Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Occupying the Fruit - or the Roots?

By Micah Bales
Originally posted 2/21/12 at The Lamb's War  

Over the past five months, I have had the opportunity to participate in many organizing meetings for the Occupy movement. These gatherings have taken place in public parks and the middle of the street, as well as in church basements, offices and homes. The earliest of these impromptu gatherings took the form of public General Assemblies, the organizational engine that got the Occupy movement off the ground. Since those first days in McPherson Square, many dozens of sub-groups have spun off, each one engaging in its own particular mission.

The McPherson Square camp began to take a back seat to off-site organizing in late 2011, and most of my energy has gone into Occupy Faith DC, and Occupy Church. Spending most of my time doing organizing within faith-based, and especially Christian, communities, I got used to operating within a certain context. The meetings that I have been attending have been largely based in a shared set of values and worldview grounded in the Christian tradition.

Of course, I neither expected nor desired to cloister myself within the Christian community. There a lot of really important work being done right now in foreclosure resistance, and these efforts are by no means limited to faith-based occupiers. We all need to pitch in for the struggle to secure the right to housing for everyone, especially those who are being robbed by predatory banks. This crucial work has drawn me back into the wider activist scene, where occupiers from all backgrounds and worldviews are drawn together in our common struggle for economic justice.

Engaging with this wider circle will take some getting used to. I had begun to take for granted the rhythm of shared prayer and reflection within the Occupy Church, and the pace and feel of the secular activist community is quite distinct. Many of our friends in the wider movement are admirable in their emphasis on getting things done in the most efficient ways possible. For people who are busy with work, school and family commitments, getting tasks accomplished as quickly and effectively as possible is important. Yet, in my life as a Quaker, and as a participant in the Occupy Church movement, I have experienced a different way of relating towards the work before us.

Within Occupy Church, there is a great value placed on fellowship and worship, not primarily as a means to an end, but as a way of building up the gathered community. During our organizing meetings, we spend only about half of our time actually doing business. The rest, we spend in simple conversation, potluck meals and worship. All of this seems quite practical to us. While eating and worshiping together does not necessarily make us more likely to acheive our objectives in the world, it does make us more likely to love one another, to place our trust in God, and to grow together as a community.

At the heart of the matter is a question of priorities. Which is more fundamental: The strength and unity of the community that does the work, or the fact that we "get the job done"? While we obviously aim for victory in our campaign for economic justice, the Occupy Church has charted a course that emphasizes building up the community itself, trusting that a healthy community will produce positive results.

One way to conceptualize this is by thinking of a fruit tree. A fruit tree itself is not particularly valuable to human beings. We cultivate fruit trees first and foremost because they produce apples, pears and peaches. Yet, we obviously cannot fail to care for the tree. If the tree itself is not healthy, neither will the fruit be. It is imperative that we care for the tree, nurturing it in its growth, so that it can bear the best fruit possible.

The Occupy community is just such a tree. Clearly, we exist as a community for the purpose of bearing fruit. We desire to see the fruit of social justice take shape in our society, and we want to see these results as soon as possible. Yet, this growth simply will not materialize unless we prioritize care for the activist community. We need to nurture those roots - human relationships, networking, leadership development, and the bonds of mutual concern and sympathy - that will spur us on to greater love and bolder action.

Without this vital root structure, the Occupy movement is unsustainable. We will be like a plant that sprouts quickly, but because of shallow soil is unable to come to fruition. If we truly want to keep our eyes on the prize, to "get things done" and see our dreams of economic justice take shape, we may have to slow down and care for one another. We occupiers are not machines. We need love and care. We need friendship, beauty and meaning in our lives. Without these things, we will not bear fruit.

How can we in the Occupy movement embrace a culture of long-term growth, grounding ourselves in the relationships of care that we require to sustain our fruit-bearing community through the years of work that our dream of justice demands of us? How can we seek not only immediate results, but also to tend the relationships that make victory possible? How can we embody - right now, in microcosm - the society that we seek to give birth to?

Micah Bales is a founding member of Capitol Hill Friends, a new Quaker church in Washington, DC. He coordinates outreach and web strategy for Earlham School of Religion, and publishes a personal blog, The Lamb's War.

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