started holding services at a storefront by the ferry terminal. The parish eventually relocated into the larger space of the current church, and continued to grow until the 1950s when its more established members began moving out to the suburbs. After failed initiatives to attract other immigrant believers, St. Jacobi successfully embraced the growing population of Cantonese- and Mandarin-speaking immigrants in the 1990s. But these parishioners soon followed in the footsteps of their German predecessors to the suburbs, and now the church hopes to re-launch another initiative to attract new believers.

For Rosalia Siu, 62, a member of St. Jacobi Church’s senior council and its financial secretary, the motivation for joining the parish was her family. An immigrant from the southern Chinese province of Guangdong, Siu moved to the United States with her husband and daughters in 1980 against her father’s wishes. In an effort to reconcile with him, she promised her father that her children would maintain their Chinese culture and language. And like many Chinese immigrants at that time, she found in religion a place that helped her protect her family’s heritage and develop her spirituality.

“The church had Chinese language classes,” she said. “I also joined bible study classes and learned how to pray. At first it was difficult, but after two years, it started to make sense to me, and the church became like a family.”

Weekly obligation

As part of his ongoing mission to put faith into action, Ruiz has also cofounded the New Sanctuary Movement nationwide, and its chapter in New York, to advocate for undocumented immigrants. Members of the interfaith network gather every Thursday at 11 a.m. in front of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services headquarters at 26 Federal Plaza to demonstrate their solidarity with families and communities that are resisting detention and deportation.

Protestors, dressed in white robes as a symbol of that unity, march in silence around the immigration building seven times, evoking the Jericho walk that the people of Israel made around the walled-city until its fortifications crumbled with the blow of a horn. “Similarly,” said Ravi Ragbir, the director of the Sanctuary chapter, “Immigration and all policies seem like they are impenetrable. We are walking around the building, which represents an unjust policy, to change it.”

Ruiz hopes that as the new sanctuary movement’s protests grow larger, people will begin to visualize the pain and suffering of others who are victimized by unfair policies—students who are unable to learn, workers who face exploitation, and families that are being divided.

The success of Ruiz’s work at St. Jacobi’s, and the future of OWS in communities of faith, will depend largely on whether organizers and ministers can inspire the congregation to see beyond the church walls. And for that, he explained, the parishioners have to understand that the temple is not a destination where they can be closer to God, but a place that facilitates a relationship with God’s spirit in the community. To this end, he posed a question in his Lenten sermon: “How can we make this temple more meaningful for our community?”