My Afternoon of Education at Occupy Salt Lake City

A section of the Occupy Salt Lake City community camp in downtown's Pioneer Park

At about 1:30 PM on the afternoon of Friday, November 4th, I went downtown to Salt Lake City’s Pioneer Park, the location of the Occupy SLC camp community. I wanted to experience the spirit of this movement first-hand, and to talk to people that might be willing to help educate me.

Not having any idea what to expect other than the little I’d seen on the local news (which I try to avoid, but that’s another story…), I stopped and picked up a few loaves of bread, jars of peanut butter and bananas as a donation. Pulling into a parking space along the street, I have to admit that for a moment, I questioned the wisdom of what I was doing. Pioneer Park has built a reputation over the years for vagrancy, homelessness, and drug activity. In other words, Pioneer Park is associated with all those things one expects from a developed downtown city park! As I took my first few steps over the curb and into the park, I heard it. It was the announcement I was sure was being telepathically transmitted between everyone there: “Obviously-out-of-place-guy-carrying-a-nice-camera-and-groceries-now-entering-from-the-southwest-corner-of-the-park!”

As if to confirm my sudden hesitation, a woman waved me over to where she was sitting with a few others outside her tent. “If that’s food you’re donatin’, there’s a central kitchen for food over there”, she said, pointing to a tent one hundred yards or so away. I thanked her and started off in that direction.

Arriving at the large kitchen tent, I was met with a warm handshake and a chorus of expressions of gratitude for my small food donation. At first glance I noticed there was organization: an area for this, a place for that, signs offering information, and people hard at work.

Spices, utensils, essentials...

An area of the kitchen tent used for food preparation

I introduced myself, explaining that I’d come down to educate myself on what was happening. I told them that I had recently started blogging, and that I was hoping I could get someone to tell me a bit about things so I could grasp firsthand what I stood in the midst of. Immediatly, Jeyn Miller approached me and offered to show me around.

Jeyn started with the kitchen, explaining that people were able to get three meals a day. A medical tent was available for basic care and first aid. There were jars for donations, and camp residents and visitors alike were encouraged to donate whatever they could spare to help supply for the needs of feeding and supporting the Occupy SLC community.

As we began to walk, Jeyn told me she’d traveled to Salt Lake City from Missouri. She was on her way to Seattle, eventually planning to end up in Orange County, California, where her daughter lives. Jeyn had arrived the previous Saturday, and thus was concluding a full week at the SLC camp. She makes jewelry and scarves (note her handmade peace sign earrings in the photo) to raise the needed money for each leg of her journey.

Jeyn showed me around the Occupy SLC camp

Jeyn described how the camp residential area had been divided to accommodate those that go to bed late versus those that tend to retire early; they had separate sections of the park. Between them (perhaps to help create a sound barrier) sits the “Sacred Circle”. She explained this was a non-denominational place of respect, where anyone could come to do whatever it was they did for spiritual nourishment. She explained that some just came there to pray, while others did yoga, “whatever”.

Next, I was shown the library and school. A few tables were filled with books people had donated or shared. One could also ask for help with basic skills, such as reading and writing, as other residents were typically available to assist with these needs. Again, I was impressed with a sense of organization, of unified effort toward a common good; a common goal for a common community. [No; you did not hear me say or imply anything at all relevant to socialism or [shutter at the thought!] Obamunism!] What you heard was “community supporting community”.

Drumming to the Rhythm of Occupy Salt Lake City

Jeyn then introduced me to Ed Swift, who is from Portland, Oregon. A warm, friendly guy, Ed told me he hadn’t been part of the community for long, but had eagerly jumped in and gotten involved where his talents enabled him to serve. He told me the kitchen survives on donations alone. There is an effort to raise an additional $160 monthly rent to obtain four additional portable toilets for the winter. This would double the current number available to the community, but could only be sustained at a cost of $320/month. He also needed $84 to purchase 10,000 additional educational flyers, which he estimated would last several months. Again, these financial needs depended upon the donations of those living inside and outside the camp.

Food donations help meet the community's daily needs

After spending a few more minutes with Ed, I struck out on my own, feeling completely comfortable, welcomed, and at ease. I noticed a man sitting by himself on a picnic table bench, with his back to me and to the table. Have you ever looked at someone and just known for certain that they had a story – I mean a real story; something to tell but no ears to listen? Well, that’s how I came to sit down next to and introduce myself to Mike. Little did I know how I was about to be blessed. Let me ask you to put aside your personal opinion about the existence or non-existence of God, and to acknowledge that there are those of us who have, for whatever personal experience or reasons, been able to conclude that God exists. Having come to that conclusion, it alters our perception and [hopefully] changes our character and our understanding of our relationship to each other.

As we engaged in light conversation about Occupy SLC and Salt Lake City itself, Mike admitted that he finds himself uncomfortable in this town. He tells me he has observed a spirit here that is reminiscent of that which Elijah was dealing with when he confronted the prophets of Baal. I was somewhat taken aback, having just finished a re-reading and study of 1st and 2nd Kings only a few days before, so this reference and metaphor was fresh to my understanding. And then, for the next 45 minutes, Mike preached. He preached like I wished more preachers would preach! He preached with a true understanding of and a full immersion in The Book. I hardly noticed early on when another listener quietly sat down and joined us at the table, obviously as captivated by the unexpected level of wisdom, love and grace Mike possessed as I was.

I wanted so badly to take Mike’s photo, but I knew he would decline if I were to ask, so I didn’t bring it up!

As Mike concluded his “sermon”, a man approached the table and whispered something to Mike. Mike stood up, looked the man directly in the face and said, “If you’re looking for something to get high on, I suggest you sit down and talk to these two men about Jesus.” With that, he bid us good day, turned, and walked off and vanished among so many other people. [No, the other guy did not sit down!]

As I bid farewell to my co-listener and made my way back to my car, I was beginning to recognize more fully how fortunate I had been to encounter Mike that afternoon. It was not just Mike’s words that inspired me, but the proclamation that love for God — and being loved by God — knows nothing of social or class division. I was also reminded that “survival of the fittest” is just another term for selfishness.

Greed impacts everyone and everything

Snow being expected that night, the temperature was going to drop significantly. As I drove home in my heated, comfortable car, I couldn’t help but reflect on and admire the compassion and community-based concern for the well-being of others I’d witnessed that afternoon. Yet what had most impacted me was what I’d been taught about the endurance, determination, and individuality of the human spirit, and the gift we each can be, in our own way, to what we narrowly think of as our “community”. Top that with being shown the ability God’s love has to cross all boundaries, be they cultural, economical, racial, or otherwise.

I’ve thought about the few hours I ended up spending at the Occupy SLC camp every day since, and look forward to being able to repeat the experience. Some of life’s greatest lessons come from the most unexpected people and places.


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