Take Liturgy to the Street, the Pipeline, and the Tracks
By Jim Antal
Climate Church, Climate World(Rowman Publishing, 2018) by Jim Antal is a guide for people of all faiths to find value and gain insight by focusing on how the church and people of the church can address the climate change crisis. Antal invites communities of faiths together to bear witness and acknowledge that God’s creation is suffering and in jeopardy. Viewing the climate crisis as a theological emergency brings together these groups and gives them a common goal to initiate an intervention. The following excerpt is from Chapter 7 Prophetic Preaching.
The first time I participated in a public liturgy to block the expansion of fossil fuel infrastructure was May 25, 2016. For months, local Boston residents and climate activists had been protesting Spectra Energy’s construction of the West Roxbury Lateral pipeline. The morning began when one hundred people gathered not far from the construction site for what appeared to be a rally. The rally was led by a variety of interfaith clergy and included singing, call and response, reading from scriptures, preaching, and prayer. The congregation then marched to the construction site where fifteen other clergy and I sat down on the pavement, dangling our legs into the six-foot-deep trench that had been gouged in the middle of the street. We were a diverse group, including American Baptist, Buddhist, Episcopal, Hindu, Jewish, Presbyterian, United Church of Christ, and Unitarian Universalist. We continued singing, quoting scripture, preaching, and praying until one by one we were asked by the police officers to stand up and have our wrists cuffed behind our backs. After being packed into transport vehicles, we were driven to the police station where we were booked.
A month later, Karenna Gore, director of the Center for Earth Ethics at Union Theological Seminary and the daughter of former vice president Al Gore, joined twenty-two others in a similar street liturgy at the same site. After arriving at the construction site, the twelve clergy led a mass grave funeral for climate change victims, featuring eulogies, prayers, and mourning. After the funeral, several clergy and other resisters lay down beside the trench, halting construction. Others climbed into the trench and lay down, as if in their coffins. Their arrests attracted considerable media attention.
This nonviolent action to evoke a mass grave was inspired by a Reuters’ interview of a Pakistani grave digger a few weeks before. He had just finished digging graves for three hundred people in anticipation of the next heat wave like the recent one in which more than 1,300 people perished.
Moved by this story, climate activist and Unitarian Universalist Tim DeChristopher helped to organize this “die-in.” This was Tim’s first act of civil disobedience since 2008 when he disrupted a government oil and gas lease auction by posing as a buyer in the sale. The story of Tim’s courageous, prophetic witness is told in the film Bidder 70. He served twenty-one months in federal prison, after which he enrolled at Harvard Divinity School.
While the protest in metropolitan Boston was ongoing, the protest by the water protectors of Standing Rock was gathering momentum as they resisted the construction of the Dakota Access pipeline. In September 2014, Standing Rock Tribal Councilman Dave Archambault II had informed Dakota Access pipeline representatives that the tribe would not support this project. During the summer of 2016 the water protectors, representing scores of tribes, were joined by hundreds of others expressing solidarity with their witness. Their persistent, prayerful, nonviolent witness was met with water cannons, pepper spray, and attack dogs.
In early November 2016, over five hundred clergy from across the country assembled at Standing Rock to stand in solidarity with the water protectors. Their worship included hymns, scripture, preaching, and prayer. Their confession took the form of burning copies of the Doctrine of Discovery, a series of religious documents from the fifteenth century that justified the colonization of the Americas and the oppression of its native people. The decrees, which were issued by popes, condoned the enslavement or killing of indigenous peoples who would not convert to Christianity.
Another call was issued for people of faith to gather at Standing Rock on December 4, 2016. Because the confrontation with private security forces was escalating, because of threats that the Standing Rock encampment might soon be forcibly evacuated, thousands of veterans indicated that they would also come that weekend wearing body armor and gas masks, ready to serve as “human shields.” My friend and colleague the Rev. Dr. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas joined hundreds of other people of faith representing at least thirty faith traditions in a bitterly cold prayer service lasting hours. Her moving account of her experience offers profound testimony and insight that can serve as a guide for future worship services at other pipelines.
No one responded when I invited hundreds of congregations to consider sending a delegation to Washington, DC, on November 6, 2011, to convene worship in the streets as part of a Keystone XL pipeline protest. Yet six years later, on July 3, 2017, the national Synod of the UCC passed a resolution that included a commitment “to resist all expansion of fossil fuel infrastructure and demand new sources of renewable energy that are accessible to all communities.” Less than three weeks after that, on a street corner in Hingham, Massachusetts, two local UCC ministers and a Baptist pastor convened a prayer vigil as part of a weekly protest of Enbridge’s plans to build a 7,700-horsepower fracked-gas compressor station in the adjacent town of North Weymouth. (Enbridge is the new name of Spectra Energy.)
A few days earlier, a group of New England Quakers and fellow travelers concluded a 60-mile climate pilgrimage. They began their walk at Schiller Station in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, one of the state’s two coal-fired power plants. Along the way they slept on church floors, and were buoyed to learn of the national UCC resolution. When their pilgrimage reached the Merrimack coal-fired power station in Bow, New Hampshire, they held a worship service at the gates of the plant. Thirteen of them set up their tents on the tracks used by railroad cars to bring coal to the plant. After a beautiful night under the stars, they held a Sunday morning worship service. They were visited several times by Eversource officials (owners of the plant) and by railroad police, but they were never asked to leave, presumably so as not to cause a public stir.
A week before, on July 9, 2017, a group of nuns in Pennsylvania’s rural Lancaster County consecrated a new chapel. The chapel consists of an altar, a pulpit, and eight long pews set out in a field, on land that is owned by the nuns. That particular spot was chosen because it stands in the path of a projected natural gas pipeline called the Atlantic Sunrise project. These nuns are part of the Adorers of the Blood of Christ. In 2005, the order agreed to conduct their business transactions in keeping with principles of ecological justice that the sisters drafted in 2005. Their “land ethic” has prompted their chapters to protest hydroelectric power in Brazil and to work with Guatemalans opposed to gold mining. The Williams Company is now threatening to seize their land in Pennsylvania by eminent domain. Many observers have noted the parallels with the protests at Standing Rock. If the judge allows Williams to seize the land, the nuns are expected to appeal, and activists affiliated with Lancaster Against Pipelines are prepared to start a round-the-clock vigil at the site, with the aim of preventing Williams from destroying the chapel.
The good people of Nebraska have been resisting the proposed construction of the Keystone XL pipeline for years. An impressive coalition of farmers and environmentalists have bonded to form Bold Nebraska. Their newest strategy is to install solar panels on the ground along the proposed path that will be seized by eminent domain should the KXL pipeline be approved. Several years ago I was the keynote speaker at the annual gathering of all the UCC churches in Nebraska. My host was unsure how my message on climate change would be received. Knowing that more than half in the audience were farmers, I opened my address by asking, “How many of you would call yourselves farmers?” And when about three-quarters of them raised their hands, I asked, “Do you mind if I think of you as scientists, because successful farmers draw upon science every day.” They responded with applause, and we enjoyed a fine two days of conversation.
For many years, a growing number of denominations and congregations have participated in the Season of Creation that offers congregations a creation-based lectionary from September 1 through St. Francis of Assisi Day. The organizers have now expanded their vision to welcome congregations to engage in both liturgy and action. On their website you’ll find worship resources and statements from Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew and Pope Francis, along with a prayer service hosted by activist Bill McKibben. UCC eco-justice theologian Peter Sawtell has written a brief, helpful resource that will direct your congregation to both resources and suggested actions. Peter’s organization, Eco-Justice Ministries, is a partner of this new and more activist Season of Creation.
These examples make it clear that the church can play a critical role in revoking the social license that fossil fuel companies need in order to continue to wreck the Earth. Such prophetic witness is essential. Because fracking makes natural gas increasingly cheap and available, fossil fuel companies are claiming that new pipelines must be built, and hundreds of pipelines across the country are now in the works. At the same time, the cost of solar- and wind-generated energy continues to plummet, and in many places, now rivals the cost of natural gas. Adding new natural gas pipelines to America’s pipeline network is as senseless as thinking that we need to run copper phone lines to every village in Tanzania, Kenya, Ghana, Senegal, Nigeria, and South Africa. (Newsflash: most people in these African nations already have cell phones!) But it’s easy for a landowner or a rural town to fall for this ruse, and to sell access to a pipeline developer.
Churches can lead the needed intervention by raising consciousness and providing education through acts of public witness, making it difficult and expensive for gas companies to build new fossil fuel infrastructure. If we can multiply the above examples by a hundredfold, we can help assure the rapid transition to a clean energy economy that is essential for the flourishing of life on this planet.
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