Financial District — Thirty-two days after they had been evicted from their Zuccotti Park encampment in Lower Manhattan, approximately 1,000 Occupy Wall Street activists rallied together to take over another public space for their movement. They hoped to occupy Juan Pablo Duarte Square and the adjoining lot at the juncture of Canal Street and Sixth Avenue, which is owned by Trinity Episcopal Church. Protesters were soon detained by police after trespassing onto the fenced-in section next to the park. Trinity clergy quickly labeled the movement’s action excessive. "In a country where all people can vote, and Trinity’s door to dialogue is open, it is not necessary to forcibly break into property," the church said in a statement.

The would-be occupiers disagreed.

"If you have a church, and you build a moat around it so that the community cannot penetrate it," Juan Carlos Ruiz explained later, "it becomes a medieval castle that looks at the outside world as the enemy. Many church leaders build their walls high enough to isolate their congregation from the outside world."

Ruiz knows a few things about churches. He is a non-active Catholic priest who now assists a Lutheran parish as a spiritual leader in Sunset Park. And he is part of a growing group of religious activists within the larger Occupy movement.

If the popular image of an Occupy Wall Street believer is of a secular, native-born, white activist, Ruiz challenges the stereotype. But he and other religious leaders who’ve embraced OWS face their own challenge: getting their flocks to see the connection between faith and action.

A conversion on the road

While the Occupy movement is an important influence for interfaith activists, much of Ruiz’s political action is inspired by Liberation theology, which views Jesus as a model for social justice, and uses his teachings to protest unjust economic, political, and social conditions.

"It is the responsibility of religious people to make sure that the spirit of Jesus lives as a social movement within the church," said Ruiz. "There is an assumption that disconnects religious figures from political activism that is based on the idea that Jesus was not a political person. But in fact, if you examine why he was killed, every reason was political."

Growing up in Mexico, Ruiz's parents were progressive activists in a Catholic movement, and encouraged him to commit to social justice through the Church. Ruiz entered a seminar at the age of 13, where he studied the life and work of progressive priests like Fr. Miguel Hidalgo—who led a peasant revolt in 1810 against Spanish colonialists under the banner of the Virgin of Guadalupe—and the Spanish Dominican friar Antonio de Montesinos, who was one of the first Catholic leaders to publicly denounce the injustices of Spanish colonialism. "Tell me, by what right or by what interpretation of justice do you keep these Indians in such a cruel and horrible servitude?" Montesinos asked a packed congregation of Spanish elite on the island of Hispaniola (modern day Dominican Republic and Haiti) in 1511. "By what authority have you waged such detestable wars against people who were once living so quietly and peacefully in their own land?"

Ruiz became disillusioned by the dichotomy between faith and action that he encountered in many classmates at his seminary in Chicago, and then later with colleagues in the priesthood. This led him to embrace other churches, like the Lutheran parish he assists in, where he has found more flexibility to reconnect with God through his social activism.

A broader movement

Many interfaith activists who are veterans of civil rights, immigration justice, women’s, labor, and other movements, found in Occupy Wall Street a new generation willing to fight for social justice and democracy. For them, the Occupy movement is a major breakthrough in organizing because it showed young activists that without face-to-face contact there can be no change.

"1960s activism was about building a physical connection," recalled Sally Bermanzohn, 64, a veteran of the civil rights and anti-Vietnam War movement who now participates in projects with Occupy Faith. "It was before the Internet, before the cellphone, and Xerox machines had just become available, so communication was all done through word of mouth… Occupy Wall Street is similar because the work group that physically meets is the basic unit that gets things done, and in my experience of civil rights, we organized in groups to take action."

While the Internet is an effective tool for bringing people together, some religious leaders argue that it cannot replicate the spontaneity and energy of sharing an experience with others in public. This sentiment is particularly relevant for interfaith organizers who have made the Occupy movement’s communal spirit and the emphasis on human networks focal points of their ministries. "The church needs to be a place that makes you feel human," says Ruiz.

Throughout American history, from the abolitionist movement to today's immigration activism, churches have provided a platform for people to address social injustices. Today, however, the political profile of organized religion is more closely associated with moral advocacy, like opposition to abortion rights, contraception or same-sex marriage. For Ruiz, like many interfaith Occupiers, this perception is a tremendous setback.

The chain-link fence

On the overcast Saturday when Occupiers gathered to take over Duarte Park, livestream video showed George Packard, a former Episcopal bishop, dressed in a purple robe, climbing a wooden ladder that protesters had raised over the fence and dropping to the ground inside Trinity’s lot. Other interfaith protestors, including Ruiz, followed.

The group of religious activists had tried to mediate an agreement with Trinity for a new encampment in the lot. But when that effort broke down, the OWS supporters saw an opportunity to raise public consciousness by trespassing onto the property. Tearing down the chain-link fence that encloses Trinity’s lot was, in their view, a symbolic action that could encourage other religious believers and the church itself to tear down the walls that separate them from society.   

OWS supporters also pointed out that Trinity’s connection to power justified the occupation of its fenced-in lot. The church is the third-largest landowner in New York City, holding 6 million feet of real estate, and its board members include leaders from large finance companies like Citigroup and Merrill Lynch.