Chaplaincy & the Movement to End Poverty

This blog first appeared on the Poverty Initiative Union in Dialogue Blog: A New & Unsettling Force.

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

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