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Forging a Religious Path Within Occupy Wall Street Movement

May 1, 2012 12:01 pm 2 Comments By  | Via  
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Juan Carlos Rios hails from Mexico, was trained as a Catholic priest, and now leads Lutheran worshippers in a Brooklyn parish that is largely Chinese. (Photo by Adi Talwar/City Limits)

As Occupy Wall Street protesters take to the soggy streets this morning for the May Day General Strike, we took in this City Limits piece that explores a strain of religious activism within the protest movement.

Juan Carlos Ruiz, “a non-active Catholic priest who now assists a Lutheran parish as a spiritual leader in Sunset Park,” grew up in Mexico steeped in a culture of progressive Catholic activism, reports Arturo Conde, who is the director of the North American Congress on Latin America, a non-profit that advocates for Latin American and Caribbean countries and people.

If the popular image of an Occupy Wall Street believer is of a secular, native-born, white activist, Ruiz challenges the stereotype. But he and other religious leaders who’ve embraced OWS face their own challenge: getting their flocks to see the connection between faith and action.

The article also focuses on tensions between the religious activists in the Occupy movement and established churches — and in particular, an incident earlier this year in which some 1,000 activists tried to occupy Juan Pablo Duarte Square and the adjoining lot at the juncture of Canal Street and Sixth Avenue, which is owned by Trinity Episcopal Church. Police detained protesters who trespassed on the church-owned lot.

Trinity holds 6 million feet of real estate, and its board members include leaders from large finance companies like Citigroup and Merrill Lynch, according to City Limits. The church condemned the protesters’ trespassing but issued a statement saying that it shares the goals of economic and social justice with the Occupy movement.

Ruiz sees the disagreement between Occupy and Trinity as part of a larger tension between the spirit of religion, which seeks a radical reordering of society according to moral teachings, and the operation of religion, which defends the church as an institution, and therefore has a stake in the status quo.

Protesters outside 26 Federal Plaza, where religious activists stage a weekly prayer demonstration against immigration policies. (Photo by Adi Talwar/City Limits)

In Sunset Park, Ruiz has his base at St. Jacobi Church, which has always drawn a congregation made up of immigrants.

It was originally founded by German immigrants in 1889, when they started holding services at a storefront by the ferry terminal. The parish eventually relocated into the larger space of the current church, and continued to grow until the 1950s when its more established members began moving out to the suburbs. After failed initiatives to attract other immigrant believers, St. Jacobi successfully embraced the growing population of Cantonese- and Mandarin-speaking immigrants in the 1990s. But these parishioners soon followed in the footsteps of their German predecessors to the suburbs, and now the church hopes to re-launch another initiative to attract new believers.

The plight of immigrants is a driving force for Ruiz, and forms the backbone of his advocacy. He co-founded the New Sanctuary Movement nationwide, and its chapter in New York, to advocate for undocumented immigrants.

Members of the interfaith network gather every Thursday at 11 a.m. in front of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services headquarters at 26 Federal Plaza to demonstrate their solidarity with families and communities that are resisting detention and deportation.

Protestors, dressed in white robes as a symbol of that unity, march in silence around the immigration building seven times, evoking the Jericho walk that the people of Israel made around the walled-city until its fortifications crumbled with the blow of a horn.

“Similarly,” said Ravi Ragbir, the director of the Sanctuary chapter, “Immigration and all policies seem like they are impenetrable. We are walking around the building, which represents an unjust policy, to change it.”

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