Monday, December 24, 2012

Occupy Sandy and the Places It Takes Us: We Can Be Heroes



 

A year ago, there was no way of knowing where Occupy would take us.  But if you had asked us if we thought we would be organizing relief stations throughout the five boroughs for those whose lives were dismantled by the storm, it would have been hard to imagine. The movement has taken us places we could hardly imagine, helping us find a route away from consumer citizenship into a different way of living and being.   Through its rapid fire relief network, the movement has tapped into a desire of people across the five boroughs of New York, those who want to lend a hand, and put their efforts into something important.  So many of us are starving to take part in non-alienated labor, in which our efforts mean something, in which we connect with something real.  Occupy Sandy has allowed us to take part in such an effort and have a blast while we are doing it.





After weeks of taking part in Times Up! fossil fuel relief bikes rides from the Occupy Sandy at 520 Clinton to the Rockaways, Saturday I decided to bring my family, who had been missing out on the fun.   



The day before, Dodi  and her other buddies from Girl Scouts made cookies, banana bread and other sweets for the street youth who go to New Alternatives.  When they heard we were going out to Occupy Sandy, they suggested we bring some of the treats there as well.  So we brought a few of the treats, as well as construction paper and supplies over to 520 Clinton where they were having a presents wrapping party. A few of my friends from Occupy were there, one still homeless, after bouncing around all year long.
The girls were looking mighty excited as the day began.
 

The place was teeming with energy.  After a brief orientation, the girls jumped into wrapping away.  One of the dispatchers started a mic check, announcing they needed drivers to bring supplies down to Ft. Hamilton to deliver hot food.   I said sure.  We were ready to move.  

Walking over to get instuctions on where to go, I asked the dispatcher how she had gotten involved in all of this.  She explained she came down to volunteer at the Rockaways immediately after the storm.  Someone asked if she had a laptop computer.  She said yes and has been at 520 Clinton ever since.  The movement takes us to strange places.

 

"You need to drive to 461 99th Street in Brooklyn.  We call it Ft Hamilton."


 So we drove to 99th street in Bay Ridge.  Arriving at St John's Church, Tim told us the meals were not quite ready.  So one of the other volunteers told us she could put us to work.   They put us on onion and squash cutting duty.  "It'll get you ready for the army," explained Len, one of the volunteers, an elder in a fisherman's sweater, who was also dispatched out to drive.  The room was full of similar folks ready to put in a day of doing something worthwhile.
Stained glass of St. George battling the dragon at St John's.
 

They put me to work cleaning potatoes, picking up boxes from other delivery vans, and chopping.


One of the vans brought four twenty five pound bags of potatoes and carrots from an organic farm upstate.  The Sandy organizing hub connects people from around the state.


 

 Tim, who was coordinating dispatches, called me over to let me know they were ready for me to deliver the hot lunches.

"Its over the Varazzano,"   noted Tim.  "You ready for the address?"

"Shoot."

"66 Windom... your contact is Cat."

So, we packed my car with boxes of sandwiches and fruit.  And I was on my way. 

The car stuffed with supplies from the Occupy Sandy kitchen.
 

Arriving at Cat's, it was not a church but her house.  Her kids told me she was on her way. Cat arrived shortly after I arrived.   I had been expecting another of the more earnest looking Occupy types.  Yet, Cat was anything but.  Stepping out of her van, she was wearing reindeer ears and a mini skirt, a cigarette in one hand, a cell phone in the other.  Her house had become a hub for Sandy in Staten Island.

 

"What do your kids think of the house becoming a food distribution center?" I asked her.

"They don't mind too much," she explained.  "Just drive the sandwiches to 489 Midland Ave.  Take a right up the street and another right on Ocean.  Its right by LaRocca's Pizza."

I had not been to Staten Island since the storm.  Many of the businesses were closed, houses boarded up, with inspected signs we saw in Katrina.  Arriving at 489, I heard a siren in the distance.  It was a Red Cross van.

 

People were lined up food down the street.  My contact, Amen, was there.  And a few guys helped me carry the supplies back to the hub.  They thanked me and I was off.

Before driving back, I tried to find a place to grab a slice of pizza or a sandwich.  LaRocca's was closed as were other two other delis I went to.  Several houses were boarded up along my drive.  I had not been to Staten Island since the storm hit.   But it looked like it was still feeling the ravages of the storm.

 

Driving back to Ft Hamilton, David Bowie came on the radio.  "We can be heroes ," he sang.  Listening to it and Queen, "We Are the Champions" I started to think they were right.  While some criticized the song when it came out, the band's point was one of a collective experience that 'we' really are the champions.  We not me.  We really can be heroes.  Those countless volunteers from Clinton Hill to the Rockaways, Ft Hamilton to Staten Island putting time in to help out, they have shown me and every other volunteer taking part in the recovery effort that we really can be heroes. 

Arriving back at Ft Hamilton, the gang was still at it, cooking, slicing squash, dicing carrots, cleaning, and sharing food.


 

"It feels good to know you are doing stuff for other people," noted Dodi.  Sitting down for lunch after four hours of chopping.  "Food really tastes good when you work so hard."

 

"It makes me stop thinking about Christmas," Scarlett confessed.  In this way, these efforts are an ideal tonic for the holiday blues, a way out of the life of buying and consuming, of commodified experience, and alienated labor.  People  want to do something real, to  be connected to others.

 
Walking out back at the church, I saw a plack for Civil War general Robert Lee who had served in Ft Hamilton in the 1840's, placed there by the Daughters of the Confederacy.  Several of my Southern family members had also served in Ft. Hamilton, even if they did support the confederacy.  In some ways, the conflict they fought still feels very resonant.   Yet, it was not there on Saturday.  People were there to help out, regardless who anyone was.  The places Occupy takes me.


Driving back home, we were tired, good tired.  It had been another  fun Occupy day, with the movement once again taking places I would not have imagined.  People from all walks of life were part of Sandy, a stark contrast with the civil war we still seem to watch raging, churning through our history and politics.

Driving home.
 

"That's something dangerously close to real Christianity," my Dad used to say when he encountered scenes such as we'd seen with Occupy Sandy.
On the way to Judson the next day.


The following day, Sunday, we went to Judson. There Donna Schaper talked about the joy of Occupy Sandy, the new ways of relating with each other we have discovered through this collective experience. 

I see expert love spreading in Occupy Sandy too. They know that love isn’t charity and that it isn’t just from the government but that love is something you help yourself get. Self-help and mutual aid are the forms love takes during disasters. You have to watch charity and you have to even watch justice. One is too warm and mushy, the other too cold and calculating. Self-help and mutual aid is what the angels and the shepherds exchanged. I watched a 20 something volunteer, wearing a mask, helping a woman in a wheelchair wearing a blanket, outside in the long line. How did she help her? She told her to smile and chat up the people who were standing in line with her. Sure enough, this woman who probably hadn’t been asked to do anything for anybody for a long time came alive. She took her assignment seriously. She gave good talk. She gave encouragement. She showed me how the love of God is also the love of self, which is also the love of each other. I am sure she slept better that night too, in a silent night become holy, where all is calm; all is bright, right in the middle of the moldy walls.

We come to the end of the Christmas story about the material love of God. I want to add one more glimpse, a glimpse about the difference between the pleasure we get from the love of God and the joy we can get. Pleasure and joy are not the same. Writer Zadie Smith says, “I get a lot of pleasure out of life. I don’t think that is because so many wonderful things happen to me but rather that the small things go a long way.” For example I get a lot of satisfaction out of food. I can make a pineapple Popsicle last for 8 minutes… But I have only known joy five times in my life, and each time tried to forget it after it happened, out of the fear that the memory of it would dement and destroy everything else…the first she describes as joy under the influence, the second in romantic love, the third in voicing her dog, the fourth with her husband, the fifth having children.”


Her conclusion about the difference between joy and pleasure is this: “The end of a pleasure brings no great harm to anyone, after all, and can always be replaced with another of more or less equal worth.” The loss of joy permanently damages us, while taking some of us away day by day. The same thing is true about love. Were God not to love us, we would be condemned to the sirens. Because God loves us, we can live, long or short, deeply or shallowly, with impact or without it. We don’t fear smells or hurricanes or mass shooters. Smith concludes,

“It hurts just as much as it is worth. The thing no one ever tells you about joy is that it has very little real pleasure in it. And yet if it hadn’t happened at all, how would we live.”

If God had not chosen to love us, how WOULD we live? Amen.

 

After service a few of us talked about Carter Heyward's old adage that without joy, there can be justice.  This is certainly the lesson and my experience with Occupy Sandy.  Another  man pointed out that Beverly Harrison, who just died, had been Heywood's lover.   I gossiped with another friend from Occupy.   Some of us talked about Spencer Cox, the ACT UP veteran, who died this week as well.  Others gossiped about some of the fun they had with him, the outrageous experiences as well.  We talked about the need for a little more radical forgiveness and acceptance in community.  That's where the joy comes from, while alienation seems to breed just the opposite.  Its been a real sources of pleasure to find a church where I can link my politics with my faith, where community takes hold.
Members of Judson at OWS. Photo Erik McGregor


We are all asked to tell the story of our faith journey when we join Judson.   I joined the Church on April 3, 2011 after over a decade of taking part in events at Judson.  I read the following story to the whole congregation.

 Growing up in Dallas, we all went to the Episcopal Church, St Michaels and All Angels, St. Minks and All Cadillac’s as we affectionately referred to it.  My mother brought us there because it was the church was the best choir.  The preacher used to begin the service with a prayer for the Dallas Cowboys.  In Dallas, church was what you did before you ate friend chicken and went home for a nap. 

 

But I’ll never forget one year, the preacher looked at us and asked if we’d gotten enough after Christmas.

I’d never heard anyone ask something like that before in Dallas?  Maybe there was more to this. 

 

I was eventually confirmed, a good preacher’s kid.  After high school, like most kids, I stayed away church. 

 

After I got out of school, I moved to San Francisco, my friends started getting sick, lots and lots of them.

I didn’t really know what to do.  Yet, the church was feeding and housing em.  And even giving us a place to hang quilts where we could grieve the dead.  Wehoped someone heard our prayers for them.   And I gave church a second look.  Maybe this was a place for me. Before he succumbed to the virus himself, Fr. Bob used to say, we are all part of the body of Christ.  Somehow that resonated.  I hoped to be part of that body. 

 

I’ll never forget when the city of san Francisco started arresting the homeless so the nuns started sleeping out in tent city.  And the city backed down.

I loved the spirituality of that care in action.  That helped me survive the AIDS years.  It still does today.

 

By the time I got to New York in the late 1990s, I would go to Judson for parties, Rev Billy events, and through the years anarchist bookfairs, while still attending Episcopal services.  I never even thought to come to worship at Judson.

 

My dad used to say when you read St. Augustine, every time  he says, god, substitute the word unconscious.  Every time Freud says unconscious, read god.  If you really think about it, its all unknowable, he would say.   But, its in us.  We all are part of that  body.

 

I thought of all of this as I talked with friends from Occupy and ACT UP, new buddies and old, on Sunday.

The good folks at New Alternatives serving food on Sunday!
Photo by New Alternatives.
 

The girls finished making projects at the craft table and we walked over to New  Alternatives for LGBT Youth to drop off the cookies they'd made on Friday.   We'd all enjoyed taking part in Occupy Sandy and making cooking for the youth at New Alternatives, giving us ourselves and find something else in return before leaving for the holidays.

Dropping off cookies at New Alternatives, driving to Princeton and meeting new friends.
 

Later that night I heard the news that 520 Clinton suffered arson of  suspicious in origin.  The same day we heard more news about the efforts of the FBI to investigate Occupy as a possible "terrorist threat."  Perhaps this is why NYCHA is making attempts to shut down the Occupy Action Center in the Rockaways. Since when have people who provide mutual aid terrorist threats?   The city always tries to shut down communities it does not understand or that it cannot control.


 
The next day, I received an email from Occupy Sandy:
In the early morning of Sunday, Dec. 23rd, the 520 Clinton Ave hub suffered a serious fire. The severity of the damage, as well as the cause, is still being assessed. We have received an enormous amount of heartfelt support from our community near and far. We are deeply grateful. We may suffer physical damage, but we are not deterred:
“…We are pressed on every side, perplexed, but not easily broken.” -Corinthians 4:8
Please join us Monday, Dec. 24th at 10pm for a special Christmas Eve service in the Church.
If you cannot make it out but would like to donate to support the rebuilding of the Church, including Occupy Sandy's continued work at 520, click here
As always, thank you for your amazing work! Solidarity #OccupySandy
 

Later, I read on twitter from Occupy Sandy that " Thankfully, the gifts wrapped yesterday were spared in the early-AM @520ClintonOS fire: pic.twitter.com/bZAAHzMH."


Church of St. Lukes at 520 Clinton
Photo by Jenna Pope
The doors are still open at St Lukes, more than ever.
Photo by Jack Boyle
 

Every single person who has taken part on these efforts, every person who wrapped presents, rode out to the Rockaways, formed rebel friendships there, every single person who has taken part, you have all shown me we really can be heroes.


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