By Kim Osborn Mullen
Millions of people, religious and otherwise, took notice four years ago when Pope Francis released a powerful letter, an encyclical titled Laudato Si, about the care of our planet and the Climate Crisis. Bill McKibben, the founder of 350.org, called it “an amazing piece of work, incredibly rich and deep…..the pope has decided this is the most urgent problem facing the planet.”
Many faith communities are often involved in social justice, poverty and inequity issues, but how are they doing addressing the Climate Crisis? We asked three people who have long been in the trenches of activism, to comment on how their faith communities are responding to our Climate Crisis. Their responses follow.
Urging Political Action, Energy Stewardship
By Rev. Peter Sawtell (United Church of Christ) – Executive Director, Eco-Justice Ministries
For around two decades, I’ve worked professionally with many kinds of churches, trying to get them to acknowledge and address environmental crises. I wish I could say that all churches “get it” now, but that’s not true. It is true that there are much higher levels of awareness and concern than when I started, and there have been some remarkable transformations.
Today, I’ll focus on one part of the Christian community in this country, the United Church of Christ (UCC) That’s the denomination I know best, and it seems to be the leader among churches in bold climate action. The UCC, in fact, encourages member congregations to affiliate with 350.org!
I’ll pick up the story in the summer of 2013, when the national convention of the UCC passed a resolution endorsing divestment from fossil fuel companies and other climate action strategies such as shareholder activism. As a result, the denomination now has a “Beyond Fossil Fuels” fund for some of the national church’s investments, and through which member congregations can easily divest. More recently, the UCC has encouraged congregations and church members to divest from the banks, which are primary lenders to fossil fuel exploration and extraction.
In 2017, just weeks after Trump pulled the US out of the Paris Accord, the denomination’s national convention passed an emergency resolution “regarding the urgency of healing the climate of the earth,” calling on clergy to accept the mantle of moral leadership, urging political action and energy stewardship, and voicing a commitment “to resist all expansion of fossil fuel infrastructure.” The motion received support from 97% of the delegates.
Just last month, the biennial convention passed resolutions in support of the Green New Deal and the Energy Innovation and Carbon Dividend Act of 2019.
The national UCC has a Minister for Environmental Justice who coordinates a range of environmental ministries, including a network of “Creation Justice Churches” and an interfaith project in support of the Our Children’s Trust lawsuit.
Within Colorado, many UCC congregations have a deep and ongoing commitment to climate justice, and quite a few have installed solar panels or taken other steps for dramatic energy conservation.
There’s still a long way to go, but the United Church of Christ — nationally and locally — shows that churches can be great leaders in the work for climate justice.
Bright Spots, More to Do
By Liz Fuhr, Franciscan Sister, 350 board member, Wilderness Retreat Guide
When asked what churches are doing about the climate crisis, I want to report on the Creighton University Inaugural hosting of the “Laudato Si’ and the U.S.” conference. This conference, the first of three, gave me much hope. As a board member for 350 Colorado and a Franciscan sister, I have been, up to now, very concerned about the lack of response that I experience in the Catholic Church. But there have been highlights: The Franciscan Action Network has added climate in the weekly Scripture reading, It has encouraged involvement in fighting our climate crisis and it offers a pledge to support climate action.
The Loyola Parish in Denver has met monthly for several years to address Pope Francis’ encyclical and try to apply the principles in the parish. Additionally, the Catholic Climate Covenant specifically addresses the climate crisis. Recently one of the other Board members who was from Central Colorado relayed that her new pastor directly spoke of climate change, which was very new and exciting for her.
I am sure there are other bright spots around the country, but my daily experience as a Sister has been almost a total lack of the liturgy addressing the climate crisis or even teaching nature as central to our spiritual lives. Pope Francis’ letter on the climate crisis was the first letter by a Pope ever in its 2000 years on the climate. It is a remarkable letter that has been well received. Pope Francis has spoken broadly about the “poor earth and the poor people” that bear the brunt of the abuse of the earth.
But up to now, I have not personally experienced it as working its way to the classroom, liturgy, or peace and justice groups.
For me, the Creighton Conference was a good beginning that can start the ball rolling on carrying out Pope Frances’ call or action. Unfortunately, because the climate crisis has been so politicized, I personally feel the local Catholic churches in many ways has avoided the topic. But this conference has motivated me to take a more active stance with more confidence.
Better World is Possible
By Marie Venner, Colorado Climate Crisis Activist
Our religious values are that all life has inherent dignity. We live out our values and are our deepest selves when all people, all life, are able to live and flourish, when life is not cut off or disallowed for the unborn/future generations. Our number one responsibility is to be a good ancestor. The last two popes said the church’s primary responsibility is to save humankind from destruction — highlighting the alarming path we are on now with regard to climate change, destruction of our natural/life support systems, the domination, extraction, orientation toward profit overall, the exclusion and lack of care evident in our current systems.
We are working on “system change not climate change.” We are called to share the good news that a better world is possible and it is a joy, bubbling up out of our deepest identity, to work on bringing that about for everyone.
Faith leaders Marie Venner (second from right) and Peter Sawtell (second from left) stand alongside climate activists during a petition delivery to Xcel Energy.
p.s. In the Denver/Boulder area a new interfaith Creation Care group with a focus on climate and environment has formed with clergy and laypeople from 17 faith communities and organizations. Contact Bonita Bock (firstname.lastname@example.org) to attend the next monthly meeting on Wed, Aug 21, 9-11am at Together Colorado’s offices in Denver.