In today’s economy, I know I am not the only one who worries and I am not the only one who counts it a blessing not have to struggle day to day with not having enough money for the most basic things like food and shelter. Our current economy has left many struggling and increasingly frustrated. Recently many of them have gotten a new voice through the Occupy Wall Street protests.
Occupy Wall Street is an ongoing protest and movement that began on September 17th when a Canadian activist group called Adbusters initiated a protest in Zuccotti Park, located in the financial district of New York City. They wanted to speak out against social and economic inequality, in particular corporate power and influence over government. Because they believe the power in our culture and politics lies with the wealthy, they chose Wall Street and the financial district rather than Washington D.C. for their protest. They use the slogan, “We are the 99%,” which refers to a recent trend in which an increased share of annual total income in the United States goes to the top 1% of income earners. They cite statistics like this one: in 1980 the richest 1% of Americans earned 9.1% of the overall income but in 2006 the richest 1% earned 18.8% of the income. Those protesting want to engage in non-violent civil disobedience to push for a greater amount of power for the majority of Americans who are not wealthy.
Since the initial protest, Occupy Wall Street has continued to grow in numbers and has sparked similar protests across the United States and in other countries. The Occupy Wall Street protesters use direct democracy to make decisions which allows every single person to have a vote and a voice. There are no leaders, but they do have a governing body called The New York General Assembly. The General Assembly is open to everyone. They listen to all proposed ideas or expressed opinions and each person present expresses their opinion through a series of pre-determined hand gestures. If there is consensus for a particular proposal, then direct action is started, but if there is not, the Assembly asks that the proposal be discussed and revised until a majority consensus can be achieved. Within the General Assembly, there are smaller “Working/Thematic Groups” that are focused on issues like food, medical, and legal care for the members, arts and culture, direction action, and principles of solidarity.
One of the strongest criticisms of the protests has been that they have yet to create any formal goals or demands. Currently, there is no consensus in the General Assembly on if there should be demands, no less what those demands should be. Instead, the focus has been both on bringing attention to the issues and growing in numbers.
For our youth, this protest is an example of how the youngest in our community can speak powerfully and move those around them into action. The Occupy protests began with a group that was predominately young people and now it is a movement of people of all ages and backgrounds. If there was ever evidence of how young people can make a powerful impact on their world, this is it.
Often churches and even youth themselves underestimate the power they have to influence those around them, but that does our congregations a great disservice. Scripture gives us many examples of how God used young people to do His work. Perhaps the youth we work with have new and creative ways in which we can share God’s Word within our congregations and our communities. We hope that our congregations are encouraging youth to become active participants within the congregation and to use their insight and gifts to help the entire body of Christ.
The protest also shows just how many people are struggling in today’s economy. As a DCE, I have to be keenly aware of how I deal with finances within my ministry and how programming must change in order to keep the financial burden from being too much for our families. Upon the encouragement from our Stewardship board, I have taken more time to discuss with my young students what it means to be good stewards of what God has given to us, not just with our money but with our time, gifts, and other resources. I have taken on suggestions from parents for picnics and potlucks rather than meeting at restaurants. These discussions have opened the door for youth to express the stress of hard economic times that affect them just as it affects adults.
I am interested to see where the Occupy Wall Street and similar protests go from here. It is a fascinating movement that we can hope brings positive change to our country. In the meantime, it does serve as a great open door to discuss so many current issues with our youth. Perhaps the conversations it sparks about stewardship and renewed involvement of youth will help reinvigorate both your youth and your congregations.