[The following is a guest post from Courtney Weber and Mary Caliendo. Mary Caliendo and Courtney Weber are Wiccan Priestesses living in New York City, who chaplain the Occupy Wall Street movement through the Support and Medic Working Groups. Mary can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and Courtney can be reached at email@example.com. Courtney is also a contributor to the Pagan Newswire Collective’s new blog documenting Pagan and Heathen involvement in the Occupy movement. I hope you’ll join her, and the other contributors, there.]
We are Wiccan Priestesses who have been Chaplaining at Occupy Wall Street.
I became personally engaged with the movement from day one—when one of my Coveners could not attend our September 17th Mabon because he was going downtown to camp in a park that I’d never heard of with “a bunch of other people” to “show Wall Street that we’d had enough.” I didn’t understand what he was doing, but as I am supportive of peaceful action toward change, I applauded his efforts, but didn’t see myself getting any further involved than offering him use of my shower. Within a few weeks, however, I found myself sitting in Liberty Square (Zuccotti Park) several nights a week. It was clear that this was more than a few disgruntled people hanging out in a park. It was an uprising for social and economic justice and in any movement as such, there is a role for Chaplaincy.
People often ask me to explain a Chaplain’s function. “To listen,” is my response. Chaplaincy provides personal support in a way that crosses religious and social barriers. A movement like Occupy needs individuals who are experienced in working with people, attuned to subtle needs, who can help keep a calm and peaceful environment. Quite often, just listening is enough to let people know they are cared about and that working for this movement is worthwhile. Chaplains frequently have a natural inclination toward caring for individuals’ needs and are often quite experienced in things like mediation, delegation and also knowing when a professional mental health counselor, medical person or otherwise should be called into a situation.
There is no typical day in Occupy. I have consoled persons through anxiety attacks and episodes of depression. I have stepped into heated conflicts to mediate and deflect potentially violent fights. I have taken in Occupiers post-eviction who had nowhere else to go. I have helped organize housing. I have stood outside the city jail in the freezing cold all night to support persons arrested in demonstrations. The police brutality cannot be underestimated and quite often, those targeted are small of stature and quite frequently, female. Broken ribs, damaged wrists, head wounds and effects of the ever-present pepper-spray are the norm. While I am not a doctor or mental health professional, I am legal clergy and I am there to listen and to witness. Most importantly, I am someone who cares about these people and about the movement.
Pagan Chaplaincy is a unique animal. Our faiths are widely diverse and do not contain a central belief code. Therefore, what is the role of a spiritual worker whose very beliefs are defined by respecting the personal beliefs of others and not attempting to influence them? As it turns out, this unique quality of Pagan spirituality is an excellent fit for the Occupy movement. There is a prevalent antagonism within the movement toward organized religion. Sympathizing Chaplains of various religions frequently face hostility, many of them often hearing, “Religion is one of the reasons we’re in this mess!” In these sorts of situations, Pagan Chaplains are able to fly under-the-radar. Where one Chaplain might face hostility and rejection in a situation due to their religious affiliations, that situation might be more open to a Pagan Chaplain. Paganism itself mirrors the Occupy movement in its lack of centralization and leadership. Pagan Chaplains are effectively able to get close to the heart of the various matters that come up within the movement as we do not have the same barriers of suspicion and prejudice that face many of our colleagues from mainstream religions.
It is important to remember that this is not a “Goddess movement.” This is a movement for all persons, regardless of their religion. But even in our diversity of beliefs, one common value among Pagans is that balance is essential to life. We do not, however, exist in a balanced age. Occupy is meant to restore a balance that has been lost—both economically and ecologically. One of many objectives of the movement is to call attention to the fact that corporations have for years broken environmental laws and blocked green energy initiatives: (http://www.nycga.net/resources/declaration/) This in itself is sufficient enough reason for Pagans to contribute to this effort in some way. At the November 17th march across the Brooklyn Bridge, an illuminated message on the side of the Verizon tower stated “Occupy Earth.” For decades, Pagans have spoken about reclaiming Earth. The Occupy movement may just be the socially active opportunity to do that.
Pagan Chaplaincy and the Occupy movement is also providing a unique opportunity for us to continue to show ourselves as a productive and legitimate faith community. Over the last few decades, countless Pagans have come forward with important blogs and websites and numerous Pride days dot the country festivals every year with the similar desire to present ourselves as “just like everyone else.” But where our desires for acceptance really shine is in connecting with members of other faiths over common goals. Getting to know us not just under the guise of “That Pagan Person” but “Friend and Ally—and also Pagan” is a huge step toward making our voices heard and our practices respected. Divisions melt away under the pressure-cooker goal of making a difference.
Priests and Priestesses, everywhere: Find your local General Assembly. Attend a Working Group session. Holding vigils and rituals are great—but they’re not enough. Talk to the people. Listen to the people. Find them blankets when they’re cold, food when they’re hungry, medics when they need them. Be a witness and share what you’ve seen and heard. Let us join our brothers and sisters of all faiths in making a difference in our communities, our country and our world. So mote it be!!!
My involvement as a Wiccan Chaplain in OWS began when a call for chaplains went out on a private list. I decided to go down and help. The reasons behind it were many yet the solitary reason that prompted me into action is the pure fact that religion has hijacked our government and has produced policies that are discriminatory and marginalizing. For years, Wiccans and Pagans alike have always embraced all colors, creeds and genders long before it became fashionable. Most of us recognize that all creatures that live and breathe on this planet are the Goddess’s children. She is about unity of all living creatures working in harmony. I also knew that I had an obligation as a spiritual person, given I live in New York City, to come out of the underground and by example portray that religion and spirituality is all inclusive of everyone.
On the fated day that I reported to the Medical Tent to volunteer, I was put to work in 30 seconds. I was called to de-escalate a serious situation involving a protestor who felt marginalized due to her emotional difficulties. Mental diseases have such a stigma in this society that a lot of those with these illnesses feel out of place in the greater whole. From that day forward, I built a very close working relationship with the staff of the OWS Medical staff. It was through my on-going relationships to the Medical staff that I learned that I was the first Chaplain to ever volunteer with them. It was comforting to them that I was not biased in any way. Although this surprised me, in reality it did not given the nature of what has been done within the last 10 plus years in the name of religion, god and theology. My work however has not been overtly spiritual, as I chose to work strictly through humanitarian efforts. I never bring deity into the equation when I am counseling a protestor or calming down those who are stressed. I feel if I work from my heart and a place of empathy, the gods are already present. As a result of my observations of the movement and the general feeling of religion; it prompted me along with Courtney Weber, Janet Farrar and Gavin Bone to draft a Chaplain Code of Conduct. It was presented to the medical and support working groups as proposal and passed. Since then I was asked by other Occupies around the country for the Chaplain Code of Conduct that we wrote so that it may be used as a model.
The key to being apart of this movement as a Chaplain is to remain neutral in regards to politics as well as religion. As a result, I have been called upon to liaison with the NYPD, Firefighters, and EMTs. If there is a patient that requires their care to be upgraded, often times the medical staff is asked to leave the tent. As a chaplain, I am able to remain with the patient to ensure that they are treated properly and with respect, I am also allowed to accompany them in the ambulance with a nurse. This also is helpful to the patient because they feel like someone is present that will advocate on their behalf if they are unable to do that for themselves.
As most know from the headlines, OWS has had many difficulties from police officers. These can be quite traumatic experiences for the protestor especially after being pepper sprayed, beaten or contained in pens unable to move. Similarly, there are young people who have never been far from home, living in a tent in the middle of Manhattan surrounded night and day by scores of police. The LBGT community of OWS has found a place where they are accepted and embraced. When that happens, there are realizations of the depth of discrimination, trauma and difficulties that they have encountered in society. I have worked to soothe and support their feelings, trauma and disorientation of all protestors and society in general who came to Zuccotti Park. Even though OWS is no longer encamped in the park, the work still continues in the movement.
The most significant experience that will forever be etched into my mind was the night of the raid. I received a call in the middle of the night from Pauly Kostora, Chief Administrator of the OWS Clinic. He said: I need you down here, we are being raided. People are traumatized—there are police in riot gear are everywhere. I said “I will be right down”. I jumped out of bed and immediately went on Twitter to find out what was happening. I had learned that all subways were closed so I called for a cab to bring me down to the park. Lower Manhattan was in lock down. No one was allowed in and no one out. Contrary to what was cited in the press, the protestors were given less than a 20 minute warning. People were fast asleep in their tents.
When I finally arrived, the driver warned me, “Be very careful. The police look intimidating and ready to enforce their mission with violence.” He gave me his cell phone number and said, “Call me I will come pick you up when you are done free of charge, I fully support this movement and your work.” I profusely thanked him and approached the barricades. There I went up to a group of police officers and said “I’m a Chaplain you have to let me in by law” as I showed them my credentials. The police officer said, “I don’t care, you are not getting in.” I said, “I’m allowed to go anywhere as a Chaplain.” I was then physically pushed away from the barricades with force and the officer told me, “Don’t make me arrest you.” I said, “Go for it. Won’t this be great press and go viral over the internet that you arrested a Reverend trying to assist doctors and nurses with patients?” He turned away and ignored me.
Out of the corner of my eye, across the street, I saw the same thing happening to members of the press. There was a total press blackout. I shouted to a reporter, “ARE YOU with press? I need you to bear witness and document!” I told them exactly what happened. The next thing I knew I was surrounded by cameras. Whether it ever aired or not, I’m not sure. It doesn’t matter, what matters is that I went on record. Shortly thereafter, I got a call from Pauly Kostora and found out his location. I made my way to where he was located inside the barricades. I then told a different officer that I was a Chaplain and needed to get through due to a medical emergency. I got a blank stare passed me, while he was avoiding contact. I received information that the protestors were heading to another park to regroup. I aided them as they came past the barricades comforting and telling them where to regroup. I then was able to talk again to Pauly. I was informed that he was carried out of the medical tent along with a patient that was recently released from the hospital with heart trouble. The patient was ignored and no care was given by the police. During that time, NYPD took chainsaws to the medical tent. They did not check to see if there was anyone inside. A doctor and nurse was inside treating a patient got out in the nick of time. Confiscated from that tent were patient records, 5,000 dollars worth of pharmaceuticals and medical equipment and hundreds of dollars of supplies donated by medical professionals and individual citizens—all of which have gone missing. The pharmaceuticals and medical records were kept under lock and key accessed only by licensed physicians.
The medical tent was one step away from being a completely free clinic to serve the whole of the community protestor and NYC resident. We have numerous doctors of all specialties from psychiatry to pediatricians, nurses, physician assistants, paramedics, social workers and a course a tiny group of Chaplains. People came in scores for free medical care; we filled a vast hole in our society. As middle class resources are dwindling and health insurance premiums are too expensive, all found a place where they can get top notch medical attention.
I do profoundly hope that the work I am doing with OWS Medical will echo through America. Medical care should be a right not a luxury and I pray that the work we are doing will somehow change the course of history so that medical professionals will see the day when they can treat a patient properly instead of having their hands tied by appeasing and treating in such as way that insurance will pay for it. Due to the primary fact that no health insurance was involved at the OWS medical tent, the patients were able to receive the attention and care that has been unseen in this country in a very long time. I am humbled and inspired by the humility and compassion of the all the medical professionals that have volunteered their time and resources. They work full time jobs and then tirelessly work long hours with OWS Medical.
They may have shut us down, but all is not lost. We are currently regrouping and coming up with a new strategy to continue to provide medical services to the community, even the NYPD if they so require.
OWS Chaplain Code of Conduct
Written and Assembled: Rev. Gavin Bone, Rev. Janet Farrar, Aquarian Tabernacle Church, Eire Courtney Weber and Mary Caliendo –Pagan Chaplains New York , NY USA
- We do not preach or proselytize As Chaplains, we provide comfort, support, counseling and consolation to the community as a whole as compassionate people. Our involvement is strictly humanitarian, we actively remain neutral. We do not interject our religious beliefs, cultural view points or self identified biased opinions upon each other, protestors or the community that we serve. We do not attempt to invite or coerce any individual to any religious activities, services or path of belief. While on duty and marked we do not engage in politics or political beliefs of any kind. We continuously scrutinize our own blind spots in order to foster service in a humanitarian manner.
- We recognize that there a multitude of paths that lead to the same place. We respect each religion, philosophy and belief as each individual perceives or recognizes a higher power. We honor and find value in the diversity of all beliefs.
- Our appearance is vital. We strongly encourage wearing plain clothes and keeping on persons religious symbols to a minimum in order to appeal to all diverse religions, cultures, genders, colors and lifestyle preference so that it will provide an atmosphere of sacred space, equality and acceptance for all.
- We recognize that individuals have been marginalized and stigmatized by religions, congregations and society. We actively challenge the perpetuation of any form of social and/or religious domination or oppression. This includes, but is not at all limited to sexism, racism, transphobia, ableism, classism, ageism and any other institutional oppression. We cultivate an awareness of our own economic and/or cultural privilege and the impact it may have on an individual, thus we work to create a welcoming, comfortable space through acceptance, trust and non-judgment for all, while calling out any action of other chaplains that perpetuate oppression.
- While on duty we do not solve the issue with prayer, chant or mediation as a first, second or even third line of service; we act only within our scope of universal counseling training, provide comfort, passive listening and safe space. We always partner to the best of our ability with trained support team, certified mental health professionals and/or medics. We administer to spiritual needs only at the request of the individual.
- We recognize that energy is important. We keep an upbeat, positive attitude when dealing with those we service and in our care. Universal kindness, love and compassion are essential to the energy we project. We ask before we make any kind of compassionate physical contact such as hugging, hand holding, etc.
- We practice empathy and cultural and spiritual humility by checking your own identity-based assumptions. We seek to listen to individual experiences from a place of openness and non-judgmental religious beliefs, and help people to meet their needs as they define them for themselves rather than our own idea of what might be best. We refrain from assigning a name or gender to a higher power and use universal language(s) in which to express our faith based beliefs so that our language is appealing to all.
- We serve with no ego or religious hierarchal structure. We organize ourselves horizontally without religious dominance or hierarchies of command, experience ability or level of involvement. Every Chaplain has equal power in all decisions affecting them
- We maintain a high level of confidentiality at all times. We respect the privacy of confession, needs and issues of those we aid and service. We ask the individual in a non-threatening manner prior to the involvement of any medical treatment or any other necessary intervention to aid in any crisis.
- At all times we adhere to the Medic and Support Code of Conduct and procedures. We are an active part of the Medic working group and Mental Health sub-working group therefore follow all codes of conduct, guidelines and procedure.
[Again, my thanks to Courtney Weber and Mary Caliendo for sharing their unique perspectives and insights with us. For more on Pagan and Heathen involvement in the Occupy movement, do check the new PNC group blog dedicated to documenting their experiences.]