Some people named the week beginning September 21, 2015, the Week of Moral Action for Climate Justice. Others called it Pope Week. I want to call it Watershed Week: the week when Americans streamed to Washington, D.C., New York City, and Philadelphia, like rivers pouring through a watershed, eager to hear Pope Francis speak about our call to love each other and all Creation. The week was a watershed in another sense, too: a turning point where everything changed.
I spent most of that week in D.C., swimming through crowds and participating in prayer vigils, concerts, strategy sessions, and rallies. On Monday I gave the opening prayer at the National Prayer Breakfast on Creation Care, an annual event organized by the National Religious Coalition on Creation Care (NRCCC). NRCCC is composed of members of all the major religious groups in America, including Catholics and Protestants, Jews and Muslims, Evangelicals and Orthodox Christians. Joined in prayer, and united with people of every religious tradition, we advocate for a right relationship to God’s creation.
Over the summer I’d taken the lead in composing letters from NRCCC to President Obama and to members of Congress about the moral and religious call to address the climate crisis, and on Monday we officially released the letters and began delivering them to members of Congress. (The NRCCC press release is here.)
The Open Letter to President Obama focuses on actions he can take without approval of Congress, such as becoming an advocate for a carbon tax, modifying the Trans-Pacific Partnership, rejecting the Keystone XL Pipeline, and rejecting new coal leases on public lands. The letter urges the President to adopt the language of “emergency” whenever he speaks about climate change, and “to mobilize the nation with the same focus and determination with which we mobilized during World War II, so that we reach 100 percent renewable energy in two or three decades.”
We were gratified to hear from the Council on Environmental Quality that the letter was shared widely with the White House climate team. Maybe it will make some waves.
On Tuesday a group of NRCCC members headed to the State Department to meet with Karen Florini, Deputy Special Envoy on Climate Change, and Amy Willis, in the Secretary’s Office for Religion and Global Affairs. With only two months to go until the crucial international climate talks in Paris, we wanted to express in the strongest possible terms our desire for bold leadership by the United States. Ms. Florini welcomed our faith-rooted advocacy – she herself is a person of faith – and we talked about how to push for effective climate action both at home and abroad in the midst of an obstructionist Congress. As she put it, “We are under active political assault.” (Learn more about the visit here.)
From the State Department we headed to the Senate Building to meet with the legal counsel of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. We gave him an earful about the moral mandate to tackle the climate crisis, citing science and Scripture, ethics and economics. In turn, we listened to his concerns about unemployment in Kentucky and the future of coal. A member of our group pointed out, “Coal is over.” So the question becomes: can Republicans and Democrats work together to make a swift and just transition to a new economy based on clean energy? That is something to work and pray for.
Wednesday began with an interfaith coalition of climate leaders meeting over breakfast with the staff of ecoAmerica. EcoAmerica has been instrumental in developing best practices for climate communication, and its Blessed Tomorrow campaign is mobilizing faith communities to engage in the struggle to stabilize the climate. The offices of ecoAmerica happen to be directly across the street from St. Matthew’s Cathedral, where Pope Francis spoke for one hour to Roman Catholic bishops and cardinals. We relished having the chance to see the Pope as he entered and left the sanctuary.
On Wednesday night I joined a large group on the steps of John Marshall Park near the National Mall to mark the end of Yom Kippur. At the start of Yom Kippur the night before, Rabbi Mordechai Liebling had delivered a powerful sermon that called for atonement – At-One-Ment – with the Earth and each other, a watershed moment that can only take place when we “feel in our hearts and know in our guts that what happens to the oceans, to the forests, to other species, to other people is also happening to us.”
A multi-faith prayer vigil completed the marking of Yom Kippur, and I gave the opening prayer, lifting up Jesus’ cry from the cross as the cry of the Earth-community.
“Why have you forsaken me?” We hear that cry
in the din of collapsing glaciers as they tumble into the sea,
in the crash of forests as they are felled,
and in the blast of mountaintops as they are blown open for extraction of
“Why have you forsaken me?” We hear that cry
in the murmur of refugees searching for water in lands scorched dry,
in the diminishing bleats and roars and chirps worldwide as species go extinct,
one by one,
and in the silence of dying coral reefs as they bleach in acid seas.
At the foot of the cross, we hear the cry of all humanity, and especially the poor, as the climate crisis unfolds around us.
We hear the groaning of all Creation: “Why have you forsaken me?”
The prayer ended with an appeal for divine mercy, asking God to empower us not to forsake each other, but instead to stand with the vulnerable, the poor, and the living world around us. Receiving God’s forgiveness and accepting our interconnection with all Creation can be a watershed moment. The dusk drew shadows around us; above us, the stars began to shine. (The complete prayer is here. )
On Thursday morning, I joined thousands of people at a reserved area on the lawn in front of the Capitol Building, to listen and watch on large screens as Pope Francis addressed a joint session of Congress. Eventually I moved further back on the National Mall to participate in the Moral Action on Climate Justice Rally, which featured lively music, speakers, and a diverse throng of activists. On either side of the stage stretched two long banners in English and in Spanish, quoting from the papal encyclical: Hear the cry of the Earth. Hear the cry of the poor.
A hush settled over the crowd as the Pope began to speak. In a world where so many leaders speak rapidly and evasively, bending the truth to suit their needs and using their words to dominate opponents, defend a narrow, partisan agenda, and push for power, it was rare and sweet to hear a leader speak slowly, truthfully, and from the heart, excluding no one and welcoming everyone. Here was a person whose humility evoked our own basic goodness as human beings, reminding us that in fact we are connected to each other, we do care about the Earth and each other, we do have the capacity to be good, we do have the power to work together and to do the right thing. Was I the only listener moved to tears? I doubt it.
After the Pope left Capitol Hill, I lingered for a while at the rally to meet with friends, old and new. Activist and writer Ted Glick was on the penultimate day of an 18-day, water-only Fast for New Permits, organized by Beyond Extreme Energy. The fast targeted the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), which essentially rubber-stamps approval for gas pipelines. Ted, looking tired but resolute, cited Gandhi’s insight that “fasting is the sincerest form of prayer.”
That night I made my way on foot to the National Cathedral (forget driving – roads were closed because the president of China was on his way into town). “Coming Together in Faith on Climate” brought together Christian, Jewish, Muslim, and other national religious leaders to express interfaith and ecumenical support of the Pope’s call to action on climate and Creation care. The Episcopal Church’s Presiding Bishop spoke eloquently, and, with the other faith leaders, committed to five initiatives to address global climate change.
As leaders of many faiths were endorsing and amplifying the Pope’s message in Washington, D.C., so, too, countless communities beyond Washington, D.C., were also bearing witness to the moral imperative to create a just and sustainable world. Take, for instance, Springfield, Massachusetts, where, on the same day that the Pope addressed Congress, a rally was held at City Hall to support funding for a climate justice office. Bishop Doug Fisher of the Episcopal Diocese of Western Massachusetts gave a rousing speech.
I’ve been part of the religious climate movement for many years, but I’ve never experienced as deep and wide an awakening to the urgent call to stand up for life as I did last week. In order to give our children a livable planet, we need the vision and passion of people of faith – people who can see the long view, not just short-term quarterly or annual reports; people who care about the homeless, hungry, and poor, not just about elites; people who understand that the web of life is a gift to be protected, not a commodity to be exploited and destroyed; people who place their hope not in the promise of success but in the faithfulness of God.
People like that are rising up on every side. The image of a watershed may fit this moment in history, but, so, too, does the image of a rising tide. I look back on last week as a watershed moment, because around me and within me I sense a rising tide of activism, resolve, and love.
The most inspiring climate song I’ve yet heard was written by Rabbi Shoshana Meira Friedman and Yotam Schachter, and first performed by Rabbi Shoshana and Rev. Fred Small on September 20 – just in time for that pivotal week. They also went on to perform it at the National Cathedral on Thursday night.
The song is called: “The tide is rising and so are we.”