Diary of an Arrested Priest
The Rev. Michael Sniffen
“Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?”
"The church is the church only when it exists for others." - Dietrich Bonhoeffer
On Saturday, December 17th 2011, in the third week of Advent, I was arrested in a vacant lot owned by Trinity Church, New York.
Earlier that day, I had visited the flagship Apple Store to purchase a Macbook Air as a Christmas gift for my brother. My wife and I strolled down 5th Avenue looking at the Christmas decorations, soaking in the holiday spirit and window shopping. It was a refreshingly crisp winter day and New York was glittering and beautiful. After some lunch at a Vietnamese restaurant in SOHO, I went to join clergy colleagues at an Occupy Wall Street celebration and rally at 6th Avenue and Canal street.
On the 17th, occupiers and various community leaders from New York (and beyond) gathered to celebrate the movement’s three month mark. Several civil rights heroes of mine were expected to speak and I wanted to meet them. I planned to visit the celebration and then return home and rest before Sunday. I thought, “Is it really only one week till Christmas? Where has the time gone? Has OWS only been a reality for three months? Wow...it seems a lot has happened in that time. What a gift to the world!”
The mood at the rally was celebratory. There was a general sense of enthusiasm, happiness and passionate commitment. The Church needs more of all three. As I came around the corner where folks were gathering, I spoke with some other clergy who passed on the word that folks were planning to go forward with an act of civil disobedience. They would be entering the vacant lot which had been proposed as a Winter encampment site for OWS. This made me a little uncomfortable. I had considered participating in civil disobedience on other occasions, but had evaluated each situation and decided that it was not right for me personally to participate. I felt the same way today. I did not think that entering the lot would move the good people of Trinity to change their minds regarding use of the space. I was also not sure how helpful the action would be to the movement and, truth be told, I had not planned to stick around for more than an hour. So, I decided not to participate if any act of civil disobedience did take place. I would be there as a non-violent witness, an OWS supporter and a representative of the Church. Good enough.
As the rally unfolded, I was standing near Bishop Packard (retired bishop to the Armed Services), his wife, other clergy and faith leaders. Suddenly, a large staircase emerged from the crowd and was placed against the fence on the north side of the lot. Was it Jacob’s ladder? People began to cheer. Banners were raised. I watched as Bishop Packard went up the stairs and over the fence in a purple cassock and cincture given to him by the Archbishop of Canterbury. His cassock ripped and he fell to the ground on his back. I lunged forward in fear and concern. At that same moment, the police began to push in hard on the crowd. I could feel the physical pressure through dozens of people whose bodies were pressing on mine. More people began to climb the staircase. Up and over they went into an empty gravel lot. And there was jubilation! Could standing in an empty lot really cause so much excitement, so much joy? They felt completely liberated. I could see it on their faces.
Out of the corner of my eye, I see a large gathering of police wearing riot gear and carrying weapons. My stomach drops. When I was 16 years old, a police officer hit me hard on the arm with a Maglite on the beach my hometown. It left a painful bruise for weeks. That act of violence was minor compared to what I have seen happen to participants in the OWS movement for simply sitting still.
I look at the people inside the fence and have a feeling which I can only describe as overwhelming love and concern. I must decide, in an instant, where to place my body as a priest. It is no time for sitting on the fence. I climb the stairs and enter the lot. People are cheering and chanting, some are crying, some are silent. I see a sign which read, “Trinity Church - Hero of 9/11. Be a hero again!” I turn and flashed a peace sign to the crowd and to the cops. The same thing I do with parishioners whose hands I can’t reach from the aisle on Sunday. Where are the Trinity clergy? The work of non-violent peacemaking is not best left to the quasi-military NYPD. My iphone vibrates in my hand as I dash toward someone who has fallen over the fence. On the phone is a reporter from the Episcopal News Service. “Michael,” she says. “Are you there? What’s happening?” I tell her that occupiers have entered the lot and I have entered with them. My attention is with the fallen women. “Are you ok?” I ask. She nods and brushes herself off. I say into the phone, “As a priest, I have to be with my people and these are my people. I am here in solidarity with them.” Full stop. I have a deep and overwhelming sense of responsibility that cannot be overcome by reason or logic. It this what it feels like to be a parent? Is this what the incarnation really means? Damn it. What have I climbed into?
This may sound like overstatement, but the option of not going over that fence felt roughly equivalent to abandoning Christ on the cross. I kid you not. I felt the pain and the courage of the occupiers viscerally. I could not let them go alone. Not with the risk of violence which I saw mounting. Not after I had stood with them and they with me in so many other places. My conscience as a priest and as a human being took over and I knew which side of the fence I had to be on. It was obvious. As someone whose spirituality is deeply rooted in the liturgy, I heard the words spoken by my Bishop on the day of my ordination, “You are to love and serve the people among whom you work, caring alike for young and old, strong and weak, rich and poor...My brother, do you believe that you are truly called by God and his Church to this priesthood. Answer: I believe I am so called.”
Some clergy and I begin to sing, “Lo How a Rose E’er Blooming” as the police enter the lot in force. We’re attempting to calm the tension and embody a non-violent, peaceful presence. I realize that I still have the Episcopal News Service on the phone in my hand. “I have to go,” I say, and put the phone in my pocket. The police come in fast and hard. I raise my hands. Was I blessing them? Was I trying to slow them down? Was I showing them that I had nothing in my hands? I can’t say for sure. Maybe all three. An older male officer in a white shirt throws a young woman next to me to the ground and jams his knee into her back with his full weight. I lunge forward and shout, “This is not necessary! She’s not resisting you! Just calm down!” He looks up and I see him glance at my collar. “You calm down!” he shouts at me as he gets up, moves toward me and brings his pointer finger within an inch of my face. Then he turns to another officer and shouts angrily, “Start collaring people!” Are we having an ordination?
A younger male officer, as gently and kindly as a mother touches her child, takes hold of my arms and puts plastic cuffs on me. He does so, dare I say, lovingly.
The officer in the white shirt moves on to another young woman wearing a pink Tutu. He flings her around roughly and onto a makeshift bench face down. Her bag goes flying. He twists her arm dramatically behind her and shoves it upward toward her shoulder as he pushes her off the bench and onto the ground. Her stockings rip and her knees begin to bleed. I can see the pain on her face. Not just physical, but spiritual. “Stop it! You’re hurting her!” I shout. Is my voice audible? The officer man-handling her turns and looks at me again. His face is red with rage.
The gentle officer holding me appears to be upset. “Are you ok?” he asks me. “I’m fine,” I say. “But I am concerned about these other people. Can you stop him from being so rough?” The officer shrugs and raises his eyebrows dispassionately. I see sadness in his face. He sees the concern in my eyes.
I cannot make sense of this situation. I cannot get past the fact that I am an Episcopal priest standing in a vacant lot owned by an Episcopal parish, performing a priestly duty and I am under arrest. Wow. I think about my wife and how she is expecting me home right about now. I’m sorry. I did not plan to climb any fences, but here I am.
In John’s gospel it says, “The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.’ Nicodemus [asked], ‘How can these things be?’ Jesus answered him, ‘Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?” (John 3:8-10) There are so many things that I do not understand, and I am supposed to be a teacher of the faith. Lord, help me to understand.
As we are loaded onto the police bus, people sing, “We shall Occupy” to the tune of, “We shall Overcome.” I sit silently on the bus and stare out the window as people stop their cars in the middle of traffic, get out and cheer. People on the sidewalks down Canal street pump their fists in the air. Some on the bus feel encouraged. I am overcome with sadness as the brokenness of the world floods my soul. Where is the greatness of God in this season of Advent? Be still and know that I am God.
As I am having my mugshot taken, the flash of light reminds me of the Angel Gabriel appearing to Mary in the gospel I am not yet ready to preach tomorrow morning. “For nothing will be impossible with God.” (Luke 1:37) God grant me courage and wisdom in these troubled times. Grant me strength of heart and mind and soul and body to say alongside Mary, "Here am I, the servant of the Lord; Let it be with me according to your word."
One by one we are processed, separated male and female and locked into large holding cells. Inside, we talk about the movement and how desperately we want peace, justice and equality for all God’s people. Clergy speak one on one with occupiers. The bishop convenes a General Assembly. We talk about the experience of being arrested. We get to know one another and share our stories. Several occupiers remark about how much better they have been treated during this arrest. They reckon it is because clergy were present. I find that small bit of good news gratifying. A supervising officer brings us bread, cheese and milk. It reminds me of being in kindergarten and having snack delivered to the classroom. Someone asks, “Can I have two milks?” Response: “don’t push it.” Fair enough.
A hunger-striker who had not eaten for 15 days as part of “the ask” for Trinity to grant use of this empty lot to the movement rises to his feet. He does so slowly and unsteadily from a bench in the corner of our cell. A tear runs down his face. "It is an honor and a privilege to break bread with you today, my friends." The hair on my arms stands up. I cry. Others do too. This is one of the clearest experiences of “church” in my life. Christ is palpably present in this cell as sure as you’re born. I could have reached out and touched the wounds if I wanted to. My middle name is Thomas, after all. We embrace the breaker of bread and each other. Afterwards, I sit on the floor of the cell at the Bishop’s feet.
As I recount this Eucharistic moment to my congregation on Sunday morning after my release, I weep in the pulpit. Sweet sacrament divine. As I end my sermon and walk to my stall, people stand and applaud. They are not applauding me. They are applauding the presence of Christ in the midst of brokenness. I can feel it. I cry all the way through the Nicene Creed. That’s got to be a new one. I look around through my tears and members of my choir are crying. As I distribute the Body of Christ to my parishioners as I do every week in almost exactly the same way, something is different. People grab my hands and hold them. Not one person, but many. One man who always keeps his eyes down looks me straight in the eyes. “The Body of Christ,” I say. “In the name of justice,” he says. I lose it and begin sobbing. I almost drop the patten. Another parishioner approaches with tears in her eyes. “The Body of Christ,” I say. “Thank you,” she manages while holding my shoulder and squeezing. Tears hit the Host. “The Body of Christ,” I say to one of my wardens. He says to me, “I want to shake your hand.”
At the end of the service, I raise my hands which were cuffed behind my back the night before. “Life is short, and there is not much time to gladden the hearts of those around us. So, be swift to love and make haste to be kind. And the blessing of God Almighty, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit be with you and remain with you always.”
Forgive us, Lord. We know not what we do. I did not mean to trespass on your holy vacant lot. But I did, and now you’ve broken into me. How can I keep from singing?
Lo, how a Rose e'er blooming from tender stem hath sprung!
Of Jesse's lineage coming, as men of old have sung.
It came, a floweret bright, amid the cold of winter,
When half spent was the night.
Isaiah 'twas foretold it, the Rose I have in mind;
Mary we behold it, the Virgin Mother kind.
To show God's love aright, she bore to us a Savior,
When half spent was the night.
The shepherds heard the story proclaimed by angels bright,
How Christ, the Lord of glory was born on earth this night.
To Bethlehem they sped and in the manger they found Him,
As angel heralds said.
This Flower, whose fragrance tender with sweetness fills the air,
Dispels with glorious splendor the darkness everywhere;
True man, yet very God, from sin and death He saves us,
And lightens every load.
The Kingdom of God is inside us and all around us. The world is a mess and yet the beauty of community is springing up in the most unexpected places. In an empty lot. In a prison cell. God is building staircases into our hearts this Advent. Sacrificial love is rushing up those stairs. It is the most powerful force on earth and it cannot be stopped. “We are unstoppable,” says God. “Another world is possible.”
What happened on the 17th of December will be forgotten pretty soon. The media cycle will move on. People and institutions will move on. I’m out of jail now, but I am still arrested. God’s Holy Spirit has placed me under arrest. It’s troubling and comforting and overwhelming. I feel completely alive and scared and hopeful. I believe, Lord. Help my unbelief. Help me climb your staircase one step at a time and meet me on the other side. For you promised, “I will never leave you or forsake you.” Be with us all in this season of brokenness and mending.
A “collaring” prayer:
O God of unchangeable power and eternal light: Look favorably on your whole Church, that wonderful and sacred mystery; by the effectual working of your providence, carry out in tranquility the plan of salvation; let the whole world see and know things which were cast down are being raised up; and things which had grown old are being made new, and that all things are being brought to their perfection by him through whom all things were made, your Son Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen. (Book of Common Prayer, pg. 528)
The Rev. Michael Sniffen
The Church of St. Luke and St. Matthew
520 Clinton Ave, Brooklyn NY 11238