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Two churches become Occupy sites

Unitarian Universalist Church of Ogden, Utah, loans lawn to protesters; Occupy Grand Rapids camps beside Fountain Street Church.
By Michelle Bates Deakin
11.14.11

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Protestors at Occupy Ogden are camping on the lawn of the Utah city’s Unitarian Universalist Church.

A small group of protestors at Occupy Ogden are camping on the lawn of the Utah city’s Unitarian Universalist Church.

Unitarian Univeralists have been supporting Occupy protest movements in cities and towns around the country, joining protests, providing food, and leading worship.

The Unitarian Universalist Church of Ogden, Utah, has gone a step further, allowing protesters to camp on the church’s front lawn a few blocks from city hall.

In addition, Occupy protestors in Grand Rapids, Mich., are camping in the portico of the Fountain Street Church, a non-denominational liberal church that has been led for many years by Unitarian Universalist ministers. The protestors had been camping in the church parking lot, but were invited to move under the cover of the church portico for a bit of shelter from the oncoming cold.

The Occupy Ogden protest got underway in that city on Nov. 5 with a rally and a march. The protesters were seeking a place to camp overnight, and called the Rev. Theresa Novak at the UU Church of Ogden to find out if they could camp out on the church’s lawn.

Novak passed the request along to her six-member board, which unanimously agreed to offer the protesters temporary sanctuary. The church doesn’t expect the lawn to serve as the protesters’ long-term home, but it has not given them a deadline to find another campsite in downtown Ogden.

In its first week, there were three tents, several chairs, and stacks of protest signs on the church lawn. Novak said there are about 50 active Occupy Ogden activists. Protesters are taking turns sleeping in the tents to keep a constant presence in working class Ogden, which has a population of about 80,000.

Ogden’s first Occupy rally coincided with an “activist fair” the UU Church of Ogden had been planning for months. The fair—which had representatives from progressive groups including Equality Utah, Planned Parenthood of Utah, Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG), and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU)—culminated in a concert by emma’s revolution. The folk duo, which has performed at many UU congregations and at Unitarian Universalist Association General Assemblies, has visited Occupy sites across the country. In October, it recorded a song called “Occupy the USA.”

Novak has been involved with Occupy Ogden from its discussion phases, though she has been clear to all involved that she is not a spokesperson for the movement and that she does not represent the church. She set up the group’s Occupy Ogden Facebook page, but she said that was merely because she was most comfortable with that social network among the early organizers. Novak is serving as the group’s “chaplain and cheerleader,” she said.

Local newspapers have characterized the movement as affiliated with the church, running headlines such as “Unitarians, Others to Rally in Ogden.” However, Novak has been clear that, although the church is supportive of the movement, they remain separate. After a newspaper article reported there was a protest sign that said “Burn the Banks,” Novak spoke with the campers to ensure their signs didn’t convey violent messages. “It wouldn’t be good for the movement or for the church,” she said.

There is a larger Occupy Salt Lake City presence in the state capital about 45 minutes south of Ogden. However, Novak believes it is important that Ogden have its own protest, too. “People ask, ‘Why Ogden?’ Well, why not Ogden? The movement needs to be everywhere. It’s exactly where it needs to be,” she said.

The morning after the activist fair and the first Occupy Ogden march, Novak preached a sermon on the Occupy movement. In addition to church members, Occupy Ogden protesters attended the service. She told the congregation that the Occupy movement is “completely in sync with Unitarian Universalism and our Seven Principles.” She said that “America has been losing its way,” forgetting compassion and allowing homelessness and an epidemic of home foreclosures. “All of us in this room have been affected in one way or another. We are all part of the 99 percent.”

Novak catalogued a list of protections she wanted to see for individuals, from fair taxes to living wages, educational opportunities, and ample food. “I want a world where all seven of our Unitarian Universalist Principles are a part of every conversation,” Novak said.

How long the protesters will stay camped in front of the Ogden church is an open question. The letter to congregants from the church’s Board President Laura Anderson said they are “still figuring out how this will work . . . and how long the group might need to use our lawn.”

Meanwhile, at the Fountain Street Church in Grand Rapids, Mich., Occupy Grand Rapids protesters began camping out in the church parking lot in mid-October and rallying in the city’s Monument Park. Protesters had been camping in a city park, but were removed by Grand Rapids police.

City ordinance prohibits sleeping in parks, so the church donated its parking lot to the protesters during the nighttime hours. Protestors were taking the tents down each morning so people could use the parking lot. Because of that inconvenience, and because of the increasingly cold weather, the Rev. Dr. W. Frederick Wooden, the UU senior minister at Fountain Street, invited them to camp in the sheltered portico of the church. About half a dozen people sleep there each night. A large bedsheet painted with “Occupy Grand Rapids” hangs between two of the portico’s Corinthian columns.

“Their signs are up,” said Wooden. “I want them to mark the territory that this is where they are. It’s not just a place for people to sleep. An organized group has possession of it.”

Wooden says he views the church as an ally to Occupy Grand Rapids. “We are their quartermaster, their support system,” he said. “We’re saying, ‘You deserve to be heard, and we’ll give you a means to continue to stand up.’”

Wooden hopes that more urban churches will begin to offer sanctuary to the Occupy protestors. “It’s not just a Christian or a UU thing,” he said. “Every house of worship that is serious about their scriptural mandates—feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, giving shelter to the poor—should consider it.”


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