Reverend John Gage ’92 rarely wears his clerical collar.
But at Occupy New Haven’s first march, organized on Oct. 15., Gage donned his religious collar and priestly robes. Though just one of about 1,000 marchers, he said he wanted to be seen as “a Christian in support of the Occupy movements.”
Gage, a Yale alumnus and 11-year New Haven resident, said he wants to represent the Christian faith through his support of Occupy New Haven, but he does not intend to convert any individuals involved. Instead, he cites his religion’s emphasis on loving one’s neighbor as a driving force behind his involvement with the movement.
A senior minister for the United Church on the Green, located within clear view of the cluster of tents members of Occupy New Haven have pitched on the city’s central Green, Gage has always been committed to community activism. His drive to reach out to others has been influenced not only by his religious beliefs, he said, but also his upbringing and time as a student at Yale.
From the moment he opened his church’s doors during the second organizational meeting to allow protest members to use the bathrooms, his role in supporting change for the 99 percent has only increased. He does not have a political agenda for the movement; instead, he hopes the protests will change the “compartmentalized” nature of society.
For Gage, the Occupy New Haven protests — often criticized for lacking a clear focus — represent a movement toward inclusiveness and empowerment. He believes the group on the Green, as a part of a national statement, has been forcing Americans to evaluate a political system that he says has silenced the minority. An inclusive spirit of community has been missing in the United States for a while, Gage said, and as a religious leader at the center of New Haven, he sees himself as able to help address this issue by facilitating communication between protesters and New Haven church members.
‘RECLAIMING THAT LOVE’
During his first overnight stay at Occupy, Gage shared a tent — pitched, as all were, near the church — with two other men who he knew had usually spent their nights sleeping in that part of the Green. To him, this moment proved how the Occupy movement, a community “thrown together for an overarching cause,” could break down traditional social barriers.
The movement’s emphasis on challenging social norms is part of what initially drew him to participate. This was not an isolated example: Gage said that he has kept contributing to a developing sense of community atmosphere, a quality important for Occupy New Haven’s success.
He recalled a rainy night last week when five fellow protesters got up at 1 a.m. in the morning to help him move his tent to a drier spot out of the water. He said the amount of hospitality he has received from the Occupy community has been “incredibly moving” for him and shown him the inclusive community that Occupy is about — everything in the site is shared, including food, clothes and work.
“As a Christian , Jesus says I’m supposed to love God, love my neighbor and love myself,” he said. “So for me, that’s what the Occupy focus is about: reclaiming that love for our neighbors and to ourselves.”
Gage has always recognized the importance of contributing to his community. At home, Gage said his parents were active in supporting their neighborhoods — his father worked on the city council and his mother on the local school board. At Yale, Gage said he divided his time between facilitating the LGBT co-op and singing in the a capella group Society Of Orpheus and Bacchus and, later, the Whiffenpoofs.
Gage graduated with a degree in religious studies before returning to his hometown of Austin, Texas, to pursue a Master of Divinity degree. When he completed his Master’s in 2000 he returned to New Haven to lead the United Church.
At Occupy New Haven, Gage said he created the “Spirit Lodge,” a large tent near the edge of the camp designated as a sanctuary for protesters to meditate, pray or “just chill out.” While the actual tent belongs to Gage himself, he said he shares the space with guests who need a quiet spot to themselves or just a place to stay for the night.
Todd Sanders, a 20-year-old student organizer at Southern Connecticut State University who started the comfort committee — the group responsible for handling donations and providing necessities — has worked with Gage on improving the Occupy encampment and explained that Gage’s “Spiritual Lodge” has fostered a better sense of community among the Occupy protesters.
“John is definitely a conflict resolution guy,” Sanders said. “He’s a peacemaker. He steps up and makes sure the site is an equitable space.”
A LARGER VOICE
Gage hopes his community will serve as a larger voice for minority groups in America.
As an openly gay member of the clergy, Gage said his efforts to transform the church into one welcoming of the LGBT community have helped him empathize with the Occupy protesters and provided a “point of intersecting compassion” between his own life and the Occupy movement.
“I’ve spent my life working to help people empower people who feel that their voices have been silenced by a larger institution,” he said. “I think that’s part of what’s made me sensitive to [the Occupy movement].”
Gage serves as a liaison between the movement and the broader spiritual community. He said he has been able to use his strong relationships with other citizens to garner momentum for the protest and attract awareness of the movement’s goals. This week, for example, he said he was able to recruit about 20 to 25 members of the Connecticut clergy to visit the Occupy New Haven encampment, and he hopes to eventually establish a weekly rotation of visits from religious officials.
Tommy “Doomsday,” a New Haven resident, agreed with Gage on the importance of a sense of community, and said even the demographics of the group demonstrate this point.
“It’s a very vibrant community and the people here reflect that vibrancy,” he said. “Some of us are sick, some of us are addicts … people here give America that spice.”
Protesters work together to organize rallies or hold general assemblies. Some are members of the media working committee, which oversees the group’s website and media relations. (Gage’s church provides WiFi for the group, which now has its own website, and supplies electrical power.) They welcome visitors to the site and try to encourage as many people, even those with opposing beliefs, to come to the encampment and spend time with the group.
Gage explained that the group’s diversity highlights the purpose of the movement for the larger New Haven community.
“There is an opportunity for a broad chorus of voices to be involved in this conversation,” Gage said. “We’re trying to say another world is possible, another way of relating to each other is possible.”