City's highest church blesses anti-NATO marchers

05/20/2012 11:16 PM

By NATO Team

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On the morning of the CANG8 protest, Wendy Witt, associate pastor at Chicago's First United Methodist Church, leads a small group in prayer over the march Sunday, May 20.
Photos by ARI NEIDITZ/Contributor

Amidst the flurry of Occupy Chicago announcements in the run-up to Sunday’s NATO summit, one struck a rather unusual note:

“Volunteers needed at the prayer service.”

Organized by pastors at Chicago's First United Methodist Church, the blessing was born out of sense of shared values with the Occupy movement. And while the event didn’t attract quite as many people as initially hoped, it was an upbeat and peaceful event that proved fulfilling for everyone.

It was held on Sunday morning at 10:00 a.m. next to the tallest church structure in Chicago, the Chicago Temple at the intersection of Clark and Washington streets.

The blessing was conceived and arranged by Wendy Witt, one of the temple’s assistant pastors. For Witt, social justice is an innate part of Methodist beliefs, and it was only fitting that she would organize a blessing for a march that reflected them.

“The marchers are marching for social justice,” she said. “Those are the kinds of issues we talk about in our congregation all the time.”

Witt acknowledged that Occupy movement may not see the issues from the religious perspective, but she emphasized that the church wasn’t trying to convert anyone. They were merely trying to share their perspective.

Senior Pastor William Blackwell echoed Witt’s sentiments. He also explained that, as far as he was concerned, the very concept of NATO was antithetical to the way Methodist church perceives power.

“In Christian scripture, the sense of power was in serving other people, not taking advantage of them,” Blackwell said. “That has been our understanding of power for 2,000 years. What NATO is doing is a complete inversion of that.”

The blessing was held right outside the church itself. According to Witt, this was done to make the ceremony welcome to as many people as possible.

The Occupy Chicago announcement promised a crowded, lively event. It urged everyone to bring their families, as well as “musical instruments, […] horns, kazoos, funny hats and all other merry-making apparatus.”

None of those things made the appearance at the Sunday’s blessing, and the attendance was relatively small. The crowd started out at about 25 people, and it eventually grew to 35.

But those numbers didn’t dampen the spirit of those who attended. The blessing opened with Witt leading the crowd in the Zimbabwean song “Jesus, We Are Here.” Witt explained that Zimbabweans sing it when they go to church every Sunday, and heat and lack of drinking water isn’t enough to deter them.

Much of the event was spent talking about social justice in the Bible. Witt drew parallels between the Parable of the Workers at the Vineyard and the need for fair wages, and compared merchants at the temple in Jerusalem to corporate exploitation.

After singing a few more religious songs, Witt invited everyone to receive a communion. A few people took her up on her offer. The crowd walked along Washington Street for a block, returning to the temple along Daley Plaza. With one last encouraging speech, the ceremony ended.

Emily Heitzaman came to attend the ceremony from the North Side. A youth director and recent graduate from a Lutheran seminary, she was immensely pleased with the experience.

“This is a wonderful way to begin,” she said. “The song ‘Jesus, we are here,’ was a powerful reminder that we’re in solidarity with the marchers.”

-Igor Studenkov

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