There was an infectious restlessness in the air as Marisa Egerstrom climbed the bandstand at Boston Common to address the 300-strong crowd at Occupy Boston’s first general assembly. Egerstrom and fellow faith activists from Boston—they called themselves the Protest Chaplains—had just come from the first days of Occupy Wall Street. A week later Occupy Boston would set up its own camp in Dewey Square.
Egerstrom spoke at length with Spare Change News about Occupy Boston, the spread of the Protest Chaplains, and her ongoing work to bridge communities of faith and communities of protest.
SCN: You’ve told me that before you came to Harvard to start your Ph.D. you had grown disillusioned with Christianity over your church’s stance on the war in Iraq. Is that right?
ME: Oh yeah. Well, it wasn’t even a stance. They stopped praying for peace because that was too partisan. Because apparently the idea of peace offended the war hawks. Unbelievable. I mean, it was 2003, it wasn’t the first two weeks after 9/11, when everyone was still reacting from raw emotion.
And that was really the last straw. The idea that God wanted people at war simply made no sense to me. The idea that we had to let the bloodthirsty define God for the rest of us—that went deeper than ideology. That undermined everything I understood about who God was, who Jesus was.
So I left. I was so heartbroken and confused. I looked around for a while but it seemed then that Catholics only cared that somebody might be having an abortion somewhere and the liberal Protestants couldn’t stop self-congratulating about the fact they recycled.
SCN: Tell me about how you found your way back into the Church and got involved with Episcopalianism.
ME: [laughs] Oh boy. Well, it’s still kind of a mystery to me. The second semester of my Ph.D. program was a profound, horrible, terrifying, humiliating spiritual crisis. Nobody knows why these things happen. I could point to this or that, but the truth is I don’t know. Maybe it was purely God’s unilateral assault, I have no idea. But I found myself intolerably aching for silence and worship.
I started hanging around the Society of St. John the Evangelist monastery in Cambridge. Being in that holy space and hearing chant shattered something. I fell into prayer even though I hadn’t prayed in years. I absolutely broke down. For weeks and months. I don’t know how I kept up coursework, but I did.
I was, and still am, ferociously determined to reverse the hostile takeover of Christian speech and practice by the Religious Right. I was trying to figure out what I was doing, what was salvageable of the plans I had made for my life, and being drawn deeper into a contemplative rhythm of living.
One day in August I was watching Twitter to see what was happening on the ground in Libya. That’s when I saw the #occupywallstreet hashtag. I got really excited, because that was the change in tactics we had all talked about needing after the anti-war and anti-globalization protests fizzled in San Francisco. And I liked that we were taking cues from the Arab Spring and from the Indignados in Spain.
Then this insane sort of vision struck me: half prank, half legit Christian witness, a really earnest, theologically sound culture jam. When I bounced it off other people, they actually thought it was a good idea. So that’s how the Protest Chaplains began. We thought it was going to be a one-day thing, honestly.
SCN: How did the Protest Chaplains meme spread?
ME: It was after the Brooklyn Bridge mass arrests broke the media blackout. After the blackout lifted, the religion beats at various outlets all started looking for the religion story within the OWS story. At that point, we were it. It was a smaller Christian online magazine that “broke” it. That made us Google-able, basically. And then, dear God, the onslaught.
CNN’s religion blog asked me to write a piece. So I cranked one out with the help of a couple of other chaplains and turned up the volume as high as I thought I could get away with. Then everything went crazy. For a couple of weeks I was giving two or three interviews a day. We got a couple of thousand emails on the Protest Chaplain account.
Everyone wanted to do something in their own city. We wrote up everything we learned from the first day and the first week of Occupy Boston and said, “Here’s what we know. Do what makes sense in your camp.” The last time I counted I think there were seventeen local spin-offs.
SCN: What have you been doing since with Epsicopalians for Global Reconciliation?
ME: Last winter EGR hired me to develop a domestic economic inequality project. Our co-chair, Dr. John Hammock, and I began visiting churches to facilitate parish discussions on economic inequality. That led to a campaign to get a Move Your Money resolution passed in the Diocese of Massachusetts, which is one of the largest dioceses in the Episcopal Church.
So we had a kickoff procession and Eucharist at the end of October, which Spare Change News covered. The following weekend we had a huge parliamentary debate at our diocesan legislative convention, and we actually passed a resolution calling for the whole diocese to move money to local banks and credit unions.
So now EPGR is compiling resources for helping parishes fulfill that resolution. We’re also setting up partnerships with other local economic justice organizations to host Economic Liberation workshops. We’re going to hold workshops in churches on everything from basic financial literacy to getting out of credit card debt to socially responsible investing. It’s very grassroots, community-building, empowering stuff. We’re also trying to put together a spring summit: The Role of the Church in Economic Inequality, which will bring together scholars, activists, and church leaders to examine and strategize what we can do to free all of God’s beloved children from debt, hopelessness, and poverty.