What Not To Wear: Public Witness Edition

(Someday I will write a blog post that doesn’t involve the word “Occupy.” Someday…)

How to be a protest chaplain, rule #1

1. Religious symbols are still amazingly powerful. If you’re clergy, wearing your gear and showing up is basically all you need to do. Some folks might think it’s a “costume.” This is both hilarious and sad: one guy told us in New York that we were the first Christians he’d ever seen at a protest – at least, on his side. Then be prepared to listen.

How to be a protest chaplain, rule #6

DO NOT PROSELYTIZE. That’s not OK. That’s not what chaplains do. The Occupy movement is about working together despite the fact we all have our single issues and existing organizational work etc. Not only is proselytizing obnoxious, it’s detrimental to the movement. (And we won’t claim ya.)

This post is fairly Christian-centric. Suck it up. It’s good for you. It’ll make you grow up big and strong and possibly more tolerant.

We had a LOT of clergy stop by Occupy Boston. Both clergy we invited, clergy that asked to come, clergy that simply showed up, clergy that led services, clergy that came to services, clergy that brought their entire congregations, clergy that brought apple pie. A lot of clergy, from a lot of different denominations. If they talked to us first, asked what we needed, we usually had one answer. “Just come. Be a visible presence. Wear a collar if you are able.”

Wear a collar. We didn’t say “bring a sign from your congregation” or “bring literature on your denomination and what it has to say about social justice” or anything like that. We didn’t say “make sure we can tell what faith tradition you come from.” We asked them to wear a collar, if they were able. The collar is a known, recognizable symbol that a person has been ordained.

Every protest chaplain, when asked, would identify what religious tradition we came from. Sometimes we each did denominationally specific work at the site. I helped lead the UU Vespers services, others helped with the Ecumenical Communion Services, the Occupy Mass, and the Occupy Judaism services. But when we were out there doing the chaplain stuff we wore our badges that said “Protest Chaplain” and when asked what that meant we had an answer.

The Protest Chaplains are people of faith here to support the spiritual and religious aspect of the occupation and the occupiers.

I would have been dismayed if “my” clergy, the UU ministers I love and respect and hope to join as a colleague someday, had shown up in this:

I know that the point of those shirts may be to wear them en masse AS UNITARIAN UNIVERSALIST MINISTERS STANDING ON THE SIDE OF LOVE IN SUPPORT OF ___.  That’s in capital letters because those are capital letter shirts.

“BUT,” you may be saying, “but we aren’t protest chaplains.  We ARE UU clergy.  We want people to know we are UUs!”

The point of those shirts, or so I am hearing, is public witness. Public witness is what we, the protest chaplains, did. It’s what we are still doing. We took the super intensive crash course in public witness. This is the course that involves sleeping outside with your classmates in a tent and marching in sometimes multiple parades per week. We learned, through real-time feedback, what worked and, oh my gosh, what did NOT work.

The clergy that came? They wore solid color shirts and collars. That’s pretty much it. They showed up and the collars were enough to get people to talk to them. When UU clergy came THEY wore black or solid color shirts and collars. Because they were clergy FIRST.

When UU minister Jason Lydon was running back and forth as we were getting arrested at 2 in the morning in early October he was wearing a black shirt and collar. He was NOT identifiably Unitarian Universalist, he was identifiably clergy who was there for us, in support of us, in solidarity with us.

What is the point of these clergy shirts? Is it to be different, or edgy, or to stand out? Is that what clergy “should” be doing in acts of public witness? Is it necessary to be a UU FIRST in circumstances when we are witnessing publicly for a non-UU-specific issue? We aren’t the only people of faith fighting for immigration rights, for same sex marriage, for clean air and water, for an end to slavery, for LGBTQ rights. We aren’t the only ones by a long shot. These clergy shirts only serve to separate us from “other” clergy. It’s not what I want to see “my” ministers do and it’s not what I want to do, either now or in the future.

(also, they are freakin’ ugly)

Obviously, as this is my personal blog, this is my personal opinion.

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2 Comments to “What Not To Wear: Public Witness Edition”

  1. When I was in seminary in the ’80’s, we did some protest, liturgy, and civil disobedience one Good Friday. A bunch of us wore white turtlenecks under black turtlenecks or sweaters and folded the white necks over the black, mimicking collars w/o close scrutiny–and at the same timenot really wearing collars for some of us for whom it might not be considered appropriate. Wow–haven’t thought of that in years!

  2. Protesting is the only way UUs stand up for anything. If we aren’t UUs whne we protest, then we are never UUs. After all, we are much better defined by what we stand against than what we stand for, having no doctrine or creed.

    Sure, we have Principles, but they are intentionally worded to allow them to mean almost nothing. I’ve even had UUs argue to me that the only “affirming” they do is to support their congregation. They don’t personalize them at all.

    So, of course we need garish shirts to wear to protests and pride events; that’s the closest many congregations ever get to sharing our faith with their community.

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