Liturgical Studies student Michael Sniffen has been making the news in recent months for his involvement in the Occupy Sandy relief efforts, while at the same time writing his dissertation and serving as pastor of St. Luke and St. Matthew on Clinton Avenue in Brooklyn. Heavily influenced by process and liberation theology, Michael understands the gospel of Jesus Christ to be a prophetic word of freedom, reconciliation, and radical welcome in a world fraught with division and oppression. He perceives his vocation as witnessing to the presence of Christ in the midst of life’s challenges and difficulties.
In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, St. Luke and St. Matthew opened its buildings, including the church itself, to relief efforts, most notably Occupy Sandy, which harnessed the organization and volunteer power of Occupy Wall Street. Having served as a hub for volunteer training, meal preparation, and supply distribution throughout the winter, the church has developed an ongoing partnership with Occupy Sandy. Moving into the future, St. Luke and St. Matthew will continue to support and provide resources for the movement.
Recently I had the opportunity to interview Michael Sniffen about his exciting work. Because his words resound with authenticity and a powerful call for action, I am publishing the entirety of the interview, with only minor editorial amendments.
Q: What are the three most important things you want the Drew community to know about Occupy Sandy relief efforts?
MS: First, Occupy Sandy is evidence of how effective and well organized grass-roots movements can be. Long before larger bureaucratic relief efforts were active, neighbors came together, assessed needs and mobilized to bring relief to those in need. Second, many communities have the human resources to respond to all sorts of crises. What is lacking is a place to come together and organize. Faith communities, which often have large unused spaces can provide the infrastructure for robust community responses to serious problems. Third, people genuinely desire to be involved in helping those around them, but often don’t know where to start. Occupy Sandy is successful in the area of disaster response because all volunteers are accepted and connected with work they find meaningful.
Q: In what ways does your academic work in the Liturgical Studies program influence or intersect with your work with Occupy Sandy relief efforts?
MS: In my academic life, I am intrigued by the connections between liturgy and justice. What is the connection between worship and faithful living? Housing a major relief effort in a liturgical space seemed right to me. My church seats 1700 people. It is a huge space. Overnight it was turned into a recovery center housing millions of dollars’ worth of donations and training tens of thousands of volunteers.
The worship life of the congregation continued, of course. A very powerful moment for me as a priest was holding up the bread and wine at the altar and saying “The gifts of God for the people of God.” I was looking out at a sea of donated goods going to people in need. The connection could not have been clearer to us as the gathered assembly that these too were the gifts of God for the people of God. We also had several baptisms in the midst of the recovery work – it was a powerful vision of what baptismal ministry ought to be.
Q: In what ways are these concepts applicable to ministers and professors in other church-related and academic settings? In other words, what “transferrable” knowledge base are you developing?
Partnerships between faith communities and local activists/community organizers can be incredibly fruitful. If the church and its associated academic institutions are truly missional, then we must partner with anyone and everyone who can help us achieve our mission.
It was immediately clear to me after the hurricane that I knew people in the neighborhood who were much better organizers than I am. Opening the church completely without pre-determining the parameters of what sort of recovery program we might create allowed for an enormous amount of creativity and vision to emerge. We ended up involving more people than anyone had imagined–over 60,000 within a matter of two months.
Congregations and schools often act as gate keepers who like to have control over how mission happens in their sphere. Occupy Sandy is evidence of the momentum that can be built when freedom is granted to the wider community to engage the passion as they feel moved.
Q: Do you see this work as a spiritual practice that can deepen one’s faith? If so, would you broadly recommend such involvement for others? Do you see this work as a method by which theories can be tested? If so, what might the value be of assigning such activism to doctoral students who are otherwise involved in heavily analytical and theoretical work?
MS: This relief effort has had more impact in the lives of God’s people than other aspects of my ministry that I have spent years developing. Why? Because I let go of control and allowed something to come to term that I could never have envisioned myself. I find that faithful leadership is mostly about giving away power and control for the sake of the kin-dom of God, which is always ready to break in.
Losing control for God’s sake and the sake of our neighbors is certainly a spiritual practice. It is a practice that I find very challenging personally, but a challenge to which I feel called. I find that when I practice it well, my academic work as well as my work as a faith leader is greatly enriched. The world is inspired by praxis, not theory.
As academics, it is essential that we engage the world as fully as possible on praxis level. In a world urgently in need of healing, served by churches which are largely dying, institutions associated with the church do not have the luxury of retreating into dislocated theory. Academics are called to act to ensure the common good. Those actions ground the work we do and make it useful to the church at large.—Shelley L. Dennis, GDR Graduate Student Intern
Ongoing Hurricane Sandy Relief
Read more about St. Luke St. Matthew relief efforts: The New York Times and Episcopal News Service.
For more information visit the official Occupy Sandy relief website, which includes opportunities to volunteer.