Jul 08, 2016
It is still difficult for many congregations to accept the fossil fuel industry and its economic plan as a threat to life on the planet as we know it. It’s like tobacco: when I was a young boy, the tobacco industry was perceived as a large, well-funded, untouchable industry. Most people felt like there was no way you could go up against them. But then people woke up and realized that their grandmother, uncle, mom, etc. were all dying of lung cancer. It was as if something ‘just clicked for people. They realized that this business agenda was a killer. It was wrong, and they decided to take a stand against a powerful industry.
Today of course, smoking still exists, but it’s highly stigmatized. Warnings are there and we educate our youth about the blatant dangers of smoking. That’s what we’re starting to see with how people perceive the fossil fuel industry. Big oil and coal are not untouchable anymore. Enough people have been affected by climate impacts and they’re ready to take a stand.
I’ve seen how faith communities have struggled with what role they should play. There’s a growing understanding, especially following the Pope’s encyclical, that people of faith must immerse ourselves in building a different way of life in the world that addresses the forces behind the politics of climate disruption. If we don’t, then years from now what faith communities will really be doing is grief work: providing support to our congregations over homes and farms lost, jobs lost, first responders injured in disasters, children afflicted with asthma; these are losses and difficulties we’ll see more of and only be able to react to if we don’t do something to change our business as usual and move to more renewable forms of energy.
When I moved to Hood River, the longer I lived here, the more I realized, along with the other local residents, that our Columbia Gorge was becoming a pivotal chute for coal and oil from the Powder River Basin and the Bakken Oil Fields in North Dakota. Just look at the train of Bakken crude that derailed and caught fire last week -- that happened only ten minutes from my home. No one was killed this time, but things could have been much worse. Living where these trains pass through, we live with the threat of environmental disaster every day, not to mention the long-term impacts of reliance on fossil fuels we’ve seen in our immediate region (loss of snowpack, severe drought, threats to agriculture and the cleanliness of our water,) affecting our health and our economy. Acting locally and thinking globally means that global warming and the relentless fossil fuel industry agenda require an active response in our neighborhoods.
My spouse and I decided I would take on climate work full time. We felt driven by our faith to do what we could. Like so many others, I see this work as a gift and a struggle.
I’ve seen how the faith community is finding a stronger spiritual vocation to work on climate. A pastor may urge during sermon, for example, that anyone who has volunteered with a climate group or written a letter to their representative or the newspaper receive recognition from the congregation. This creates a sense of community pride around climate action and political engagement. A faith community may work to become a carbon neutral, or actively disentangle itself from the fossil fuel industry through divestment. There are many ways for a congregation and individual parishioners to get involved: like state public policy advocacy, education and building local renewable energy programs.
Climate work, seen through a faith lens, affirms the spiritual traditions that we are all connected to something much bigger than us. By putting our faith into action every day, we can respond to what the earth is asking of us, move away from a fossil fuel dependency, and work through public projects to develop renewables. These are all ways we help preserve God’s creation. Working on climate change provides the invitation to make a difference while realizing our true responsibility as a human family. The faith community provides a communal energy to strengthen this mission. The climate change emergency is a product of our own making, and as people of faith, we must be actively responding to it.