Faith-based environmental activism can take many forms. Your event could be small: a handful of people gather one evening outside a church, holding candles and praying for upcoming U.N. climate negotiations. Or your event could be large: hundreds of people share a multi-faith worship service at which they sing, preach, and pray about caring for Earth.

Your event could be simple: a panel of speakers from different faith traditions discusses the spiritual foundations of environmental activism. Or your event could be complex, with multiple components: maybe an interfaith crowd will gather to sing, speak, and pray on the steps of your State House, hold a procession inside, carry out more speaking and singing at your Governor’s office, and then spread out for an afternoon of lobbying. Your event could be even more ambitious than that: it could, for instance, launch with an interfaith service and continue with a pilgrimage across your state, pausing as you hold educational events along the way and sleep on the floor of houses of worship; it might conclude with a large, interfaith service indoors, followed by a public rally outdoors.

Your faith-based event could be legal or it could include non-violent civil disobedience. It could be a stand-alone action or it could weave itself into something larger, such as the 10,000 people of faith who marched together in the People’s Climate March in 2014, joining a river of hundreds of thousands of people who coursed through the streets of New York City.

Whatever form it takes, your event will require planning. Here comes a list of thirteen steps for carrying out an effective and memorable faith-based environmental action. Please add your own suggestions at the bottom of this post!

1. Gather and tend the seeds

Someone has the seed of a brilliant idea (“Let’s carry out civil disobedience on Good Friday to stop new pipelines in our city.” “Let’s walk across the state to raise awareness of climate change.” “Let’s honor the sacredness of water by paddling downriver, praying all the way.”). Welcome your seeds of inspiration. Gather a group of friends, test and refine your ideas, generate more ideas, and see who has time and energy to join a planning team.

2. Only connect

Who else needs to be included in designing and carrying out the event? How wide a circle do you want to cast? Who are your potential allies? This part of the process may take a good deal of time, thought, and relationship building.

You will need to decide if you want to create an event for people of just one faith tradition, for people of several faith traditions, or for people of all faith traditions. Because so many folks no longer identify with a particular religious tradition, considering themselves “spiritual but not religious,” you may decide to promote your event as being “for all people of faith and good will.”

You will need to decide if you want the event to be led by clergy and other recognized religious leaders, and, if so, if you want those leaders to be locally known and grown or to have a wider following.

You will need to decide if, and to what degree, “your” event is open to being shaped and led by other stakeholders. For example, if you are middle-class and white, are you open to meeting with people of color and to low-income and immigrant communities as you muse on a potential action? Will you listen to their needs and hopes? How will they be included as participants and leaders? Again, if you are middle-aged and older, how will you engage youth as participants and leaders? If you are part of a “mainstream” religion, will you reach out to indigenous religious leaders? How will you take into account the needs of the differently abled, such as those who are deaf or hard of hearing, or those who need an accessible walkway?

Creating an interfaith environmental event provides a precious opportunity to build relationships across boundaries of age, race, and class, and to respect “intersectionality,” that big mouthful of a word that acknowledges that different forms of oppression (such as race, class, and gender) overlap and intersect. As Naomi Klein has said, to change everything we need everyone.

3. Go for ‘now’ time and ‘deep’ time

An event that honors “now” time is an event that is timely. Will you hold your event during the final push to pass important legislation? Will your event try to affect an upcoming election? Will it be held on the eve of an important national or international event, such as Pope Francis’ visit to the U.S. or the next round of U.N. climate talks? Will it be held in the aftermath of an environmental disaster, such as an oil spill, hurricane, or wildfire?

A timely event will also explore the possibility of aligning with the larger climate movement. Can your prayer vigil, procession, pilgrimage, worship service or rally be timed to coincide with other events being carried out around the world? Right now the next big climate mobilization will be held worldwide on September 8, “Rise for Climate.” What better day than this to schedule an interfaith climate action and to uphold the movement in prayer?

              Note: to keep track of actions being planned on a global scale, follow 350.org. For climate justice events in Massachusetts, follow 350Mass for a Better Future; in the Pioneer Valley, follow Climate Action Now.

A faith-based event can be timed to connect with a civic holiday such as Valentine’s Day, Mother’s Day, or Thanksgiving. It can also be timed to resonate with the “deep” time of religion. Scheduling your event on a holy day, a day of atonement, or a liturgical season can add to its spiritual, moral, and emotional power. Even if the conjunction is accidental, it can still be meaningful. One of the most dynamic celebrations of Advent I’ve ever witnessed took place in 2011, when 7,000 people, including clergy and faith leaders, marched through the streets of Montreal to support decisive action at the U.N. Climate Change Conference. As I wrote in my book of Advent meditations, Joy of Heaven, to Earth Come Down (Forward, 2012, 2013), the march sounded the ancient themes of Advent:

“The time is high,” said one sign.
“People in power: wake up!” said another.
Now is the time wake from sleep. Repent. Time is short. Prepare for judgment.

Deep time is a good context for holding your event, but here’s a heads up: you will need to be thoughtful in selecting a date that does not create insurmountable obstacles for the faith communities you hope to reach. On Friday, Muslims are encouraged to gather at the mosque for special prayers; Saturday is when observant Jews mark the Sabbath; Sunday (particularly Sunday morning) is when Christians observe a Sabbath day of rest. Clergy may find it relatively easy to attend a weekday or weeknight event, but difficult to do so on a weekend, when they lead services. People with 9 to 5 jobs may find it easier to attend an event that is held on the weekend or at lunchtime or on a weekday evening. Finally, before choosing a date, be sure to check the proposed date against the schedule of special observances of the faith traditions you hope to include.

In selecting the date of an interfaith event, you will almost certainly have to make some hard choices. Still, it’s better to weigh the pros and cons in advance and to make a deliberate and informed choice, offering explanations and apologies as you go, than inadvertently to choose a date that you later discover will exclude a large swath of the people you’d most hoped would participate.

4. Draw from symbol and story

Myths, parables and stories from religious traditions provide powerful ways to re-imagine ourselves and our situation. Because stories speak not just to our rational mind but also to our imagination, feelings, and will, they can be brought to bear to address the climate crisis and can give us courage, guidance, and motivation to act.

To name a couple of examples from the Judeo-Christian tradition: in Massachusetts, activists fighting new pipeline construction chose the biblical story of Moses confronting Pharaoh and demanding, in the name of God, that the people be set free, as the framework for Exodus from Fossil Fuels, an interfaith witness for climate action that we carried out in Boston in March 2018 during Holy Week (for Christians) and shortly before Passover (for Jews). (For my blog post on this event, click here.)

Similarly, activists fighting to stop construction of a trash-burning incinerator in a low-income community in Baltimore used the story of the theft of Naboth’s vineyard (1 Kings 21:1-21a) to illuminate their own experience of social and environmental injustice and to inspire their own acts of resistance. (For my sermon on this text, visit here.)

Sacred symbols such as water and trees also hold great power in many religious traditions. Is there a symbol around which you would like to organize your event?

5. Create a vision

If this event were “successful,” what would it look like? Hold this conversation early in the planning process. The vision that emerges can serve as a sort of North Star to guide you along the way. Keeping the vision in mind can raise energy, clarify focus, and open the heart. During the planning process, it is good to return to the vision from time to time. Are we still in alignment with the initial vision that so inspired us? Does our vision of the event need to change?

Antoine de Saint Exupery pointed out: “If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.” Simon Sinek makes the same point in his TED talk, “How Great Leaders Inspire Action,” when he says, “Martin Luther King, Jr. gave the ‘I have a dream’ speech, not the ‘I have a plan’ speech.

6. Divvy things up

In other words: get organized. One model for organizing a complex event is to have a steering committee made up of maybe half a dozen dedicated individuals who can devote real time to overseeing the project. Other leaders can form subgroups that are devoted to accomplishing specific tasks (e.g. communications and media; worship service; choreography of civil disobedience; outreach to groups not yet represented). A member of the steering committee can participate in each subgroup and serve as a liaison to the steering committee, reporting on progress made and where more help is needed.

Divvying up responsibilities requires self-awareness (what skills do I bring to the table?), curiosity (what skills do the other people bring?), and clarity (what skills does this event need in order to be successful?). For example, some people may be excellent at generating and maintaining the big vision of the event, whereas other people may be terrific at handling details, creating timelines, forming agendas, and assuring accountability. A successful event will require both sets of skills.

               Note: if you are planning an interfaith act of civil disobedience to address climate change, Climate Disobedience Center is an excellent source of support and guidance.

7. Communicate

Craft a clear, simple message for the media and the public.

Let your visuals communicate the same clear, dramatic message. Will a casual passerby grasp the purpose of your event?

Develop a communications plan: make a flyer, figure out how to post it on bulletin boards and share it online, set up a Facebook event page, compose a decent press release, designate your spokespeople, and reach out to press, radio, and TV.

8. Make it beautiful

Music is essential, especially participatory singing that requires no song sheets. When it comes to enlivening an interfaith vigil or rally, songs are more potent than chants. Whether they are fierce or tender, songs can generate warmth and fellow-feeling, compassion and resolve.

Will you create banners? What about oversize puppets? There’s nothing like holding an interfaith rally that is attended by a larger-than-life polar bear or by Mother Earth herself.

Will your event include a ritual such as ripping a cloth (a sign of mourning in Jewish tradition), blessing the crowd with evergreen fronds dipped in water (a Christian tradition), or smudging your neighbor’s outstretched palms with dirt (a ritual of commissioning someone to become a healer of Earth)? What kind of ritual might enrich your event?

Encourage religious leaders to wear vestments or other clothing that represents their tradition. You’re aiming for an event that is dignified, colorful, diverse, and photogenic.

9. Keep it fun

Wherever possible, maintain a spirit of joy. How blessed we are to express our deepest values, to celebrate the sacredness of life, and to do so together!

Bring snacks to planning meetings. Offer your seat to someone. Yield the floor. Enjoy the ride.

10. Pray your way through

As you plan an interfaith event, trust that the initial seed of an idea, and the process of tending, enlarging, pruning, and adapting those ideas, is a gift from Spirit. Aim to stay connected with Spirit all the way through by keeping your meetings rooted in prayer, allowing space for silence, singing, and prayer, as well as for the nitty-gritty work of planning and problem-solving. The only way to reach peace is to be peace along the way.

It’s worth pointing out that people who organize an interfaith climate action are people who care deeply: we feel an urgent desire to preserve the web of life and to create a just and sustainable society. Organizers will not always concur on the best path forward, and strong feelings can lead to disagreements. Expect some misunderstandings and conflict. Keep breathing. Cherish the planning process as an opportunity to use and expand all your skills in non-violent communication. Understand that everything that happens – the bump in the road, a sudden gust of disappointment, the possibility of failure – is part of your own spiritual journey to grow in wisdom, compassion, and discernment.

11. Record & share it

Can you persuade a professional photographer to take video and still photos? Or will you rely on people’s cell phones? Amplify the impact of your event by spreading images on social media, and consider writing blog posts, letters to the editor, and op-eds. Creating a visual and verbal record of your event not only boosts your morale – it also educates other people and encourages them to create their own actions.

Be sure to thank members of the media who covered the story.

12. Plan to follow up

Will this be a one-off event or will it be the start of something? Consider how you will engage people, once your event is over. At the end of your action, consider distributing a short handout of upcoming events and local organizations. Make it easy for newcomers to get involved in the climate movement.

Gather participants’ names and contact information. Keep records.

13. Savor the harvest

Soon after the event, take time with your steering committee to debrief in person or on a conference call. (What did we learn? What were the high points and low points? Name a rose and a thorn. What would we do differently next time? Are we ready to consider next steps?).

If you’re up for it, hold a party.

If possible, protect space in your calendar so that you can now catch up on the responsibilities you probably set aside in order to plan and implement your wonderful event.

Give thanks.

 

 

Sermon for the Third Sunday of Easter, April 15, 2018 Delivered by the Rev. Dr. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas at Federated Church of Orleans, East Orleans, MA Acts 3:12-19 1 John 3:17 Luke 24:36b-48

             “You are witnesses of these things”                  

Today we are deep into the Great Fifty Days of Easter, and I want to share a story told by an Episcopal bishop about leading worship one Easter morning. Bishop Mark Macdonald was preaching to a congregation in the middle of Navajo Nation. When the time came to read the Gospel account of Jesus’ resurrection, Bishop Macdonald stood up and began reading in Navajo: “It was early in the morning…” Almost before the words were out of his mouth, “the oldest person there, an elder who understood no English, said loudly (in Navajo), ‘Yes!’”

Margaret in front of Federated Church of Orleans, whose banner reads “Boldly Caring for Creation”
The bishop remarks that “it seemed a little early in the narrative for this much enthusiasm,” so he assumed he had made a mistake – maybe he had mispronounced the words in Navajo. So he tried again: “It was early in the morning…’” This time he heard an even louder and more enthusiastic Yes. After the service, the bishop went up to one of the lay leaders and asked if he had pronounced the words correctly. Oh, she said, looking surprised, of course. Well, asked the bishop, then why was the older woman so excited? Oh, he was told, “The early dawn is the most important part of the day to her. Father Sky and Mother Earth meet at that time and produce all that is necessary for life. It is the holiest time of the day. Jesus would pick that good time of day to be raised.”1 Bishop Macdonald realized that while the early dawn is certainly the best time for new life, he had never thought about the possibility that this “observation about the physical word could be theologically and spiritually revealing, that it suggested a communion between God, humanity, and creation that is fundamental to our… existence.” It took him a while to absorb this. He writes: “An elder with no formal schooling had repositioned the central narrative of my life firmly within the physical world and all its forces and interactions. It was,” he says, “an ecological reading of a story that, for me, had been trapped inside a flat virtual world misnamed ‘spiritual’.” Today, on the Third Sunday of Easter, we celebrate Christ’s resurrection and the sacred power of the natural world. Like Bishop Macdonald, today we remember and re-claim what he calls “a primal, long-ignored layer of spiritual consciousness that [is] also an ecological consciousness.”2
Horseshoe crab on tidal flats, Rock Harbor, Cape Cod
I don’t know about you, but I grew up thinking of “spirituality” as completely ethereal. The God I grew up with had no body. Being a good Christian was all about distancing oneself from the body and transcending the body – both one’s own body and the “body” of the natural world. The natural world and its wild diversity of buzzing, blooming, finned, and feathered creatures was essentially irrelevant and dispensable, just the backdrop to what was really important: human beings. Since the time of the Reformation, Christianity – at least in the West – has had little to say about the salvation of the natural world and the cosmos, as if only one species, Homo sapiens, is of any real interest to God. So what a healing it is, what a restoration of the ancient biblical understanding – an understanding that has never been forgotten by the indigenous people of the land – to know that the Earth is holy. Its creatures are holy. The whole created world is lit up with the power and presence of God. Our Gospel story this morning is full of meanings, but surely one of them is that the Risen Christ is alive in the body, in our bodies, in the body of the Earth. While the disciples were talking about how they had seen Jesus risen from the dead, “Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, ‘Peace be with you.’ They were startled and terrified, and thought that they were seeing a ghost” (Luke 24:36-37). But Jesus doesn’t come as a ghost. He doesn’t come as a memory, as an idea, or as something from “a flat, virtual world misnamed ‘spiritual’.” He comes as a living body, a body made of flesh and bone that can touch and be touched, a body that can feel hunger and thirst and that wants to know, “Hey, isn’t there anything to eat around here?” Scripture tells us that the Messiah is born, lives, suffers, dies, and rises as a body, and that says something about how much God cherishes the body and wants to meet us in and through the body – through our bodily senses of sight and sound, through taste and touch and smell, in this very breath. Scripture tells us that for forty days the disciples met the living Christ through his risen body. And then, when he ascended into heaven, Jesus’ body withdrew from the disciples’ sight, so that his living presence could fill all things and so that all of us can touch and see him, if our eyes are opened.
Bird tracks on tidal flats, Rock Harbor, Cape Cod
What this means is that when you and I go out into nature, when we let our minds grow quiet and we simply gaze at the white pine, the first blooms of forsythia, the seashell on the shore – when we gaze with a quiet eye, not grasping for anything and not pushing anything away, we begin to perceive that a holy, living presence fills everything we see. Wherever we gaze, the Risen Christ is gazing back at us and his presence is flowing toward us. “Peace be with you,” he is saying to us through wind and tree, through cloud and stars. “Peace be with you. I am here in the needles of the pine tree beside you that flutter in the breeze, and in the bark overlaid with clumps of lichen, each one a tiny galaxy. I am here in the ocean waves that form and dissolve on the shore, in the sand under your bare feet, in the sea gull that is crying overhead. Peace be with you. I am here, and you are part of this with me, and you are witnesses of these things.” This morning I brought with me an icon of the Risen Christ.3 The icon imagines Christ as a Native American figure whose body shines out from every habitat and every creature – from the sky above to the water below, from mountains, field and buffalo. The God who created all things also redeems all things and fills all things. Through the crucified and risen Christ, divine love has woven together the human and natural worlds into one inter-related whole. When our inward sight is restored and our eyes are opened to behold Christ in all his redeeming work, the Earth comes alive and we perceive Christ in every sound we hear, in every handful of dirt that we hold and in every bird we see. We are witnesses of these things. In our first reading this morning, Peter speaks about God’s power to heal and to bring forth new life, and he says, “To this we are witnesses” (Acts 3:15b). Our Gospel passage ends with the risen Christ speaking about God’s power to bring new life out of suffering and death, God’s power to reconcile and forgive and heal. Jesus says, “You are witnesses of these things” (Luke 24:48).
Storm erosion has been eating away about 12 feet of Nauset Beach every year. Last year’s Nor’easters decimated the beach.
Today more than ever we need witnesses to the love and power of God and to the divine love that fills the whole Creation, for God’s Creation is in the process of being recklessly assaulted by an economic system that is based on limitless expansion and dependent on the relentless burning of fossil fuels. Countries around the world agreed in the Paris Climate Accord that we must limit the rise of the global average temperature to no more than 2 degrees Celsius, and ideally to no more than 1.5 degrees. The national proposals of the Paris Accord help get us part of the way there, but only part of the way (3.3 C, or 6 F), so we must rein in dirty emissions even more boldly than that. If we stick to our present course and keep going with business as usual, global temperatures will skyrocket by the end of this century, raising temperatures an average of 4.2 degrees Celsius (or 7.6 Fahrenheit). Human beings simply can’t adapt to that level of heat. We would be living on a different planet. Thank God, there is a lot that we, as individuals, can do. Maybe we can plant trees. Save trees. Recycle more. Drive less. Eat local, eat less meat, and move to a plant-based diet. Get our home insulated and get LED lighting. Support local farms and land trusts. Fly less – and, if we must fly, buy carbon offsets. Maybe we can afford solar panels and move toward a carbon-neutral home. I was thrilled to see the solar array behind the church.  That’s the first time I’ve ever seen solar panels behind a nice white picket fence! Individual changes make a difference, but because of the scope and speed of the climate crisis, we need more than individual action – we need systemic change. To do that, we’ll need to become politically engaged, to confront the powers-that-be, and to push our elected leaders to awaken from the fantasy that we can continue with business as usual. So some of us carry out peaceful, disciplined actions of civil disobedience to stop construction of new fossil fuel infrastructure and keep fossil fuels in the ground, where they belong. Some of us push for policies that support the development of clean renewable energy, since that is where our future lies, if we’re going to have one. Some of us join Citizens Climate Lobby and advocate for a national carbon tax, or support legislation right here in Massachusetts that would put a price on carbon. Those of us who are white and privileged listen to the voices of racial minorities, indigenous peoples, and the poor, knowing that they are God’s beloved and that they are the ones hit first and hardest by climate change. Together we intend to build a world in which everyone can thrive. Here on Cape Cod you are fortunate to have a local node of 350Mass for a Better Future, the grassroots, climate action group that is working hard to build political will to stop new pipelines and move the Commonwealth to 100% clean energy. I hope you’ll sign up with 350Mass and check out a local meeting. Our state politicians may see what’s needed, but they are not moving fast enough to stop the damage.
Solar panels enclosed by white picket fence, Federated Church of Orleans
What motivates us to join the struggle to protect life as it has evolved on this planet? As followers of Jesus, we take action not only out of fear, although we do fear for the future of our children and our children’s children if we leave them a scorched and barren world beset by climate disruption. We take action not only because we’re angry, although we are angry, and refuse to allow political and corporate powers to dismantle the web of life for the sake of their own short-term profit and greed. We take action not only out of sorrow, although we do grieve for all the species we have already lost and will lose, grieve for the dying coral and vanishing bumblebees, grieve for the climate refugees, the vulnerable poor, and all the innocents who are already suffering and whose lives and livelihoods are being destroyed. Fear, anger, and sorrow – all these feelings may galvanize us to act. But stirring beneath them all is love, love for each other, love for the Earth entrusted to our care, love for the God whose mercies cannot be numbered. We were made for communion with God and each other and God’s Creation, and we put our trust in the power of God to work through us to heal and reconcile and save. I don’t know if in the end we will be successful, but I do know this: we intend to be living witnesses to the power of a living God until the day we die.
1. Mark Macdonald, “Finding Communion with Creation,” in Holy Ground: A Gathering of Voices on Caring for Creation, edited by Lyndsay Moseley and the staff of Sierra Club Books, San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 2008, pp. 150-151. Macdonald is the former bishop of Alaska, and now serves as the National Indigenous Bishop of the Anglican Church of Canada. 2. Ibid, p. 151. 3. “Mystic Christ,” by Fr. John Giuliani, Bridge Building Images, Inc.

Margaret contributed to a collection of essays, “The Episcopal Church — standing up to climate change denial?”, assembled by Margaret Daly Denton and published in SEARCH: A Church of Ireland Journal, Spring 2018. The other contributors are Presiding Bishop Michael B. Curry, the Rev. Fletcher Harper (GreenFaith), and Nathan Empsall (Yale Divinity School seminarian).

To download the essay, click on the title: TEC Standing up to Climate Change Denial.

The Website for SEARCH: A Church of Ireland Journal is here.

Faith leaders preparing to lead Exodus from Fossil Fuel in front of the State House

On a bright, wind-swept day shortly before Easter and Passover, a crowd of faith leaders and members of faith communities gathered on the steps of the Massachusetts State House to call upon Governor Baker to take bold leadership in addressing climate disruption. Drawing from the ancient stories of Moses confronting Pharaoh and of Jesus confronting the imperial powers of Rome, “Exodus from Fossil Fuel” celebrated our shared determination, as people of diverse faiths, to set ourselves free from fossil fuels and to create a more just and sustainable society.

Before we created and carried out this public event, eighteen faith leaders representing a range of religious traditions – including the Commonwealth’s top leaders of the Episcopal Church, United Methodist Church, and United Church of Christ – signed a letter to Governor Baker.  In our letter, we expressed our conviction that we have a spiritual and moral obligation to protect the web of life. We appealed to the Governor to meet with a small group of faith leaders, so that we could discuss the values that lead us to oppose construction of all new fossil fuel infrastructure in the Commonwealth.

We heard not a word in response.

Hence, on March 26, Monday in Holy Week and a few days before Passover, we went ahead with our public protest and appeal. As I said in my remarks to the press, “We are holding this event during a time of year that is a holy season for multiple faith traditions, because protecting our climate and God’s creation is one of the most important ways to practice our faith in today’s world.”

The Rev. Fred Small leads singing

The lively outdoor service included songs and prayers; a moving litany of “climate plagues” and public mourning led by two rabbis; and speakers representing front-line communities from all across the Commonwealth that are resisting new fracked gas pipelines with vigils, protests, and non-violent civil disobedience. After a closing blessing and song, we walked in procession to the State House, led by the drumbeats and chants of a small group of Buddhist monks. At the doorway to Governor Baker’s office, a few of us spoke with his staff members. Meanwhile the crowd filled the hallway, writing postcards to the Governor, holding palm branches aloft, and singing songs of hope. Then we scattered in every direction, heading to the offices of our state representatives and senators to advocate for the Senate’s clean energy omnibus bill (S. 2302) and the House’s environmental justice act (H. 2913).

Astonishing news arrived the next day: the judge in the trial of the final 13 defendants who had carried out civil disobedience to protest the West Roxbury Lateral fracked gas pipeline were found not guilty, reportedly because their actions were deemed a “necessity.” If confirmed, this could be the first time that defendants were acquitted based on “climate necessity.” Since I was one of the 198 people arrested for carrying out civil disobedience at the site of this high-pressure, dangerous pipeline, I feel particular joy in celebrating the judge’s historic decision.

    • The Berkshire Edge wrote a good short article about Exodus from Fossil Fuel that can be found here.
    • The entire worship service (except for improvised statements that have yet to be transcribed) can be found here. We hope you will use this document to stimulate your own thinking about how to create an interfaith worship service that lifts up the urgency of combating climate change. Please let us know what you come up with! We also hope that, in reviewing this service, you will be inspired by the range and depth of active resistance to fracked gas pipelines that is now being carried out across the Commonwealth.
    • Do you wish to express your own commitment? Clergy and religious leaders are invited to sign a statement calling for moral leadership for climate justice. The Clergy Climate Action statement includes a pledge to resist new fossil fuel development through nonviolent direct action. Congregants and community members can also add their support.

Below is the blessing that I delivered at the end of the service:

We’ve shared a lot of words, so, before we pray, I invite us to take a moment in silence to feel the good earth that supports our feet, which we bless with every step and which blesses us with every step… I invite us to take a good deep breath of air, giving thanks for the trees and green things, giving us oxygen…and to feel that warm sun with all its good energy, with which we can power so many things…

I invite you to join me in a spirit of prayer as we turn to our Creator, the Higher Power, the holy Mystery, the Great Spirit whom we know by many names:


God of abundance, we stand before you with grateful hearts, thankful for the gift of life, thankful for this beautiful world that you entrusted to our care.  Thank you for sending into our midst these warriors and prophets who are giving themselves to the struggle to preserve a habitable world! We ask you to bless them and protect them. Give them courage when they are afraid, strength when they falter, and comfort when they grieve.  Sustain them with your bountiful Spirit and guide them on their sacred path.

We ask your blessing on every one of us here.  Thank you for the love that drew us here today, for the love that wells up from the center of our being, abides in our midst, and reaches out in every direction, calling us to recognize each other and all other beings as kin.  Help us to bear witness to that love in everything we say and do.

We ask you to bless our Governor, our legislators, our political leaders, and all in authority, to turn their hearts and to guide them to make wise decisions that serve the common good.

And we ask you to bless our efforts going forward.  Make us bold and humble, fierce and tender in our search for justice, healing, and peace.   Amen.  


Photo: Faith leaders preparing to lead Exodus from Fossil Fuel in front of the State House
(l. to r.) Rev. Fred Small (Minister for Climate Justice, Arlington Street Church, Boston); Rev. Betsy Sowers (Minister for Earth Justice, Old Cambridge Baptist Church); Rev. Dr. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas (Missioner for Creation Care, Episcopal Diocese of Western Massachusetts & Massachusetts Conference, United Church of Christ); Rev. Ian Mevorach (Spiritual Leader, Common Street Spiritual Center in Natick; Coordinator, American Baptist Churches Creation Justice Network); Rev. Dr. Lawrence Jay (Executive Director, Rolling Ridge Retreat and Conference Center of the New England United Methodist Conference); Kristina Keefe-Perry (Coordinator, Creation Care Ministries, The American Baptist Churches of Mass.); Rabbi Katy Z. Allen (President, Jewish Climate Action Network)


Deep thanks to Andrew Mudge of Blackkettle Films, who donated his time and skills to make this inspiring 4-minute video of Exodus from Fossil Fuel, which is now posted on YouTube.

Sermon for the Second Sunday in Lent, February 25, 2018 Delivered by the Rev. Dr. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas at Grace St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Tucson, AZ Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16 Psalm 22:22-30 Romans 4:13-25 Mark 8:31-38

Keep the faith

What a blessing to be with you this morning! Thank you, Steve, for welcoming me back to this pulpit. I’m an Episcopal priest and long-time climate activist, and I have the world’s longest job title. I work as Missioner for Creation Care in the Episcopal Diocese of Western Massachusetts, and the United Church of Christ in Massachusetts. I am not a “missionary,” a word that’s often associated with trying to convert someone, but a “missioner,” which means someone who has been sent out on a mission, someone who has been sent out to serve God beyond the boundaries of a building. As Missioner for Creation Care, I travel in and beyond Massachusetts, preaching and speaking and leading retreats about the sacredness of God’s Creation and our call to become faithful stewards of God’s good Earth, particularly our call to address climate change. The God whom we meet so intimately in our depths is the same God who sends us out into the world to be healers and justice-seekers. My Website is RevivingCreation.org, where you can read articles and sign up for blog posts.

My sermon boils down to three words: Keep the faith. That’s the phrase I often find myself saying to friends as we prepare to go our separate ways: Keep the faith. Other people have other favorite go-to phrases when they say goodbye. I remember Walter Cronkite signing off at the end of every nightly newscast: “That’s the way it is.” Before him there was Edward R. Murrow, who ended his radio and TV broadcasts with the words, “Good night, and good luck.” And as long as we’re on the subject of television, let’s not forget Dr. Spock from Star Trek, with his farewell blessing, “Live long and prosper.” I like all these expressions, but what I want to say, what I want to hear, is “Keep the faith.” We live in a precarious time, a time of turmoil when for all kinds of reasons many of us feel rattled and anxious, and brace ourselves for the next bit of bad news. So how glad I am that today, on the Second Sunday in Lent, we are invited to remember Abraham, our brother in the faith, our father in the faith, “the father of all of us,” as St. Paul puts it in his Letter to the Romans (Romans 4:16). When the story begins, Abraham is the archetype of someone stuck in a hopeless place, a place without faith. He is ninety-nine years old, for heaven’s sake, his body “already as good as dead,” according to St. Paul (Romans 4:19). He has no children by his wife, Sarah, who is no spring chicken, either. The data would suggest that he has reached a dead end. This man who wished for progeny for so long is all washed up; he’s at the end of his rope; his future is barren; the door has closed. But then he has an encounter with God that changes everything. We don’t hear the details of that encounter in today’s reading, though in another passage from Genesis it seems that Abraham’s experience took place at night, in the desert, under the stars (Genesis 15:5). Abraham encounters a God of life, a creative God with the power to make all things new, a God, says St. Paul, “who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist” (Romans 4:17). This wild and life-giving God, a God of justice and mercy, makes a covenant with Abraham, an unshakable bond, and promises him offspring, and a good land, and a future. None of those promises are visible yet, none of them has yet come to be, but Abraham’s faith awakens. It comes alive: he puts his faith in God. He trusts in God’s presence; he trusts in God’s power. He casts his lot with a God of infinite love and creativity, a God who has the power to restore and make whole. And in response to God’s call, Abraham sets out in faith. I want to emphasize that last point: he sets out. He walks. Today’s first reading makes it clear that faith is active, not passive: faith is practiced and made manifest in action. What does God say to Abraham? “I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be blameless.” Walk – don’t stand still, don’t get passive, don’t stay stuck and hopeless. Don’t wait for someone else to do something. Get going. Get moving. Take action. And don’t walk alone. “Walk before me,” says Yahweh, “and be blameless.” It is if God were an unseen presence and power that is always behind us, as if our job were to clear the way for divine love to move through us, freely and fully, like a river that flows through us and out into the world, so that all people and all beings can be blessed and healed and reconciled. Our task in the course of a day is to stay in conscious contact with God, so that as far as possible we are walking before God, not walking alone, not being driven by our ego or by our anxiety. Activists usually depend on people power, but spiritual activists – people who walk in faith – depend on God-power. It is God who energizes and emboldens us, God who gives us power to do more than we can ask or imagine. We live in a time that cries out for the imagination, determination, and heart of people of faith. The web of life is unraveling before our eyes. Great populations of creatures – even entire species – are rapidly disappearing from Earth. Scientists tell us that a mass extinction event is now underway – what they’re calling a “biological annihilation.” In addition to species extinction, we also face a changing climate. Because of the relentless burning of fossil fuels, month after month our planet is breaking records for heat. As Bill McKibben wrote, “Our old familiar globe is suddenly melting, drying, acidifying, flooding, and burning in ways that no human has ever seen.” 1 To cite just one example of how burning fossil fuels is affecting our planet: a recent study examined all the major research on oxygen loss in the ocean and concluded that over the past fifty years the amount of water in the open ocean that is without oxygen has more than quadrupled. As one headline puts it, the ocean is losing its breath. To put it another way, the ocean is suffocating. Lest we imagine that land creatures will not be affected, one scientist points out that about half of the oxygen on Earth comes from the ocean. A professor of marine science who reviewed the study commented that the need for action was best summarized by the motto of the American Lung Association: “If you can’t breathe, nothing else matters.” I suppose that’s one reason I’m a climate activist: I like to breathe. Climate change is not one of 26 different causes that we care about, but a cause that affects everything we cherish. If you care about the poor, you care about climate; if you care about immigration and refugees, you care about climate; if you care about public health, you care about climate; if you care about human rights, you care about climate; if you care about loving God and your neighbor, you care about climate. Climate justice is not an issue for a special interest group. If you like to breathe, if you like to eat, if you’d like to leave your children a world they can live in, you care about climate. To heal God’s Creation, there is a great deal that we, as individuals, can do. Maybe we can plant a tree. Save a tree. Recycle more. Drive less. Eat local, eat organic, eat less meat and move to a plant-based diet. Maybe we can support local land trusts and non-profits focused on conservation. We can fly less – and, if we must fly, buy carbon offsets. Maybe we can afford solar panels and move toward a carbon-neutral home. If we have investments, we can divest from fossil fuels, and if we’re college graduates, we can urge our alma mater to divest. Individual changes make a difference, but because of the scope and speed of the climate crisis, we need more than individual action – we need systemic change. To do that, we will have to confront the powers that be, especially when multinational corporations and members of our own government seem intent on desecrating every last inch of God’s Creation, pillaging every last natural resource, destroying every last habitat, and abandoning every last regulation, rule, and treaty that preserve clean air and water and maintain the stability of our global climate. Under the circumstances, I wonder at what point the practice of carrying out acts of civil disobedience will become as normative for faithful Christians as the practice of prayer.2 We will also have to confront versions of Christianity that contend that God has given us license to pillage and destroy the natural world, as if everything on God’s green Earth were placed here solely for the pleasure and benefit of a single species, Homo sapiens, or at least its privileged elite. Scott Pruitt, head of the Environmental Protection Agency, revealed this week, in an interview with the Christian Broadcasting Network, that he believes that the Bible gives human beings the (quote-unquote) “responsibility” to “harvest” natural resources like coal and oil, although we know full well that burning these fuels is wrecking the planet entrusted to our care. As Mother Jones reports in its cover profile of Pruitt in its March/April issue, the EPA chief’s beliefs are rooted in a version of Christianity that is the “polar opposite from that of other religious leaders, including Pope Francis, who interpret stewardship as the responsibility humans have to protect God’s creation.” When corporate and political powers set us on a path of disaster – when they remain hell-bent on locating, extracting, and burning as much coal, gas and oil as they possibly can, never mind the potentially catastrophic effects of what they’re doing – the time has come for us to unleash our faith, to make it visible and make it bold. I give thanks for the story of God’s covenant with Abraham, our father in the faith. It reminds me that in perilous times, God calls forth a people who put their trust in a power greater than themselves; a people who start walking even if they have no map and must create the map as they go; a people with the God-given imagination to envision a future in which the land will prosper and our offspring will thrive; a people who trust in the creative, liberating power of the God who is within them and among them, beyond them and behind them, making a way where there is no way, giving life to the dead, and calling into existence the things that do not exist. Thank you for whatever you are doing – or will do – to re-weave the web of life and to love God and all our neighbors, human and other-than-human. You know, we are all missioners for Creation care. Every who shares the faith of Abraham and Sarah, everyone who follows Jesus – every one of us here is a missioner for Creation care. Thank you for being on the journey with me. Keep the faith.
1. Bill McKibben, Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet, New York: Henry Holt and Company, Times Book, 2010, p. xiii and book jacket. Italics in original. 2. I credit the Rev. Dr. Jim Antal with issuing this challenge, which he explores in his new book, Climate Church, Climate World (Rowman & Littlefield, 2018).

The Archdiocese of Boston hosted an extraordinary conversation on February 8-9, 2018, as leaders drawn from religious and scientific communities gathered to discuss the possibility of forging a partnership to push for decisive action on climate change. The idea for gathering the group came from Phil Duffy, President of the Woods Hole Research Center, who, as Cardinal Sean O’Malley explains in a blog post, “[reached] out to the archdiocese through the good offices of Professor Mark Silk, director of the Greenberg Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life at Trinity College in Hartford.”

Rev. Dr. Margaret at the environmental conference. Photo credit: G. Tracy, Archdiocese of Boston

Over the years, science and religion have had a complicated and sometimes hostile relationship. As our convener Professor Mark Silk observed, religion and science have distinct approaches to reality. Although scientists sometimes serve as advisers and consultants to religious leaders, and although scientists may turn to religion for inspiration, to form a coalition of religious leaders and scientists “would be something new under the sun.”

Such a partnership has enormous potential in this perilous time. In fact, such a partnership may be not just desirable, but even essential. Given the massive disruption of our global climate that is now underway, we need to hear from scientists, who have made it abundantly clear that continuing to burn fossil fuels will lead in a very short time to climate catastrophe. And we also need to hear from spiritual and religious leaders, who can give us the inspiration, motivation, and moral courage to change course and to create a more just and life-sustaining society.

Phil Duffy contended in his opening remarks that when it comes to addressing climate change, in many ways we already have what we need. “We can do the science,” he said. “We know more than enough to take strong action. We have most of the solutions we need, and we know how to design policies to apply those solutions.” The problem, he said, is that we’re just not doing it. We’re not taking the actions we need to take. “We need to summon the political will.” The only way to do so, he said, is to bring together head and heart. He cited retired Congressman Bob Inglis, a conservative Republican from South Carolina, who wrote, “Climate science can fill our heads, but it can’t change our hearts. Only grace can do that. People of faith are therefore essential if we are to rise to the protection of our common home.”

Bishop Bud Cederholm (retired, Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts), Rev. Fred Small, Rev. Dr. Margaret, and Rev. Dr. Jim Antal (MACUCC)

Professor Silk put it like this: “If a coalition of scientists and faith leaders can’t communicate what is necessary to do, no one can. If no one can communicate what is necessary, no one can do what is necessary.”

Professor Robert DeConto of University of Massachusetts, Amherst, gave a brief, stark presentation of his research on the Antarctica ice sheet, noting that business as usual would result in a one meter global rise in sea levels by 2100 that would affect 152 million people worldwide – just from the melting of Antarctica’s ice. Lest those numbers sound abstract, he brought his message home with a slide depicting how much of Boston would be underwater.

Professor DeConto explains the planet’s long-term commitment to sea-level rise: Even assuming zero greenhouse gas emission after 2500, the Antarctica ice sheet will take many thousands of years to recover

I was invited to speak about the current state of religious climate action in Massachusetts, and my remarks are posted below. Some of the other faith-based speakers included the Rev. Mariama White-Hammond of Bethel AME Church, who, in a talk entitled “The Cry of the Poor,” spoke eloquently about climate justice, urging us to grapple with the contradiction that the people most harmed by climate change are not the people who make policy decisions.

The Rev. Dr. Jim Antal, whose new book Climate Church, Climate World is about to be released, pressed the religious leaders in the room to recognize that witnessing for God’s Creation is the vocation of the church, the synagogue, the mosque and the temple. “What if taking action on climate were to become as defining a quality of what it means to be religious, as prayer? What if religious leaders in Massachusetts gave at least as much attention to collective salvation as they currently give to personal salvation? What if every person of faith understood that ‘To be a person of faith, I have to speak up for Creation?’”

Discussion was lively. We shared insights, ideas, and hopes. To cite just a couple of comments, Bill Moomaw, Professor Emeritus of International Environmental Policy at the Fletcher School, Tufts University, reminded us that in November 2017, world scientists released a warning to humanity about the daunting environmental challenges that we face and the urgent need to work together as a human race to create a sustainable and livable future. It is, in fact, a second notice, coming 25 years after a manifesto published in 1992. (See also: “16,000 scientists sign dire warning to humanity over health of planet”)

Rev. Dr. Jim Antal gives Cardinal Sean O’Malley the galleys of Climate Church, Climate World

Professor Moomaw suggested: What if this second notice about the ways that human activity is unraveling the web of life were handed out in every congregation and cited in the newsletters of every faith community?

The Rev. Fred Small, Minister for Climate Justice at Arlington Street Church, Boston, stood up to say, “This is a historic gathering. If it isn’t a historic gathering, we will have failed.” He urged us to take to heart Pope Francis’ admonition in Laudato Si that we must become politically engaged and strategic. To quote the Pope’s encyclical: “Unless citizens control political power – national, regional and municipal – it will not be possible to control damage to the environment.” (179).

Rev. Fred went on to say, “My prayer and my entreaty to the Archdiocese is to bring the same passion and priority to climate justice as to any pro-life effort heretofore — because there is nothing more pro-life than protecting and preserving Creation, the environment on which all human life depends.” If we don’t do this, he added, the cost would be enormous in fire, famine, flood, and refugees.

Looking back on these intensive two days of discussion and our plans for next steps, I live in hope that something new is indeed being born right here in Massachusetts as people of science and people of faith come together to unite head and heart and to work together to protect our common home.

My thoughts are expressed in the words of the prophet Isaiah, who heard God saying,

“I am about to do a new thing;
now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?
I will make a way in the wilderness
and rivers in the desert.” (Isaiah 43:16)


Here is my presentation to the gathering of scientists and faith leaders at the Archdiocese of Boston on February 8, 2018

                               The Current State of Religious Climate Action in Massachusetts

Rev. Dr. Margaret speaks to Cardinal O’Malley and guests at the conference

I am blessed to be here. Thank you, Cardinal O’Malley, for convening us. To you and to everyone here I bring greetings from Bishop Doug Fisher of the Episcopal Diocese of Western Massachusetts, whom I am representing.

I’ve been asked to speak briefly about the current state of religious climate action in Massachusetts, and I’ll start with a word about myself. I was ordained in June 1988, the same month that NASA climate scientist James Hanson testified to the US Senate that scientists were increasingly concerned about the effects of burning fossil fuel and what at that point they were calling “the greenhouse effect.” Concern about climate change was placed on my heart at the very beginning of my ordained ministry, at its root, and in the years since then, I have tried to understand our spiritual and moral responsibility as human beings – as religious leaders – in a time of such great peril.

In 2014 I finally left parish ministry to give the climate crisis my full attention. I now serve as Missioner for Creation Care in the Episcopal Diocese of Western Mass., and in the United Church of Christ across Massachusetts. To me this unusual ecumenical position is a sign of how the climate crisis impels us to come together across faith traditions to organize and mobilize.

Just from looking around, I can say that the interfaith climate justice movement in Mass. is alive and well. With people in this room (and beyond) I’ve preached about climate change and led workshops for clergy on how to preach about climate. With people in this room I’ve led retreats and written pastoral letters and ecumenical statements. With people in this room I’ve pushed for divestment from fossil fuels, lobbied for carbon pricing, marched for climate justice, held prayer vigils, and been arrested for acts of non-violent civil disobedience to keep fossil fuels in the ground.

I am heartened by what I see as an upsurge in awareness and concern here in the Commonwealth among people of faith and good will, and a growing desire to connect the cry of the Earth and the cry of the poor. I am thrilled that The Poor People’s Campaign is taking shape and linking justice of every kind – social, racial, economic and ecological. Meanwhile, I want you to know that a group of people of many faiths is organizing a climate witness that will take place in Boston on Monday in Holy Week, March 26, a few days before Passover. We’re calling it Exodus from Fossil Fuel. We will hold an interfaith ceremony at the State House, appeal to the Governor to stop the expansion of fossil fuel infrastructure, and then march in procession to the Back Bay, where a new pipeline project is slated to power luxury high-rises with fracked gas. There we plan to witness to our vision of a beloved community, and to our intention to build a just and livable future for our planet and all its inhabitants. I expect that young people will join us, because I know they are looking for moral leadership on climate. I invite you to join us, too.

Entrance sign to the Pastoral Center, Archdiocese of Boston

The movement is growing, but what we’re missing is an effective, strategic, and well-organized network that mobilizes faith communities from top to bottom, rouses the general public, and becomes an unstoppable force on the political scene. Some of us recently tried and failed to create such a network. Massachusetts Interfaith Coalition for Climate Action (or MAICCA, for short) came into being in 2015, inspired by the release of Laudato Si. It had a good two-year run. MAICCA did many wonderful things, such as making it easy for congregations to become politically engaged, organizing legislative action days at the State House, setting up waves of meetings with local legislators, and taking a leadership role in the huge climate march and rally that was held in Boston in December 2015. But MAICCA ran into trouble – for one thing, we never worked out our organization or a sustainable strategy.

The time is ripe for a new initiative.

I hope for three things:

1) I hope that top leaders of faith communities will make it crystal clear that addressing the climate crisis is central to our moral and spiritual concern. It’s not one of 26 different causes that we care about, but a cause that affects everything we cherish. I hope that top faith leaders will convey to their congregations that if you care about the poor, you care about climate; if you care about immigration and refugees, you care about climate; if you care about public health, you care about climate; if you care about human rights, you care about climate; if you care about loving God and your neighbor, you care about climate. The climate is not an issue for a special interest group. If you like to breathe, if you like to eat, if you’d like to leave your children a world they can live in, you care about climate.

2) I hope that faith communities will get organized within our selves and across traditions so that we become scientifically informed, spiritually grounded, and politically effective, enabling us to speak with one voice about the sacredness of God’s Creation and the moral imperative to protect it.

3) I hope that faith communities will draw from our deep spiritual wisdom as we confront the climate crisis. We know that the massive West Antarctica ice shelves are collapsing and sliding into the sea in a process that some scientists call “unstoppable.” Yet we also know that the love of God is unstoppable. With that love in our hearts and in our midst, who knows what we will be able to accomplish?

Sermon for the First Sunday After the Epiphany: The Baptism of Our Lord, January 7, 2018 Delivered by the Rev. Dr. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas at First Congregational Church, Great Barrington, MA Psalm 29 Acts 19:1-7 Mark 1:4-11

Baptism and the call to protect Earth

Our Gospel text this morning tells one of the foundational stories of Christian faith, the story of Jesus’ baptism by John in the River Jordan.   Before I say one word more, I invite you to take your thumb and to trace the sign of the cross on your forehead. Are you with me? Let’s do it together, once or twice. Let’s make it a prayer, for with grateful hearts we recognize that this simple gesture recalls the fact that our forehead has been indelibly marked with the sign of the cross and that we were baptized in the name of the Holy Trinity – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Whether that once-in-a-lifetime event took place many years ago, before conscious memory, when we were babies, or whether it took place more recently, in a ceremony that we remember – through our baptism we have been drawn into the divine life of God and marked as Christ’s own forever.

It’s clear that Jesus’ baptism was a decisive experience, a pivotal event that launched him into his public ministry. The story is told in all four Gospels, and it’s the very first story about Jesus that we hear in the earliest Gospel, the Gospel of Mark. In his baptism, Jesus consciously received the identity that had been his since before the beginning of time: he was, and had always been, the child of God, the beloved of God, and nothing and no one could take that love away. That’s what happens in our baptism, too: like Jesus, we, too, are forever claimed as God’s own. From that moment and for the rest of our lives, we are drawn into the life of God, caught up in an unbreakable relationship of love. Do you ever wonder who you are, who you really are, deep down? Today’s Gospel story gives the answer. Without doing a thing to deserve it or to earn it, you are the son, you are the daughter, you are the beloved of God – you are the one with whom God is well pleased. Wherever you go, whatever you do, wherever the Spirit sends you, the divine life is flowing through you, as close as your breath, as close as your heartbeat. You and I belong to Christ forever, and we are loved to the core. I don’t know about you, but I find this a deeply consoling truth to hold on to right now, when so many people feel stressed and scattered, anxious or depressed. We live in a turbulent time, and the world is rapidly changing. Sometimes it seems that everything is falling apart, so it’s easy to feel unmoored, ungrounded, and afraid. What a perfect moment to remind ourselves of our baptism and to touch in again to the deep truth that we are God’s beloved daughter or son, and that nothing can separate us from the love of God (Roman 8:35-39)! Here’s the thing: the love that embraced us in our baptism, the love that flows through us with our every breath – that love extends not only to individuals, not only to the baptized, and not only to human beings. The love of God embraces the whole Creation. Scripture tells us so (e.g. Gen. 1:31; Gen. 9:8-10, 15; Psalm 19:1; Psalm 24:1; John 3:16; Romans 1:20; Ephesians 1:10, Ephesians 4:9-10, Col. 1:19-20), and we glimpse this truth in our own experience. Anyone who has ever been amazed by the beauty of the world – anyone who has ever spent time studying the details of a single leaf, or gazing at a mountain, or looking at the stars on a frosty night knows what it’s like to feel a wave of wonder, humility, gratefulness and awe. The Creator of all-that-is is always disclosing God’s self to us in the natural world, always inviting us to slow down, look carefully, and greet our other-than-human kin.
Juniper berries encased in ice. Photo credit: Robert A. Jonas
That’s what Jesus did, I think: he lived close to the Earth, and in the Gospels we often find him outdoors, praying in the desert, walking along a seashore, or climbing a mountain. Here he is in today’s story, plunging into a river! His parables and stories are rich with images of nature: sheep and seeds, lilies and sparrows, weeds and rocks. As I consider Jesus, it seems to me that he encountered every person and creature he met with eyes of discerning love. He saw the inherent sacredness of the created world because he saw with his sacred eyes. He knew that we belong to a living, sacred whole and that everything is lit up with God, because he himself was lit up with God. Jesus knew what poet Gerard Manley Hopkins proclaims: “The world is charged with the grandeur of God.” So when we see that living world being desecrated – when we see God’s good Earth being poisoned by toxins and pollutants, and laid waste by corporate greed – when we realize that the web of life is unraveling before our eyes and learn from scientists that a mass extinction event is now underway, a “biological annihilation”– when we understand that burning coal, gas, and oil is pushing the planet to break new records for heat, causing droughts, floods, and monster hurricanes, drowning cities, and accelerating wildfires – when we realize that, unless we change course fast, we will not leave our children and our children’s children a habitable world – then we are moved to take action. For we want to bear witness to the love of Jesus; we want to honor the glory of God’s Creation and to protect it from further harm.
Mourning doves. Photo credit: Robert A. Jonas
I wish I could tell you, as some highly placed but misinformed politicians have recently claimed, that the bitter cold that has gripped North America and the hurricane-force winds that just blasted the East Coast are a sign that global warming is not real. In fact, researchers point out that climate change may well be related to these frigid temperatures: the Arctic is warming rapidly, and the jet stream that once functioned like a strong fence or lasso that held cold air firmly around the pole now seems to be giving way and growing weak. Some scientists compare it “to leaving a refrigerator door open, with cold air flooding the kitchen even as warm air enters the refrigerator.” In any case, except for Canada and the northern United States, just about every other part of the world is warmer than normal.   Last year was the second hottest on record for our planet as a whole, just behind a sweltering 2016, which crushed the record set the year before, which in turn crushed the record set the year before that. Sixteen of the seventeen hottest years have all been in this century. Thank God, there is a lot that we, as individuals, can do. Maybe we can plant a tree. Save a tree. Recycle more. Drive less. Eat local, and move to a plant-based diet. Get our home insulated and get LED lighting. Support local farms and land trusts. Fly less – and, if we must fly, buy carbon offsets. Maybe we can afford solar panels and move toward a carbon-neutral home. You know the drill! Individual changes make a difference, but because of the scope and speed of the climate crisis, we need more than individual action – we need systemic change. To do that, we’ll need to become politically engaged, to confront the powers-that-be, and to push our elected leaders to awaken from the fantasy that we can continue with business as usual. So some of us carry out peaceful, disciplined actions of civil disobedience to stop construction of new fossil fuel infrastructure and keep fossil fuels in the ground, where they belong. Some of us join Citizens Climate Lobby and push for a national carbon tax, or support legislation right here in Massachusetts that would put a price on carbon. Those of us who are white and privileged listen to the voices of racial minorities, indigenous peoples, and the poor, knowing that they are God’s beloved and that they are the ones hit first and hardest by climate change. Together we intend to build a world in which everyone can thrive.
350Mass for a Better Future march against new pipelines
Here in the Berkshires you are fortunate to have a local node of 350Mass for a Better Future, the grassroots, climate action group that is working hard to build political will to stop new pipelines and move the Commonwealth to 100% clean energy. I hope you’ll sign up with 350Mass and check out a local meeting. Our state politicians see what’s needed, but they are not moving fast enough to stop the damage. We who have been baptized into the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ intend to bear witness to our God-given faith that life and not death will have the last word. We intend to become the people that God meant us to be: people who are faithful stewards of God’s Creation, people who are a blessing to Earth and all her communities. Jesus took risks to oppose the unjust authorities of his time, and we must do the same. Here on the first Sunday of the Epiphany we have a chance to make a radical new start. We have a chance to reclaim a covenant more powerful than any stack of New Year’s Resolutions. This morning we celebrate the baptism of Jesus and we affirm the power of our own baptism in His name. We are loved beyond measure by a divine love that will never let us go. Day by day, as long as we live, we have countless opportunities to bear witness to that love. Who knows what compassion will rise up from our renewed commitment, what new cherishing of our selves and each other, what fresh energy for justice seeking and peacemaking in this precious world entrusted to our care?
NOTE: On January 12, 2018, ClimateNexus posted an updated analysis of the relationship between the cold snap and climate change that does not mention changes in the jet stream: Strange Times for Chilly Temps: The type of extreme cold North Americans experienced in early January has become increasingly rare as the planet warms, a new analysis shows. An initial breakdown of January’s cold snap from World Weather Attribution finds such frosty temperatures are now 15 times rarer than they were a century ago, when cold waves were an average of 4 degrees F chillier. This winter’s extreme cold “wouldn’t have been that strange” 100 years ago, study co-author Gabriel Vecchi told the AP. “Things like this are becoming stranger.” (New York Times $, AP, Washington Post $, EartherMashable)

Under threatening skies, a group of men and women gathers in the basement of the Paulist Center, less than a block from the Boston State House. One by one we introduce ourselves and offer a one-word summary of how we feel as we prepare to risk arrest.

“Ready.”

“Resolved.”

“Grounded.”

“Centered.”

A crowd inside the Boston State House listens to speakers

Everyone has been trained in non-violent civil disobedience. Everyone has taken the necessary practical steps, such as removing wedding bands and other jewelry, slipping a driver’s license or other identification into a pocket, and scribbling the phone number of the jail support person onto an inner arm. In a moment, everyone will select a buddy for the day, for it is good to stand with a friend when you are arrested, handcuffed, put in a police van, and locked in a holding cell.

Some of us have faced arrest before, others will risk arrest for the first time, but just now all of us are carrying out a ritual of personal preparation that has been passed down through generations. We are clear about our goals: to leave a just and habitable world to our children. We are clear about our methods: to be non-violent in action, speech, and spirit. We divest ourselves of everything unnecessary. We take with us only what is necessary: a few physical essentials and an open heart. We head out two by two.

The Rev. Dr. Jim Antal speaks

That’s what Jesus did: he sent out his disciples two by two, ordering them to take nothing for the journey except a staff; no bread, no bag, no money in their belts (Mark 6:7-8). His first followers, the men and women of the Jesus Movement, repeatedly challenged unjust power and were accused of disturbing the peace and “turning the world upside down” (Acts 17:6). These brave souls seemed to spend as much time in jail as they did walking free.

At the moment I don’t feel particularly inspired or brave, but that doesn’t matter:  I feel called to be here, doing what needs to be done. All around the world, other people are with us in spirit as we gather strength in this Boston basement: they, too, are standing up for what is right, refusing to settle for a death-dealing status quo.

       Far away in Bonn, Germany, the COP 23 U.N. climate talks are about to end. The only event that the Trump administration has hosted during these two weeks of crucial international negotiations has been a panel that pushes for “clean” coal, nuclear, and other fossil fuels. Such limp leadership on climate is appalling. And people are there to protest: “As fossil fuel executives took the stage to speak, hundreds of people rose up, disrupting the event by singing, and walked out.”

Five Episcopalians risking arrest include Wen Stephenson (St. Anne’s, Lincoln),the Rev. Dr. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas (Diocese of Western Mass.), Alex Chatfield (St. Anne’s), Rachel Wyon (St. Peter’s, Cambridge), Anne Shumway (St .James, Cambridge)

We have our own climate action to take here in Massachusetts. Mass Power Forward, a coalition of environmental, climate, community, and faith groups (including the Social Justice Commission of Episcopal Diocese of Western Massachusetts, and Environmental Ministries of United Church of Christ in Massachusetts) is running a campaign (#StandUpCharlie) to push Governor Charlie Baker to sign an executive order that directs all state agencies to do everything in their legal authority to stop new fossil fuel projects. We want him to speak out against the pipeline tax and make it clear to fossil fuel executives that the Commonwealth is not willing to pay billions of dollars to fund their pipeline projects. We want him to establish a policy of climate justice and to stand up for clean energy, not to perpetuate the lethal grip of fossil fuels.

Governor Baker claims that he wants our state to exceed the goals of the Paris Climate Agreement, yet he continues to support the construction of new fracked gas pipelines, power plants, and compressor stations. Does he believe that so-called “natural” gas is a “bridge” fuel that can carry us from coal to clean sources of renewable energy like sun and wind? That’s what industry executives have been touting for years. In reality, fracked gas is a bridge to nowhere. Methane, the primary component of “natural” gas, is a far more potent greenhouse gas in the near term than is carbon dioxide. Investing billions of dollars in new gas pipelines and other fossil fuel infrastructure designed to last for many decades will only delay the urgent transition we need to make to 100% clean energy within the next 20-30 years. What’s more, the supposed fracked gas “shortage” in Massachusetts is only a myth: the Attorney General confirmed in a 2015 study that our Commonwealth does not need more natural gas in order to meet its energy requirements.

What did Governor Charlie Baker say last week when six protesters resolutely sat down in his Statehouse office, refusing to leave until he stopped all new fossil fuel projects in Massachusetts? He said he didn’t want to “take options off the table.”

Trump (Heart) Pipelines, MA Doesn’t

Keep more fracked gas on the table? That means taking climate stability off the table,1 taking moderate weather off the table, taking intact ice sheets off the table, taking your children’s future off the table, taking a habitable world off the table.

Keep all options on the table? No way. Not if you love your children; not if you love the beautiful blue-green planet into which you and I were born; not if you care about climate migrants and refugees; not if you’re concerned about resource wars over clean water and arable land; not if you want to preserve some remnant of the web of life that is fast unraveling before our eyes.

So it’s no wonder – when the twenty-six of us risking arrest have finished initial preparations and walked to the Boston State House, passed through security and assembled with hundreds of supporters in a large hall – that the crowd quickly takes up the chant: “No new pipelines, keep it off the table!” Our cries reverberate against the walls, filling the space.

Claire Miller (Toxics Action Center) and Craig Altemose (Better Future Project and 350 Mass for a Better Future) speak about the growing movement to stop new fossil fuel projects and to build a safer, healthier economy. The Rev. Dr. Jim Antal of the Massachusetts Conference, United Church of Christ, a national leader on climate, speaks with concise eloquence: “We are assembled here on the hinge of history. Time is short. We are here to give Governor Baker the opportunity to make the most important decision of his career.”

Then up the stairs we go, to the Governor’s Executive Office. State troopers stand guard at the doorway, preventing us from stepping inside, so the twenty-six of us sit down on the hallway’s marble floor. We intend to sit there until the Governor signs the executive order we seek or until we are forcibly removed.

Sitting in: The Rev. Dr. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas, Dr. Sue Donaldson, the Rev. Dr. Jim Antal

At first the police hassle us. They point out that a visitor has arrived in a wheelchair. They argue that, according to the Americans with Disabilities Act, the hallway must be kept completely clear. The police tell us to move along. Our spokespeople counter: “Fine. We’d be glad to empty the hallway. Since only twenty-six people are refusing to leave, there is plenty of room for us to move into the Governor’s office and to carry out our sit-in there.”

The police back off. Protesters keep a pathway open for pedestrians and wheelchairs, and there in the hallway we stay. Hundreds of supporters, holding banners and signs, spread out nearby. Everyone settles in for a long afternoon.

We pass the hours by belting out every inspiring song we know, from “Singing for Our Lives” and “We Shall Not Be Moved” to songs with lyrics written especially for the occasion. We take turns standing up to explain what motivates our activism. A labor organizer speaks of his many years of learning when and how to negotiate. “Sometimes negotiation isn’t possible,” he tells us. “You can’t negotiate with climate change.” Activities that push the world to the brink of climate chaos will never be able to strike a deal with physics and chemistry.

A physician in a white lab coat stands up. “In medical school, we learn ‘First, do no harm.’” Policies that cater to fossil fuel companies are doing grave harm to our state, our country, and our planet.

A middle-aged woman stands up to speak about extreme weather events and rising seas. An elderly woman speaks about her love and concern for her grandchildren. A young man speaks about his Millennial friends who, anticipating terrible years ahead, are deciding not to bear children. Activist and independent journalist Wen Stephenson recites by heart a compelling passage from Thoreau’s “Civil Disobedience” that concludes: “Action from principle, the perception and the performance of right, changes things and relations; it is essentially revolutionary.”

I speak about the love that propels me. Climate change is not only a scientific, economic, and political issue, but also one that is deeply spiritual. What do we love most? To what are we willing to commit our lives? What is the North Star that guides our decisions? When we know what we love most, we make energy choices that are wise. And, I might add, we push our elected officials to stop desecrating the Earth entrusted to our care and to move as swiftly as possible to a clean energy future in which all beings can thrive.

Springfield #StandUpCharlie protest.
Photo credit: Rene Theberge

The hours pass. When a supporter needs to leave, he or she approaches the group that is sitting in the hallway and hands one of the protesters a small flower. I am touched by this gesture of support: “I may not be with you in person, but I am with you in spirit.”

       Many people are with us in body or spirit. A hundred miles west, local activists led by Arise for Social Justice and Climate Action Now are carrying out a simultaneous #StandUpCharlie protest at Governor Baker’s Springfield office. They ask him to meet additional demands that affect climate justice in western Massachusetts: to prevent large-biomass burning, to expand our system of public transportation, and to implement East-West high-speed rail.

The hour is late. The building will close at 6:00 p.m. Additional police officers assemble nearby. After brief, intense discussions among ourselves, we decide that we are willing to face criminal charges and to be summoned to court without undergoing arrest – a decision that some of us regret (see Wen Stephenson’s subsequent article in The Nation). A police officer announces the charges – trespassing and unlawful assembly – and we hand over our driver’s licenses to be photocopied.

A state trooper reads the charges: trespassing and unlawful assembly

We head out into the night.

The #StandUpCharlie campaign plans a brief hiatus, to give the Governor some time over the holidays to consider his leadership on climate. In January, we intend to come back, and in greater numbers, until the Governor agrees to take a clear stand against more fracked gas projects in Massachusetts.

Preserving a habitable planet depends on local and regional action by every sector of society, especially when our national government seems determined to dig us ever deeper into the pit of relying on fossil fuels. Whatever form our actions take – whether or not they include arrest – we will need to be loving, bold, relentless, and strong.

And persistent. Jesus encourages persistence in prayer. He encourages his friends “to pray always and not to lose heart” (Luke 18:1). Then he tells a parable about a persistent widow who refuses to quit pestering a judge until he grants her justice (Luke 18:1-8). Fed up by her tenacity, the judge at last relents, saying, “Because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming” (Luke 18:5).

That’s the kind of persistence we intend to maintain as we press Governor Baker to become a climate leader. We intend to be persistent in prayer and to pray persistently as we put our bodies on the line. We aim to tend our inner fires, to be steadfast in listening to the inner voice of love that gives us courage and strength. And when God calls us to take action, we hope, by God’s grace, to be able to answer:

“Ready.”

“Resolved.”

“Grounded.”

“Centered.”


Selected media links                                              

  • #StandUpCharlie events in Boston:

WGBH TV: “Environmentalists Stage Sit-In At Governor’s Office Over Natural Gas Infrastructure

WWLP-22News TV: “Environmentalists continue sit-in at Governor’s office: The coalition has been staging sit-ins for the past two months

Facebook Event page with videos and photos is here

Wen Stephenson wrote a powerful essay in The Nation, “Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker Is a Climate Criminal—And I’m Willing to Go to Jail to Say So” that critiques the decision we made to face charges without undergoing arrest

  • #StandUpCharlie events in Springfield:

WWLP-22News TV: “Protesters urge Governor Baker to sign emission reduction bill


  1. A point made by climate activists Kathleen Wolf and Craig Altemose.

Sermon for the Twenty-First Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 25A), October 29, 2017 Delivered by the Rev. Dr. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas at St. Mark’s Cathedral, Seattle, WA Leviticus 19:1-2, 15-18 Psalm 1 1 Thessalonians 2:1-8 Matthew 22:34-46

Rooted and rising: Spiritual resilience

What a blessing to be back at St. Mark’s Cathedral! Thank you, Steve, for inviting me to preach. I bring greetings from Massachusetts, where I serve both the Episcopal Diocese of Western Massachusetts and the United Church of Christ as Missioner for Creation Care. In this ecumenical role I travel from place to place, church to church, preaching the Gospel and speaking about our call as Christians to love and protect the Earth that God entrusted to our care. It is a joy to return to Seattle, where my father was born, and to see again your magnificent forests, lakes, seas, and mountains.

My husband Robert Jonas is with me, and we’ve spent the past week in the Pacific Northwest, speaking and leading retreats about spiritual resilience. I am drawn to the topic of spiritual resilience because it seems that most of us could use some resilience right about now. Many people tell me that they’re feeling bone tired. Partly it’s the demands of family life and work life, the hectic effort to keep so many balls in the air. And partly we’re tired because of the stress of knowing that as a nation we’re facing so many difficult issues all at the same time. Day by day, as we read the headlines or hear about the latest developments, many of us are gripped by outrage and alarm. We are living in turbulent times when upheaval seems to be the new normal and we brace ourselves for the next scary bit of bad news. As Missioner for Creation Care, what most concerns me is the fact that the web of life is unraveling before our eyes. Great populations of creatures – even entire species – are rapidly disappearing from Earth. You may have noticed the report in Friday’s Seattle Times that Orcas may be extinct by the end of the century because of dwindling numbers of salmon, human pollutants, and underwater noise. Scientists tell us that a mass extinction event is now underway – what they’re calling a “biological annihilation.” In addition to species extinction, we also face a changing climate. Because of the relentless burning of fossil fuels, month after month our planet is breaking records for heat. Last year was the hottest year on record, crushing the record set the year before, which in turn crushed the record set the year before that. Sea ice is melting. Land ice is melting. Tundra is thawing. The deep oceans are heating up and growing more acidic. Hurricanes – like those that ravaged Puerto Rico and the southeastern U.S. – are growing more intense. Soon after that succession of hurricanes, catastrophic wildfires began roaring up the California coast, accelerated by high winds, extreme heat, and bone-dry landscapes. Climate change didn’t cause these monster storms and fires, but it certainly made them worse. These so-called “natural” disasters are not entirely natural – they are driven by dirty energy like coal, gas, and oil, which dump carbon and other heat-trapping gases into the atmosphere and disrupt the climate.
Orcas hunting in Salish Sea, an area between Vancouver and Vancouver Island, B.C. Photo credit: Robert A. Jonas
In a precarious time, when many of us, for good reason, are stressed or tired or scared, we need once again to sink our roots deep into the love of God, to remember how loved we are, how cherished we are in God’s sight, how nourished we are by a love that will give us strength for the journey ahead and will never let us go. So thank God for St. Mark’s Cathedral! Thank God for every congregation where people draw together to pray, to listen to the wisdom of Scripture, to draw close to Jesus, and to be strengthened by the Holy Spirit. Today’s readings give us a beautiful image for spiritual resilience. In Psalm 1 we read that those who trust in God are “like trees planted by streams of water, bearing fruit in due season, with leaves that do not wither” (Psalm 1:3). Imagine being such a tree! Your roots go deep into the love of God, which runs like a river beside you. No matter what is happening in the world around you, even if what’s going on feels dangerous or chaotic, even in times of storm or drought, your roots reach deep into the ground and you stand beside a divine river that is endlessly flowing. As another psalm puts it, “the river of God is full of water” (Psalm 65:9). Like trees planted beside a stream of living water (John 7:37-38), we are “rooted and grounded in love” (Ephesians 3:17). We know that God is with us. We feel God’s power and we feel God’s strength. Drawing from those deep roots we rise up like trees, bearing fruit in due season, with leaves that do not wither. We drink deep of abundance, absorb it into every cell of our bodies, and then share that abundance with the world – freely, generously, without holding back, because there is plenty more where that came from! The same image of spiritual resilience and aliveness plays out in a passage from the prophet Jeremiah (Jeremiah 17:7-8): Blessed are those who trust in the Lord, whose trust is the Lord. They shall be like a tree planted by water, sending out its roots by the stream. It shall not fear when heat comes, and its leaves shall stay green; in the year of drought it is not anxious, and it does not cease to bear fruit.
Trees beside the water of Loon Lake, British Columbia
I find this image so compelling that when my husband and I traveled to Seattle to lead a series of events on spiritual resilience, we named the whole thing “Rooted and Rising.” I’m not a botanist, but I’m learning that trees are more intelligent than we thought. Books like The Hidden Life of Trees tell us that the root systems of trees and fungi communicate with each other, and that trees develop social networks and share resources. There is a whole lot of underground life going on beneath our feet! And so it is with us: when we sink our own roots deep into the love of God, we, too, discover that everyone and everything is connected. On the surface, we may see only our differences, what divides us from each other, but from below, on the level of roots, we discover what Martin Luther King, Jr., called the Beloved Community: here, where God’s love is always being poured into our hearts, we realize that everyone, and the whole Creation, is loved and that we belong together. Beneath all our differences of race, class, gender, and political party, we belong to one living, sacred whole. Every time we tap into the deep-down truth of our essential belovedness, we discover fresh energy for life. And so – up we rise, like a mighty tree, offering our gifts to each other and to the world: our fruits and leaves; our time, talent, and treasure; a kind word, a healing gesture. When it comes to tackling climate change, there is so much that we as individuals can do. Maybe we can plant a tree. Save a tree. Recycle more. Drive less. Eat local, eat organic, eat less meat and move to a plant-based diet. Maybe we can support local farms and land trusts. We can fly less – and, if we must fly, buy carbon offsets. Maybe we can afford solar panels and move toward a carbon-neutral home. If we have investments, we can divest from fossil fuels, and if we’re college graduates, we can urge our alma mater to divest. Individual changes make a difference, but because of the scope and speed of the climate crisis, we need more than individual action – we need systemic change. To do that, we may have to confront the powers that be, especially in a time when multinational corporations and members of our own government seem intent on desecrating every last inch of God’s Creation, pillaging every last natural resource, destroying every last habitat, and abandoning every last regulation, rule, and treaty that preserve clean air and water and maintain the stability of our global climate. I can’t help thinking of the African-American spiritual that became an anthem of the Civil Rights Movement, a protest song and a union song, “We Shall Not Be Moved.” Even now, I can hear Pete Seeger singing, “We shall not, we shall not be moved; we shall not, we shall not be moved, just like a tree that’s planted by the water, we shall not be moved.” He goes on: “Young and old together, we shall not be moved… women and men together, we shall not be moved… city and country together, we shall not be moved… black and white together, we shall not be moved… just like a tree that’s planted by the water, we shall not be moved.” Rooted in love and rising up in action, Christians and other people of faith will not be moved. We intend to bear witness to our God-given faith that life and not death will have the last word. We intend to become the people that God meant us to be: people who are good stewards of God’s Creation, people who are a blessing to Earth and all its communities. So some of us carry out peaceful, disciplined actions of civil disobedience to stop construction of new fossil fuel infrastructure and keep fossil fuels in the ground, where they belong; some of us join Citizens Climate Lobby and push for a carbon tax; those of us who are white and privileged listen to the voices of racial minorities, indigenous peoples, and the poor, knowing that they are God’s beloved and that they are the ones hit first and hardest by climate change. Together we intend to build a world in which everyone can thrive. There is so much that we can do – so many ways to bear fruit! On this day of stewardship ingathering I give thanks for the ways that this community continues to root itself in the love of God and neighbor and to offer its gifts to a hungry, thirsty world. You are “like trees planted by streams of water, bearing fruit in due season, with leaves that do not wither” (Psalm 1:3). I trust that everything you do in Jesus’ name will prosper.    

Like many Americans, I have been gripped by news of the disaster now unfolding along our nation’s Gulf Coast. As torrential rains bear down on Texas and Louisiana and the floods swell, people are struggling to survive and struggling to rescue family-members, neighbors, and pets. Stories of tragedy and terror, courage and loss have unfolded all week: trapped in his car, an elderly man is rescued from rising waters by a human chain; swept away in the flood, a mother, carrying her toddler on her back, is found dead, floating face down; the three-year-old girl, still clinging to her mother, is pulled to safety.

Compassion Mandala, Robert Lentz
Compassion Mandala, Robert Lentz

Stories like these pull us into prayer – grief for those who perished, anguish for those in harm’s way, gratitude for the people saving everyone they can, and a rising tide of anger and resolve: we will not stand idly by as people drown and are dislocated in extreme storms like these.

Part of a faithful response is concrete and immediate: if we live nearby and have a boat or clothes to spare, we can offer what we have. Wherever we live, if we have money to spare, we can donate to a disaster relief organization, including faith-rooted groups such as Episcopal Relief and Development and Church World Service.

Another part of a faithful response is to take a good, long look at what led to this catastrophe. Did climate change intensify the storm? The answer, say leading climate scientists, is yes. Oceans absorb some of the excess heat trapped in the air by burning fossil fuels. Unusually warm waters in the Gulf of Mexico fed the tropical storm, which took only about 48 hours to intensify from a tropical depression to a Category 4 hurricane. What might have been a run-of-the-mill hurricane turned into a monster storm. As Kevin Trenberth of the National Center for Atmospheric Research told The Atlantic, “It may have been a strong storm, and it may have caused a lot of problems anyway—but [human-caused climate change] amplifies the damage considerably.”

Climate scientist Michael E. Mann of Pennsylvania State University likewise confirmed the connections between climate change and Harvey’s destructive power. In his article entitled, “It’s a fact: climate change made Hurricane Harvey more deadly,” Mann pointed out that, while climate change did not “cause” Harvey, “Harvey was almost certainly more intense than it would have been in the absence of human-caused warming, which means stronger winds, more wind damage and a larger storm surge.”

This week, author and social activist Naomi Klein also pointed out that Harvey “didn’t come out the blue”: it was just the kind of extreme weather event that climate scientists have long been predicting. Surely now is the time, she argues, to have a serious policy debate in this country about the host of questions that Harvey raises: What kind of energy should we rely on (a question, she points out, “with jarring implications for the dominant industry in the region being hit hardest: oil and gas”)? What kind of safety net do we need to provide for the poor, the ill, and the elderly, given their vulnerability in times of disaster and given the certainty that storms like Harvey are only a harbinger of the climate-related storms that lie ahead?

Journalist Wen Stephenson is also attuned to the links between climate change and social justice. In an article with the bold headline, “Houston’s Human Catastrophe Started Long Before the Storm,” he writes: “Our unfolding climate catastrophe… is rooted in social and economic inequalities that render most vulnerable the most marginalized and powerless… Decades of neglect, inequality, and disenfranchisement – to say nothing of heedless development and a lack of flood planning tantamount to criminal negligence – mean that Houstonians of all backgrounds, but especially the poorest and most vulnerable communities, primarily communities of color, have been left utterly undefended.”

Climate change has never been only about polar bears. Stabilizing the climate is about social, racial, and economic justice, too – about treating Earth and each other with reverence and respect. How many more floods need to drown or displace our citizens and destroy our homes before we wake up to the climate crisis and take urgent steps to keep fossil fuels in the ground? How many more vulnerable communities are we willing to sacrifice in order to keep dumping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere and keep enriching fossil fuel industry billionaires?

Meanwhile, as Harvey brings devastation to our Gulf Coast, a record-breaking strong monsoon season in Southeast Asia has caused over 1200 deaths this summer. Thanks to Harvey, Americans are newly aware of the suffering caused by floods exacerbated by climate change. Perhaps now we can look with greater empathy at similar images coming from India, Nepal, and Bangladesh – images of other mothers wading through flooded areas, carrying their children in their arms; images of other homes destroyed and other communities cut off, with no food and clean water for days.

Western Avenue bridge, Cambridge, MA, crossing the Charles River

Perhaps now, after seeing what Harvey is doing to Houston, we can look ahead and grasp more clearly – more viscerally – what it means when scientists predict that sea level rise will flood hundreds of American cities in the near future. A new report published by The Union of Concerned Scientists shows that by the end of the century, chronic flooding – defined as flooding so unmanageable that it drives people to move away – “will be occurring from Maine to Texas and along parts of the West Coast. It will affect as many as 670 coastal communities, including Cambridge, Massachusetts; Oakland, California; Miami and St. Petersburg, Florida; and four of the five boroughs of New York City.”

Cambridge, Massachusetts? I was born and grew up there. By the end of the century? I do the arithmetic, figuring the ages of my children and grandchildren.  I imagine the social chaos, the streams of refugees, the abandoned buildings.

Will we look back on Harvey (and Katrina and Sandy) as the first in a relentless wave of storms that eventually brought down many of America’s great cities? Or will we look back on Harvey as the storm that finally got the attention of the American public and showed us the urgent need to take action on climate?

Climate change is neither distant nor abstract. It is real, present, and personal. Our country’s President denies the existence and human causes of climate change, and his environmental policies surely make matters worse, but people of faith, and people of good will, refuse to abandon the Earth entrusted to our care.

Tomorrow, on September 1, Christians will mark a World Day of Prayer for the Care of Creation. Whatever your faith tradition, I invite you to join in this planet-wide pause to hold our troubled world in our hearts. I invite you to go outside and appreciate the living world around you – the trees, soil, water, birds, and clouds. I invite you to acknowledge your own grief, anger, and fear about the Earth’s unraveling web of life, and I invite you to seek the guidance, resolve, and courage that come from listening to our deepest inner wisdom, the place where Love dwells.

St. Francis: A Canticle to Creation, by Nancy Earle, smic      

For millions of Christians worldwide, September 1 marks the first day of the Season of Creation, a season dedicated to lifting up the sacredness of the natural world. Creation Season generally ends on October 4, the Feast of St. Francis of Assisi, the man often called the patron saint of ecology. (For resources to mark this day of prayer and the whole Creation Season, visit Creation Justice Ministries.)

Here in Massachusetts, Episcopal congregations will mark their own Season of Creation, from October 4 through the end of November. In the Diocese of Western Massachusetts, we have assembled a mass of resources to help individuals and communities of faith to mark Creation Season. I hope that you will take a look, and decide how you and your community of faith will act, advocate, learn, and pray on behalf of God’s good Earth. How will you celebrate Creation Season this year? Will you design an outdoor worship service at a place of environmental degradation? Offer prayers to bless solar panels? Preach about the climate crisis?  Carry out non-violent civil disobedience to protest a new gas pipeline? Organize a study group?

How will the extraordinary suffering and tragedy of Harvey – much of it endured beyond the reach of TV cameras and crew – strengthen your intention to become an agent of healing and hope?

 

An excerpt of this essay with published by Daily Hampshire Gazette on Sept. 5, 2017: “Columnist Margaret Bullitt-Jonas: Harvey reinforces urgency of climate-change crisis