Is Jesus on Your Mind? Meeting Ernest Montgomery

[This blog post was written directly after Willie and I visited to Bayou La Batre, AL where they met Ernest Montgomery.  He passed away suddenly on April 2, 2013, less than two weeks after we met.  Willie and I were deeply moved by the brief time spent with him.  Ernest put Jesus on our minds with the love he showed for his community and the righteousness he embodied.]

Is Jesus on Your Mind?

[Quote from a billboard in Bayou La Batre, AL]

by John Wessel-McCoy


Wednesday, February 20, 2013 – Bayou La Batre, Alabama

On our fourth day of the Pedagogy of the Poor tour of the South (Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas, & Tennessee), Willie and I started our day at the Bayou La Batre Waffle House meeting with Ernest Montgomery.  The night before, Barbara Robbins and Zack Carter from Alabama Fisheries Cooperative organized a meeting at Greater New Hope Baptist Church in Snow’s Corners, Bayou La Batre.  The meeting had the dual purpose of a Pedagogy of the Poor event and a gathering for the tenants of Safe Harbor facing rent hikes and evictions (more on that below).  Mr. Montgomery attended the meeting, and we were so impressed with him as a leader, we asked him to have breakfast the next day.

church meeting 3

The most important work we’ve been doing on these book tours is finding and developing relationships with the unsung saints out there, the people fighting and organizing in poor and struggling communities.  At the hand of major media, their work is deliberately kept missing and mis-told.  We were honored and humbled to have met Ernest Montgomery.  Ernest is a real unsung saint living and working in the U.S. South – the Bible Belt – living his life in a truly Christian way.  He represents the true qualities of leadership and poverty scholarship.

Bayou La Batre, AL, a town on the Gulf of Mexico, is an impoverished and struggling community despite the wealth of the oil and fishing industries.  Hurricane Katrina and the BP oil spill have dealt crippling blows to what was already an economically struggling area.  Bayou La Batre is a town made up mostly of poor and dispossessed whites, poor blacks, poor Asians, and poor Latinos.

Ernest Montgomery was born and raised in Bayou La Batre and will be turning 80 years old this year.  Ernest’s life has been one dedicated to his family and his community, and at nearly 80 years old, he is tireless in his work.  His life as a laborer has run the gambit from chopping cotton to working for the telephone company.  He helped organize and lead the local volunteer firefighters for decades.  At Christmas time, he and his son decorated the main street every year without pay.  He leads the choir and serves as deacon at his church.  He works with local farmers to provide fresh produce to neighbors in need.  Recognizing the needs of the youth were not being met, he founded and continues to run the local Boys and Girls Club.  He works closely with Alabama Fisheries Cooperative, especially around their work with residents at Safe Harbor – a post-Katrina government funded housing development now in the process of doubling and tripling rents beyond the ability of most tenants to pay.  Several tenants have already been evicted.  Ernest was a co-founder of the fisher and seafood worker coop , and he had been putting fishers in touch with customers, free of charge, who came to the boats and paid fairly (as opposed to the oppressive price given by the big boy processors).   Ernest initiated the coop’s grass roots organizing at Safe Harbor.  He hosted the initial Safe Harbor housing coop organizing committee meetings at his Boys & Girls last June.  Over time, Ernest has won the love and respect of most of the town, notably across the color line.  However, his engagement has proved threatening to local officials.

For several years, Ernest has been in a longstanding struggle with Stan Wright, the mayor of Bayou La Batre for the past four terms.  Wright has an alleged history of Klan involvement.  Wright’s tenure as mayor has been one filled with corruption.  The Safe Harbors housing management is just one example.  Wright has repeatedly blocked Ernest’s attempts at setting up the youth center.  Over time, there have been members of the local Klan from whom Ernest has won trust and respect.  In the words of Ernest, “There have been some of these men who have taken off the hood.  They have come to me to tell me that what Mayor Wright has been doing (in attacking me) is not right – that they don’t agree.  One former Klansmen’s told me that the understanding of his Bible has now made him realize that the same God who made him white has made me black, and that I am his brother.”

Ernest Montgomery embodies the principles of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King’s Poor People’s Campaign and points to the possibility and necessity of reigniting that campaign today.  He is an example of what it means to truly “love thy neighbor.”



Ernest Montgomery


Poverty Initiative 10th Immersion – Uniting the Dispossessed

Beginning Friday, January 18th, the Poverty Initiative will be traveling in Pennsylvania on our tenth immersion.  Please read below for more information about the trip and follow us on this blog for regular updates from participants along the way.

The Armed Slave, 1865, William Spang

The mission of the Poverty Initiative is to raise up generations of religious and community leaders to build a social movement to end poverty led by the poor.

The Poverty Initiative is dedicated to carrying forward the legacy of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and especially the work he did near the end of his life with the Poor People’s Campaign.  This campaign became the focus of King’s work as he shifted from Civil to Human rights and began to realize that integrating the lunch counters was incomplete if some could afford to order lunch.  The Poor People’s Campaign was an attempt to challenge the “edifice of poverty” by uniting the poor and dispossessed across racial, geographic, religious, and other lines of division.  King understood that the strategy of keeping the poor separated and oftentimes pitted against each other allowed for the perpetuation of systems and structures of poverty.   W.E.B. DuBois described this process as “plantation politics,” and it endures today as one of the most significant challenges to building a social movement to end poverty in the United States.

Poverty Initiative immersion courses are one essential tool we use in organizing to build a movement to end poverty.  This year’s immersion course will focus on the State of Pennsylvania where the dynamics of plantation politics have a long and rich history especially as they apply to the Abolitionist movement, Reconstruction, the industrial labor movement, and the Poverty Initiative’s own organizational history with the National Union of the Homeless.  We will explore this history and use it to ground and consider strategies for today’s struggle to unite the poor and dispossessed in a movement to end poverty.  Students from Union Theological Seminary will travel and learn with members of the Poverty Scholars network as we engage with other leaders, churches, organizations, and communities across Pennsylvania that are struggling across a range of issues (youth organizing and education, gas drilling, housing, healthcare, workers rights, etc.) trying to break their isolation in the daily and deadly battle against poverty.  Participants will learn through presentation, discussion, Biblical study, theological reflection, and exposure to the history of struggle in the U.S. by visiting a number of key historical spaces.


Poverty Scholar Summer Residencies – Jennifer Wilder (3 of 4)

Poverty Initiative Fellows Summer Residencies

Seeking to simultaneously support the work of Poverty Scholar organizations and further develop the leadership skills of Poverty Initiative Fellows, this past summer we launched a program of Fellows Summer Residencies for three of our Fellows.

In a series of blog posts, we will share reflections from each of our Fellows on their residency program experience including: Daniel Jones (an NYU student who spent 8 weeks with the Brazilian Landless Workers Movement–MST), Lenora Knowles (who spent 2 months with the United Workers in Baltimore, MD and Jennifer Wilder (who spent 2 months in Central America with the Christian Base Communities, on the Texas/Mexico border, and with the MST in Brazil). We will also post reflections from PI’s Crystal Hall on her work with Poverty Scholars partners in VT and the United Workers in Baltimore.

Jennifer is a third year Master of Divinity Candidate at Union Theological Seminary, with a specialization in Bible and Social Ethics.  She is a Member in Discernment for Ordination with the Metro NYC Association of the United Church of Christ, and her interests, studies, and work focus on the role of communities of faith in social movements.  This is Jennifer’s third year working with the Poverty Initiative, where she has participated in many Leadership Schools, Immersions, Intensives, and Bible Studies.  She works on the Poverty Scholar Program Coordinating Council and coordinated the Oscar Romero Leadership Project, which studied the leadership of Monseñor Oscar Romero and the Base Communities of Latin America.


With my Poverty Initiative Fellow Internship this summer, I got to visit three areas:  the Christian Base Communities of Latin America, the Mexico/Texas border, and the Landless Worker’s Movement (MST) of Brazil.  In each area, I interviewed key leaders and learned from the work of the organizations, always with my focus on developing the role of religion in social movements to end poverty led by the poor. 

Christian Base Communities of Latin America

The Christian Base Communities (CEBs) of Latin America formed the leaders for many of the struggles against oppression, violence, and poverty in Latin America in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s.  The CEBs are lay-led Christian communities that emphasize collective critical analysis of conditions, Bible study, and strategic planning for action against injustice.  The movement of CEBs was a threat to the interconnected network of religious, political, and military authorities because the CEBs developed members’ critical consciousness of socioeconomic conditions and their Christian imperative to organize and resist injustice.  In the decades of the 1970s until today, these authorities, backed by economic elites, cracked down on the CEBs.  In El Salvador, many Base Community leaders were killed in the civil war from 1980-1992 or were forced out of the country by political or economic violence.  The Evangelical and Catholic churches responded to the Base Communities with theologies and pastoral plans that dissociated salvation from concrete everyday problems.

Even many developments after the 1992 Peace Accords in El Salvador weakened the Base Communities.  Post-1992, politics and NGOs recruited many leaders who were thus subjected to the limits of those institutions.  Some leaders immigrated north seeking economic resources not available in El Salvador due to the country’s role in the neoliberal globalized market.  Nevertheless, the Base Communities continue in El Salvador and throughout Latin America continue as a religious movement in which communities’ words and actions reflect their commitments to a liberative methodology and distinct way of being church.  The CEBs function at the intersection of the analysis of conditions and struggles, Bible study, organized resistence at the local/community level, and coordinated activity at the regional, national, and international levels.  This summer, I interviewed the leaders of FUNDAHMER, one such organization at the forefront of this work of the CEBs where I worked for a couple years prior to coming to Union.

In June, I attended the Ninth Encuentro of the CEBs of Latin American and Caribbean, a continental-wide gathering of the leaders of CEBs.  This collective has been organized since the month that Archbishop Oscar Romero was assassinated in March 1980, precisely for his prophetic call for the church to be more like the work of the CEBs: denouncing conditions of injustice.  This network of CEB Continental rekindles the collectivity and devises the strategy of the CEBs as they seek to be a prophetic articulation and coordination of these grassroots communities.  This year’s Encuentro focused on leadership development of younger leaders as the original and second-generation leaders of the CEBs are aging, and as the young adult generation are faced with the challenges of this age, which include dynamics of global monopoly capitalism, immigration, the import of US individualism and consumerism, the divisions between Catholics and evangelicals, and the increasing conservatism of both of these forms of Christianity.

Leaders gathered at this year’s CEB Continental Encuentro from 17 different countries in South, Central, and North America, and the Caribbean to call for and execute the “relanzamiento” (relaunching) and re-articulation of the CEBs. This relaunching of the CEBs is necessary because of the increasing polarization between those with wealth and the millions in poverty, and because of the increasing degradation of the Latin American communities and countries by neoliberal economic policies, which include free trade agreements, retention of national debt, immigration, violence related to drugs and arms trade, etc.  The CEBs oppose how the church is often a tool for elites to make the people passive in the face of their oppression.

US/Mexico Border

On the US/Mexico border, I can see, smell, hear, and feel in the tension in the air the effects of a global system gone bad.  The problems seem to “meet” here at this border in a very visceral and embodied way:  industrialization and deindustrialization and the failing rights of workers; violence due to trafficking of arms, drugs, and people; separation of families; racism and fear-mongering; and domestic and international policies that favor profit over life.  One key in this dynamic is fear:  The fear associated with the immigrant experience:  the journey, the crossing, and life on the US side.  Fear associated with the separation of families who have been together for generations.  Fear experienced by immigrants who are the most marginalized and exploited workers in our country. Fear generated in poor and working class whites throughout the country towards immigrants.  The poor and working class whites therefore support the reapportionment of funds to policing of the border rather than to the changes that would benefit the poor, regardless of their color.

In El Paso and the surrounding area, the Border Network for Human Rights has committees in which leaders educate immigrants on their rights given in the US Constitution and Bill of Rights and address the immigrant-specific concerns and campaigns.  In the lower Rio Grande Valley and across the border in Reynosa and , the women leaders of Comités de Apoyo (founded and led by Ed Krueger) educate workers in the maquiladoras (assembly line factories) about their rights as workers according to Mexican Federal Labor law.  The work of these organizations can contribute to a movement to end poverty led by the poor in the following two most important ways:  The Border Network is constructing a narrative of the border region by the people who live on the border and thus thus depend significantly on the way the border is perceived in national and international politics.  The  maquiladora workers in the Comités de Apoyo demonstrate how the problems of global capital have no boundaries and thus emphasize the importance of international partners in movement building.


Landless Worker’s Movement (MST) of Brazil:

During Brazil’s military dictatorship, which lasted until 1985, the only space in which resistance was able to take place was within the church, in Christian Base Communities.  This organized resistance fought for a clause in Brazil’s constitution that provided a legal way for land that is not socially useful to revert to the property of landless peasants.  The MST was officially formed thereafter by leaders from the Base Communities, in order to organize and occupy for land reform and to form economically sustainable communities on the land they liberated. When it formed, the MST declared itself independent of the church and labor unions, choosing other symbols and songs that are relevant to the rural struggles to be their movement’s mística.

Today, the MST faces the following challenge: Only 15% of Brazil’s population live in the rural areas due to the green revolution of the mechanization of rural work, which made jobs more scarce in the rural  areas.  The industrialization of Brazilian cities also caused people to move to urban areas for low-wage factory jobs.  Since the MST’s base has long been landless rural workers, it now faces the question of its relevance to the other 85% of the Brazilian population living in cities.  While there, I visited one urban settlement, but with my interest in background in the importance of religion in social movements, I wondered if the MST’s initial option to acquiesce religion and religious symbols has hurt them ultimately being able to relate to the consciousness of the Brazilian masses. The majorities of the Brazilian masses remain very religious, and very religiously divided between Catholics and Evangelicals, with a strong presence of African diaspora religions as well.  In Brazil, like in the US, religion continues to be a tool of setting up the binaries of self vs. other and good vs. bad that reinforce the status quo of economic exploitation.  Without their own consciousness-raising work about God, faith, and Bible-based justice, social movements like the MST are negatively characterized according to the dominant binaries and thus marginalized.  Will religion be an important consideration as MST meets next summer in its Congress to plan future strategy?

The people of the MST were excited to hear I am a “liberation theologian” because they recognize that they need a new liberation theology for today.  It is their very experience, however, that provides the necessity and the opportunity for their own formation of a liberative theological praxis.


Poverty Scholar Summer Residencies (1 of 4) – Dan Jones

Poverty Initiative Fellows Summer Residencies

As part of the work to raise up religious and community leaders dedicated to building a movement to end poverty, the Poverty Initiative developed the Fellows Program in 2010. This effort builds the leadership capacity, skills and community partnerships of emerging religious leaders interested in moving beyond charity toward social justice. The program involves Masters-level students in a year-long intensive program that provides training, space for theological reflection and practical community organizing experience. After graduating, our Fellows have been placed in leadership positions in denominational bodies, congregations, academia and non-profits.  These leaders are carrying out Union’s historic legacy as they seek to understand, and change the course of, growing poverty while responding to urgent community needs.

Seeking to simultaneously support the work of Poverty Scholar organizations and further develop the leadership skills of Poverty Initiative Fellows, this past summer we launched a program of Fellows Summer Residencies for three of our Fellows.

In a series of blog posts, we will share reflections from each of our Fellows on their residency program experience including: Daniel Jones (an NYU student who spent 8 weeks with the Brazilian Landless Workers Movement–MST), Lenora Knowles (who spent 2 months with the United Workers in Baltimore, MD and Jennifer Wilder (who spent 2 months in Central America with the Christian Base Communities, on the Texas/Mexico border, and with the MST in Brazil). We will also post reflections from PI’s Crystal Hall on her work with Poverty Scholars partners in VT and the United Workers in Baltimore.



This Summer I had the opportunity to participate in an organizational exchange between the Poverty Scholars Program and the Brazilian Landless Workers movement (MST: Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra do Brasil). I got to spend 9 weeks on MST encampments (more on what that means later), in meetings, conferences, and days of action, and at movement leadership development programs and schools. I spent most of time in the Northeastern state of Pernambuco, and in the “Capital do Agreste,” Caruara, where the movement’s state secretariat is housed. I also got to accompany the Pernambuco delegation to Rio+20 Cupula dos Povos in Rio de Janeiro, and to spend some time at the movement-built and -operated Florestan Fernandez National School in Guararema, Sao Paulo. My task as a part of the exchange was to get a sense of what has enabled the MST to build the leadership, capacity, and power they currently wield, and to further my understanding of how we can develop a new and more powerful theory and practice of human rights in our own organizing work.

Starting from that framework, it’s important, when we talk about human rights, to be clear about exactly what we mean. It’s important to be clear about what human rights are and about how we’re going to realize them. It’s a question of who leads, who defines, and who acts.

It’s easy to start from a viewpoint that’s critical of what we can call “traditional” human rights thinking and practice, and much more difficult to build an alternative, especially considering the huge breadth and depth of the academic and organizational human rights establishment. Still, we who are interested in re-defining and re-shaping human rights have a history to look to and learn from, a literature to study, and an impressive range of contemporary activity to work with and build on.

Through my own study and practice of human rights work, including my time with the MST, I’ve come to the conclusion that the only effective and sustainable means of guaranteeing the civil, political, economic, social, and cultural rights of every person in every place must involve changes in the structures of who has power- economic power, political power, and the power to shape social narratives. Human rights are not a question of how governments can live up to a set of obligations, but a question of how we are going to reorganize some of the most basic structures that govern our lives, and that kind of reorganization doesn’t happen without power. Our vision has to be a world where no one is denied their human rights, and our strategy has to involve building and taking power- the power to define and the power to act.

That kind of power isn’t some airy, abstract thing, but is always grounded in strong organizations. A big part of why we wanted to do in this exchange with the MST specifically lies in the fact that they’re an international leader in implementing and living out exactly that idea. They’re one of the best contemporary case studies we have for building out a new and popular human rights practice, grounded in the idea that power comes from sophisticated and deep organizational structures, forms and processes.

Founded in 1984, the MST has been organized for almost all of their history around three objectives- a luta pela terra (the struggle for land), reforma agraria (agrarian reform), and transformacoes sociais (social transformations). The first of these is organized through invasions and occupations of unproductive land with the goal of expropriating the land and turning it into an agrarian reform settlement for the (former) acampados. Through this process, the MST has organized and settled somewhere around 350,000 families. There are also well over a hundred thousand families currently engaged in the luta pela terra in movement encampments (acampamentos). Even after settlement, struggles continue around access to credit, technical assistance, etc. These kinds of immediate projects of survival are linked to the broader struggles for a “popular agrarian reform,” which includes not only the redistribution of land, but a complete overhaul of the political and economic system in Brasil, with a focus on rural areas and the production and distribution of food. Here’s my (rough) translation of the “objectives” section of the MST’s proposal for a popular agrarian reform (you can find the original, in Portuguese, here):

“This agrarian reform proposal is given as part of the wish of the Brazilian working class to build a new society: egalitarian, humanist, and ecologically sustainable. Thus, these proposals are part of a broad process of changes in our society and, fundamentally, of the alteration of the current structure of organization of production and of the relation between human beings and nature. This process, involving the entirety of rural development and organization, will lead to the elimination of exploitation, of political domination and of ideological alienation and ecological destruction. We are seeking to value and to guarantee work to everyone as a condition of human emancipation; the construction of dignity and equality between people; and the restoration of harmonious relations between human beings and nature.

Agrarian reform has as general objectives:

  • Eliminate poverty in the countryside
  • Combat the social inequality and the degradation of nature which have their roots in the structure of rural property and production
  • Guarantee work for everyone, along with the redistribution of income
  • Guarantee food sovereignty for the entire population of Brazil, producing quality foods and developing local markets
  • Guarantee conditions for equal participation of women who live in rural areas in every activity, especially in access to land, in production, and in the management of all activities, seeking to eliminate the historic oppression imposed on women, especially in the countryside
  • Preserve the vegetal, animal, and cultural biodiversity which exist in all the regions of Brazil, which form our biomass
  • Guarantee conditions for the betterment of live for all people and access to all opportunities of work, income, education, and leisure, encouraging people to remain in the countryside, especially youth”

These struggles for land and the struggle for agrarian reform are in turn linked to the struggle for “social transformations,” which, in my analysis of movement texts, can be understood as revolutionary changes in how national political and economic power is organized and wielded, including this question of “who leads?”. The necessity for this kind of social transformation is directly linked to the other two objectives outlined above: The MST understands that existing economic and political structures actually cannot meet the needs outlined in their agrarian reform proposal, that “agro-ecology” and “agribusiness” represent two models of rural life that cannot coexist, and that because of this, revolutionary transformations are required.

I think that a similar logic can very much apply to a different notion of human rights- a popular notion of human rights. Take education for example: The human right to education, traditionally understood, relies on demands for access to school. But what kind of school? What kind of education? Defined by and led by whom? In our current moment here in the US, the answer to that question is a mind-numbing, dependency-inducing, data-driven, test-crazy, unionless, privatized, isolated and unaccountable school, with methodologies and pedagogies provided by Bill Gates, the Walton Family (of Walmart fame), and California real estate gajillionaire Eli Broad (see this article for more). Just demanding access to that school is not enough, and a conception of human rights limited to that kind of access runs counter to the interests of the vast majority of people in this country. But if we apply human rights principles like those developed as a part of the Vermont Workers Center’s healthcare is a human right campaign, we can open up opportunities to demand not just access to a school but control over what kind of school that will be. A human right to education means a right to a liberatory education, an education embedded in community and built on the value and importance of community, an education devoted to doing away with the poverty-producing system that millions are suffering through in our country, an education dedicated to the promotion and fulfillment of human rights. However, we know that a poverty-producing system can’t coexist with that kind of education, can’t meet that demand. In this way, rights become revolutionary again, in the same way that the MST’s language of agrarian reform also becomes revolutionary.

Lastly, it’s important to note that this revolutionary-ness doesn’t just represent a revolution in rural relations of production and property, or in the education system, but for the entirety of society. For this reason, it’s absolutely critical to insist on the indivisibility, on the unity, of human rights; civil, political, economic, social, cultural. That is, “human rights” doesn’t just represent a list of discrete obligations to be fulfilled by governments, but rather a concrete, coherent, comprehensive, and integral vision for another world, along with a set of practices which will bring about that transformation. It’s a project of articulating new priorities and basic assumptions- a “revolution of values and other things,” as Dr. King put it, and organizing a social movement to realize that revolution in our economic and political structures. It’s impossible to maintain the integrity potential of that project, of the human rights project, with a fragmented and cloistered vision of its demands, horizons, and tasks. Human rights has to be understood and practiced as a totality. The MST provides an excellent model of how to connect immediate economic battles and needs to a struggle organized primarily around one (albeit multifaceted) front – a Popular Agrarian Reform – and one category of the poor – landless workers, and in turn to a broader vision and a broader practice. They’re a vision and a practice which recognize the entirety of the forces that we’re up against; which recognize them as a sophisticated totality. In doing so they seek to propose and actualize a deep and far reaching revolution- a revolution which represents one of the best hopes we have for the human rights project.

Chaplaincy and the Movement to End Poverty

Below are two pieces by Poverty Initiative leaders discussing the different contexts in which they have served as chaplains and how this work is connected to the broader movement to end Poverty.  The first is a reflection by Jennifer Wilder about her work with the Union protest chaplains who have been serving in Zuccotti (Liberty) Park for the past several weeks of Occupy Wall Street.   Jenn’s reflection is followed by an excerpt from a reflection that Union alum and Poverty Initiative leader Onleilove Alston wrote about being a chaplain over the years with the Poverty Initiative, “on the field of battle for justice.”


As I focused on our prayer, I could hear the Occupation Wall Street People’s Mic start not two yards away from us.  Between my eyes half-closed, I could see a camera flash, irreverent yet commonplace at Occupation Wall Street, taking a picture of the two of us.  The lady, (lets call her Glory) who now clasped hands with me in prayer in the middle of roudy Zuccotti Park, had participated that morning in her first-ever protest, which was in Harlem opposing the stop-and-frisk protest policy.  Glory told me her own humiliating experiences of being stopped, frisked, and accused of prostitution.  Glory was pregnant with twins, and she looked forward to telling them what she had done while expecting them to prepare the way for them to have better conditions.

Such chaplaincy experiences at Occupation Wall Street call into light a question that I have increasingly been thinking about over the past years as I have worked with the Christian Base Communities in El Salvador and with Poverty Scholar organizations:  How do we define religious leadership?  Protest Chaplaincy has given me privileged access to the “spiritual core” of the concerns and commitments that bring people to Occupation Wall Street, some like Glory for the first time and others as part of life-long commitments to social movements and ending poverty, marginalization, and exploitation.  Many of the leaders of these movements to end poverty have made religious or spiritual commitments to their work, and thus they are religious leaders, though they are rarely viewed as such.  What if we looked to these religious leaders to show us in seminary or in the official church how to be religious leaders? What if we looked at Occupation Wall Street, the United Workers, or the Coalition of Immokalee workers to show us how to be community and church?

Protest Chaplaincy at Occupation Wall Street raises these and other questions that help my fellow Protest Chaplains and I develop as religious leaders in social movements.  Because of the participatory nature of Occupation Wall Street, religious leaders have the potential to be more than just figureheads lending support to a good cause.  Religious leaders have the potential to push Occupiers, our congregations, and our organizations to think about such critical questions as:  We are protesting the current system, but exactly how do we envision a more just system, and what are the structures that we want to put in place to build it?  How have we been able to “work for change” in our churches and organizations for so long lacking a sophisticated analysis of what we are up against?  Importantly, religious leaders must work such that Occupy Wall Street and all other movements are led by the interests of the historically poor and oppressed.  The poor and the poor people’s movements have been telling our society for a long time that our system is sick, but recently with increased crisis, other sectors have become poor and becoming activated.  Movements, however, to re-stabilize the middle class and society still leave critical sectors poor, marginalized, and exploited.  As a Protest Chaplain, I have had the opportunity to talk with a wide range of the 99%.  It is good that we are uniting across differences as the 99%, but the movement must put at the forefront the interests of Glory and others from historically oppressed communities, who will only benefit from a radical re-making of the unjust system.
-Jenn Wilder


During both the 2009 and 2011 Leadership Schools participants came up to me privately to discuss issues related to family, relationships or vocation.  What I found both times I served as  chaplain is that it is essential to have what Rev. Dr. Peter Heltzel, The Micah Institute  refers to as “chaplains on the field of the battle for justice” to heal the community and call people to their best selves (September 17, 2011 Faith Rooted Organizing Training). I also experienced moving chapel services where the poor were affirmed and refreshed as leaders. During a time in church history where the prosperity gospel is spreading like wild fire in the world’s poorest communities  serving as a chaplain for the Poverty Initiative or having the opportunity to minister at a Leadership School chapel service offers an opportunity to practice an alternative theology that affirms the poor and calls them to share in God’s work of justice. Personally, this work has affirmed my own call to ministry in the Disciples of Christ with the hope that I can be ordained to minister in this way while doing faith-rooted community organizing.

From my experiences serving as the chaplain for Poverty Initiative Leadership Schools I truly believe that “soul care” is essential to building and sustaining a “movement to end poverty led by the poor”. Community organizers, ministers, activist, social workers and non-profit directors all have concerns about their work, families and purposes. Providing chaplains who are rooted in the movement to “watch and pray” can help protect against burnout and co-optation. Chaplains can also provide a practical way in which clergy can contribute to a social movement. I think the role of chaplain is cornerstone to this movement.  Catholic priest and author Henri Nouwen stated it best when he wrote:

“Our own experience with loneliness, depression, and fear can become a gift for others, especially when we have received good care. As long as our wounds are open and bleeding, we scare others away. But after someone has carefully tended to our wounds, they no longer frighten us or others. When we experience the healing presence of another person, we can discover our own gifts of healing. Then our wounds allow us to enter into a deep solidarity with our wounded brothers and sisters. To enter into solidarity with a suffering person does not mean that we have to talk with that person about our own suffering. Speaking about our own pain is seldom helpful for someone who is in pain. A wounded healer is someone who can listen to a person in pain without having to speak about his or her own wounds. When we have lived through a painful depression, we can listen with great attentiveness and love to a depressed friend without mentioning our experience. Mostly it is better not to direct a suffering person’s attention to ourselves. We have to trust that our own bandaged wounds will allow us to listen to others with our whole beings. That is healing.”

As a Poverty Scholar who has experienced the wounds of poverty first hand and found my faith while living in one of twelve poorest communities in New York City my job as a chaplain is to pass on the healing I gained from this movement, enter into solidarity with other poor people and listen with my whole being so that I can help build the “freedom church of the poor”.

-Onleilove Alston