When I got home from my first morning of volunteering at the Occupy Portland site, back on Friday, Oct. 21, I posted the following status update on my Facebook wall:
“Occupy Portland has become my church.”
“Occupy Portland has become my church.”
It was an amorphous, gut-level notion that somehow accurately described my feelings coming out of (or maybe that should be “starting into”) the experience. The next day, a friend I hadn’t seen in many months asked me what I meant by it. I didn’t have a ready answer for her. I’ve thought about it ever since.
You should know that my real church history has been uneven and spotty to effectively nonexistent. When I was a kid, my folks took me to Sunday School at First Unitarian in Eugene. They themselves were probably agnostics at that point, but they liked the social conscience and activism of that congregation, especially its pastor, the Rev. Carl Nelson, who preached early and hard against the Vietnam War.
Raised a Catholic, my wife Carole grew disaffected with that church in her 30s, and in 1997 she became a Jew. Since I often accompany her to services at Temple Beth Israel, the big Reform congregation in Portland, I’ve learned some of the Hebrew prayers and refer to myself as a “non-practicing atheist.”
As for my relation to the Occupy movement, I’m clearly a member of the 99%. On the one hand, I have fairly humble roots: my Mom’s parents ran a small farm in Hood River, and my Dad’s grandparents were also farmers, in Wisconsin. My father was a piano tuner, music teacher, and musician; and my mother taught secondary school, mostly as a substitute. My parents believed an education should enable a person to live on less, rather than gain him access to more.
On the other, I could conceivably have climbed to within shouting distance at least of the 1%, had I desired to. My parents gave me great health and supported anything I chose to do. I attended the oldest and wealthiest university in the nation, which also gave me huge financial aid that far outstripped what my parents could pay. I graduated magna cum laude, and I probably left school with fewer debts than most of my high school classmates who went to state schools in Oregon. If I had wanted to encase myself in the corporate-government juggernaut, I might have done “very well,” in terms of financial advancement and security.
I’ve been very very lucky, and I have no complaints. Pretty much everything I am -- and more to the point, am not -- has largely been a matter of choice. I don’t feel I have been personally downtrodden, cheated, or screwed by the system.
But I’ve known, seen, and heard of many others who have lost out unfairly. They’re the ones that the Occupy movement is fighting for, and they’re the reason I have joined up. Detractors say “why don’t those bums get a job?” (unaware of the fact that many part-time Occupy protesters actually have one) and “why should they get a handout?” (not being able to point to evidence that Occupy protesters have actually requested anything for themselves, aside from forgiveness of student loans; they are, in fact, taking care of others who are less fortunate).
When I told my friend that Occupy Portland had become my church, I meant that it was spiritually inspiring for me to meet passionate people, and to confirm my suspicion that there were a helluva lot of other folks not camping out in the downtown squares who nevertheless agree that our country has been very screwed up and they are glad the protesters are visible and on site. These outside supporters said so with their smiles, they said so with their vocal cords, and they said so with their cash, food, and other donations of batteries, clothing, first aid supplies, and hundreds of other items.
After further thought, I can offer a fuller explanation for that gut-level feeling. Now that I’ve climbed on board instead of just watching the news and throwing out my opinions on Facebook, Occupy Portland thrills me because it makes me feel I’m part of something bigger than myself, that as part of it I could make a difference, that my particular skills (as a writer and actor -- never mind my relative age and at least ostensible respectability . . . in contrast with the image, and to a lesser extent, the factual reality of the camping protesters) could bring something special to the table.
Belonging to a larger effort? Connecting to something bigger than yourself? Seeking to make a difference? Deriving hope and inspiration from solidarity with others?
Aren’t those many of the same reasons people attend a church?