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Faith perspectives on Occupy Grand Rapids

OccupyGR set up camp at Fountain Street Church last year renewing a dialogue on the confluence of faith and social change. Though much discussion has been generated regarding Christianity and the movement, relatively little attention has been given to other faiths.
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Occupy Grand Rapids found an ally in the faith community when it was allowed to set up camp on the grounds of Fountain Street Church. This act renewed a public discussion of the intrinsic link between faith and social justice,  though according to some local leaders, not all voices have been heard.

There are reasons for a lack of involvement from members of smaller faith communities, including issues regarding the movement’s tactics that have frequently been raised since the movement began in the fall of last year.

“It feels like an issue for the younger generation. I do compare the Occupy movement to the Civil Rights movement of the 1960’s in the sense that there are issues of justice and equality; however, the issues and solutions are less clear,” said Lynda Smith, Interim Minister at the Unitarian Universalist All Souls Community Church.

Smith said she has only been marginally involved, attending a couple demonstrations, but she has used the issue of the 99% as a basis for sermons. “I find the Occupy movement hopeful, and I give honor to Fountain Street Church for supporting the occupiers of Grand Rapids,” she said.

Former attorney Deokwun Sunim, now a Buddhist monk and founder of the Grand Rapids Zen Center, voiced a similar concern. “As Buddhists, we believe that when you undertake a course of action it should be mindful, deliberate, and organized. My sense of what’s happening is that they’re not quite sure where they’re going with everything.”

In addition to issues with the movement’s strategies, Sunim described another impediment facing some faith communities. “You will find that when social issues come up and there’s public discourse, the non-Abrahamic traditions are not typically invited to participate.” Abrahamic traditions include Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, which are the three largest faiths in the United States.

“For much of the history of West Michigan, it has been a Christian community and that basis has served it very well for some time. Yet, as the community becomes more diverse, spiritual practice has become more diverse, and we should strive to have all faiths included in our public discussions,” Sunim continued.

Though Michigan is home to the largest mosque in North America, the Islamic Center of America in Dearborn, Islamic perspective is often absent from public discourse locally. Yet Muaz Redzic, Imam at the Bosnian Cultural Center, explained, “The Muslim community is still a very young community in the recent history of organized social activities. Muslim leadership has recognized the necessity of civic involvement, but the percentage of active members in the Muslim community in these activities is still very small.”

Redzic emphasized this is not a negative thing, but quite the opposite. “It may seem a slow progress to the mainstream majority non-Muslim audience, but having in mind all of the factors in the current socio-political scene in the U.S., I think the progress is steady and upward, and in some cases, amazingly resilient to all kinds of unfortunate pressures and setbacks.”

Fred Stella, host of Common Threads, a radio show on WGVU which interviews a variety of guests on issues of world religion, said he believes no matter what a person’s faith, the Occupy Movement is something to pay attention to. “No religion ignores the inequity of living standards. Many people of faith spend most of their time concerned with things like dogma and afterlife speculation -- this is disappointing.”

There have been a number of steps taken towards having a more inclusive conversation about social justice issues, including the Occupy movement. 2012 has been named the Year of Interfaith Understanding in Grand Rapids, and the Occupy movement has been the topic of panel discussion in recent gatherings. Smith said she sees this as a great opportunity for people of all faiths to stand together for a common good.

She said, “Faith calls us to give voice to our individual conscience when we see practices that dehumanize fellow humans. Faith calls us to stand for a society that is compassionate and inclusive of each one of us.”

Disclosure: Views expressed in this article are the opinions of subjects and are not meant to express the views of any of the faiths mentioned.

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