Last Friday, the city of Philadelphia handed out eviction notices to Occupy Philadelphia, notifying the residents that they had to leave by Sunday at 5pm, or they would be removed.
While, I haven’t been a part of this movement, I’ve been observing them from the edges. And, when I heard about the eviction, I was anxious. I saw the UC Davis footage, I read stories about violent evictions in other cities—I was worried about Occupy Philadelphia.
The Interfaith Clergy group called on Philadelphia pastors to go to City Hall on Sunday night, to stand as a witness and reminder that we are called to the way of peace. So, my colleague and I headed downtown.
It was obvious that we were clergy—some people would walk by us, and thank us for coming, but mostly we were relegated to the edges of the event. We were marginalized, and that was ok. We were observers, not participants.
When the Eagles football game let out, we saw more movement around the Occupy Philadelphia encampment. Disappointed sports fans were coming up from the subway, and streaming into the square. Many were intoxicated. A few were very angry with the Occupiers.
One group of young men concerned me right away. I heard them making plans to pick a fight with the protestors, to get themselves on the news. They were convinced that they would be hometown heroes.
I watched them scheme, and as I did, I stood up, and looked directly at them. As they moved towards the Occupiers, I continued to try to catch their eyes.
And then, distracted by activity at the other side of the square, and I lost track of them.
I found the young men again, because they approached me. They were large, muscular, intoxicated guys—and I’ll be honest—I was scared of them. I forgot my own role until one of the men extended his hand to me and said, “Sister, I don’t need forgiveness or absolution. I just need you to know that I’m about to do something you aren’t going to like. You can’t change my mind. But I’m probably going to say and do some things you don’t want me to do.”
I stuttered and stumbled over my words. “Uh. Ok. Please be safe. Please be safe.”
And then, they disappeared into the crowd again.
Several minutes later, the young men returned. “We blame you for this, Sister. We couldn’t go through with it, because you were standing there…watching.”
These men weren’t much different than the protesters. These men had all been unemployed at some point during the recession. Dave, an experienced electrician, said if the Occupy movement started last year when he was out of work, he may have been out there with them.
What confused and angered these men—and what made them want to hurt people—was that there was no leader and no clear message in the movement. They believed that the movement made poor, unemployed people looks lazy. “All these people sitting around—what’s the point?”
My colleague and I listened, laughed and shared stories with these new friends, there on the steps of city hall, between the Occupy Philadelphia movement and the police on the street. The in-between place was not a comfortable one, and if I knew what I would encounter that night, perhaps I would not have gone. We stood where no one else wanted to stand— at the place where opposing sides meet to argue, fight and plan revenge. But, the in-between place is exactly where the church needs to stand, as a guidepost to our better humanity, as a reminder of our common status of children of God, as listeners, story-sharers, and reconcilers.