What Religion Can Teach Climate Scientists

Unitarian Universalists—and now Pope Francis—are forging a new understanding of our religious calling.


Bill McKibben is a scholar in residence in environmental studies at Middlebury College and cofounder of the international environmental group 350.org.

By Bill McKibben in the Boston Globe
June 26, 2015

Pope Francis’s remarkable encyclical, Laudato Si’, has been rightly hailed as a watershed moment in the climate debate, the moment when religion finally took note of what science had been saying for a couple of decades. As with all watersheds, though, the river at the bottom draws its power from all the creeks that feed in along the way — it’s worth remembering just how many people (a large number of them in Massachusetts) have worked over the years to build a true faith-based environmental movement. How they’ve managed to do it holds lessons for all of us trying to spread the word about climate change.

Twenty-five years ago, when this work was just getting started, there was nothing easy about it: In liberal churches and synagogues, environmentalism was considered slightly elitist, a task to be gotten to once the serious business of war and hunger had been dealt with. In conservative congregations, anything green was considered a depot on the track to paganism.

But there were always a few people who read Scripture with enough care to find consistent threads of stewardship and ecological consciousness. To see, in fact, that war and hunger and poverty were deeply connected to the earth. And not just in the Judeo-Christian tradition: Harvard, under the leadership of Mary Evelyn Tucker and John Grim, convened a series of remarkable conferences where theologians from Islam, Jainism, Confucianism, and a variety of other global faiths mined their traditions for contributions to an environmental worldview.

That early scholarly work put down roots and eventually began to bear fruit. Religious groups like Interfaith Power & Light — originally Episcopal Power & Light, cofounded in 1997 by Steve MacAusland of Dedham — focused at first on making sure churches installed efficient light bulbs and lowered their thermostats; political action was still a little way off. Within a few years, however, groups like Religious Witness for the Earth were springing up in Greater Boston and organizing some of the climate movement’s initial acts of civil disobedience.

In 2007, marchers were stepping off from the Unitarian Church in Northampton for one of the world’s first religious pilgrimages on the issue, an 85-mile winter march. After nine days, it reached Old South Church in Copley Square, where Unitarian minister Fred Small told the crowd, in words that presaged the pope’s, “When we look beyond the horizon of despair, we see however faintly a future of hope — a world where we live harmoniously and sustainably, where individual freedom is exercised with care for creation and community.”

Small is one of the key figures in the religious environmental surge. In 2013, his Cambridge church was one of the country’s first to divest from fossil fuels, and he helped persuade his entire denomination to make its decision to divest in June 2014. The United Church of Christ did the same in 2013, and the key player was another Bay Stater, Jim Antal. Antal has traveled Massachusetts from one end to the other, often by bicycle, preaching constantly about climate change. But he’s also worn his clerical collar to jail, most notably at the first big mass arrests protesting the Keystone pipeline. In lockup, he helped celebrate a Sunday morning service in D.C.’s central cellblock for dozens jailed the day before (including me).

It’s not just liberal Protestants, of course. Rabbis like Katy Z. Allen helped start Boston’s Jewish Climate Action Network. Led by the “green patriarch” Bartholomew, many of the world’s 400 million Orthodox Christians have been deeply involved in the climate fight. Until the pope’s encyclical, Catholics had not been as institutionally focused, though colleges like Georgetown had begun divesting their fossil fuel stocks. (BC not so much. Student activists from the group Climate Justice at Boston College were disciplined by the school after demonstrating without a permit.)

This new wave of religious environmentalism hasn’t crested yet. In April, Quakers organized a 12-day walk the length of a proposed natural gas pipeline through New Hampshire and Massachusetts. And just days after the pope’s encyclical, the US Episcopal Church voted to divest itself from all fossil fuel stocks, following the lead of the Church of England some weeks earlier. (Again a Massachusetts cleric, Springfield’s Margaret Bullitt-Jonas, played a leading role in the fight.) And as they divest, these religious organizations put pressure on more secular institutions. At Small’s Harvard Square church, for instance, a huge banner on the steeple looked out across Mass. Ave. and proclaimed: “We divested from fossil fuels. Your turn, Harvard.”

Religious environmentalism hasn’t conquered every territory — many evangelical churches remain suspicious of the fight. Even that is changing, though: A former New England physician, Matthew Sleeth, organized a nonprofit called Blessed Earth and speaks to conservative congregations across the country. Polling data show such efforts find increasing favor with young evangelicals.

In the end, it may be less the political power of faith communities that matters and more their ability to transform the bleak message of scientists into something that more people can hear. Faith-based environmentalists, after all, are allowed to have some hope that if they work hard, the world might meet them halfway. But only if they work hard. Shoshana Meira Friedman finished a recent essay in the Harvard Divinity Bulletin with this 2,000-year-old verse from another rabbi:

The day is short,
the task is abundant,
the laborers are lazy,
the wages are great,
and the Master of the house is insistent.

It is not up to you to finish the task,
but neither are you free to desist from it.

First U Board Adopts Statement on Racism and Incarceration

At its June meeting, the Board of Trustees of First Unitarian Church passed a “Church Policy on the New Jim Crow: Racism and Incarceration.” 

It was the first time in recent memory that the Board has taken action in support of a social justice movement. The policy puts the church on record in support of the growing movement to address mass incarceration of people of color, especially young males. It calls on church members to:

  • Condemn the pattern of inadequate school discipline policies based on race;
  • Condemn targeting people of color in our society, negating their inherent worth and dignity through patterns in our law enforcement systems, criminal justice systems, and structures;
  • Condemn the continuing practice of institutional racism and disproportionate incarceration in our society, and witness for racial fairness.
  • Expand individual and community knowledge and awareness of the many manifestations of the “New Jim Crow;”
  • Petition local, state, and federal representatives to end institutional racism in all its forms and practices;
  • Form Unitarian Universalist, interfaith, and community partnerships for organizing, advocacy, and demonstrating to end institutional racism, unjust laws, and disproportionate incarceration of people of color.

The statement asserts that the “school-to-prison pipeline, racial profiling in the enforcement of the War on Drugs, and other systemic and structural racial bias in police and criminal justice systems” are “moral catastrophes.” The policy proposal was brought to the board of trustees by Rev. Paula Maiarano, a member of First Unitarian Church who serves as co-leader of Delaware’s Coalition to Dismantle the New Jim Crow.

Read full text of the policy (pdf)

Rise in United States incarceration rate, 1920 to 2013. (wikimedia Commons)

Rise in United States incarceration rate, 1920 to 2013. (wikimedia Commons)

Incarceration rate per 100,000 population. Source:  World Prison Brief. International Centre for Prison Studies. (Wikimedia Commons)

Incarceration rate per 100,000 population. Source: World Prison Brief. International Centre for Prison Studies. (Wikimedia Commons)

“We use our criminal justice system to label people of color ‘criminals’ and then engage in all the practices we supposedly left behind. . . . As a criminal, you have scarcely more rights, and arguably less respect, than a black man living in Alabama at the height of Jim Crow. We have not ended racial caste in America; we have merely redesigned it.”

—Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, at the UU General Assembly, 2012

Peacekeepers Rally


 Brother Terry Walls has emerged as a very special leader of the Peacekeepers—the go-to guy at this event. I’m proud to call him my friend and fellow soldier for peace. —Jeff Lott     @jeffreybelott  #blacklivesmatter

It was great to see Brother Terry Walls (above left, with Jeff Lott) at the Wilmington Peacekeepers Rally for Children on Saturday at Kirkwood Park in Wilmington. They worked for months to create this successful event for the community. Members of the Movement for a Culture of Peace showed up in force to help out. We marched through the neighborhood in public witness for peace.

The rally was an example of what we can accomplish as a community if we work together across racial, cultural, and class lines. Don’t be afraid to join us!

A Bright Spot for Justice

Bright Spot Ventures combines environmental and social justice. A field report from Elizabeth.

Bright Spot Logo

Yesterday, Dee Burdash and Elizabeth Siftar sweated it out at the Bright Spot Urban Farm in New Castle. This is definitely a project that readers of the Connector ought to know about. Here’s Elizabeth’s report.

Farm RowsWe were assigned to remove those tiny, nasty weedies growing around the ready-to-pick swiss chard, collards, and other greens. Wednesday is a big a market day for Bright Spot. They take the produce truck to Claymore Senior Center, JP Morgan Bank, Rodney Square Farmers Market. Workers were busily cutting produce, taking it over to the cleaning trailer, loading it on the official Bright Spot Ventures produce truck, and heading out to the sites.

The two new young men, Yosef and Henry were introduced to us, and we met Kirstin, the intern who manages the produce marketing. Mary was working with the students, the Uof D intern was cutting, and Krista came and said thanks for volunteering and Mike was in and out. But, at one point, no matter what each was doing, they ALL were working in the beautiful rows of veggies. There’s a very good feeling at the farm, even with the traffic noise from Rt. 13. The land is beautifully maintained under the supervision of Mary and Krista, both of whom are Longwood Gardens trained.

Market TruckTo understand the real results and get a feel for the quality of the Bright Spot program, you really have to visit one of the market sites. Cool Spring Farmers Market, Thursdays from 4–8 is the best, because the market itself is run by Bright Spot. There are several vendors, fresh prepared food, music, and kids and dogs. In addition, members of the Wilmington community who rely on EBT are given vouchers to purchase the fresh produce grown by youth from their own community. The big Bright Spot produce truck is parked in its place, and the produce is displayed in various artful ways. It’s all gorgeous—and the kids are there!

The Urban Farm production continues through October, so volunteers will be needed for several more months. Let’s recruit more from First Unitarian! It’s an hour and a half on Wednesdays—rotating. Right now, we are recruiting adult or older teen volunteers. I will be there when new people go out.

There’s a really nice synergy developing between our Green Sanctuary and ILYA [Independent Living for Young Adults] programs and Bright Spot Ventures. Lois Morris of ILYA recently wrote:

Are you wondering what ILYA (Independent Living for Young Adults) has to do with First UU’s Green Sanctuary? Interestingly enough, both organizations have a big interest in the success of a little-known third organization—Bright Spot Urban Farm. With its emphasis on fresh local produce, Bright Spot is a perfect fit with Green Sanctuary. And because it was created so that former foster youth could learn the agriculture business by doing, it’s a perfect fit with ILYA too. Former foster youth plant, harvest, and sell their own produce while learning what it takes to run a successful business.

Do you see where this is going? Won’t you be in synergy with ILYA and Green Sanctuary to spread the word to potentiate Bright Spot’s success? How many people can you tell? When you buy fresh local produce at the Cool Spring Farmer’s Market at 10th & Jackson Streets every Thursday from 4–8 p.m., you can help give a former foster youth a successful future—and give you a tasty summer meal!

Heirloom TomatosBright Spot is an excellent example of serving locally with inner city-youth, supporting sustainably and ethically grown food, and helping to bring that food to those in the community who lack access to healthy, fresh food. Our work combines Environmental Justice and Social Justice and is an example of our UU Principles at work.

Thank you for all that you do!


To volunteer, contact: Elizabeth Siftar, esiftar@gmail.com or Dee Burdash, dburdash22@msn.com

Call to Help Peacekeepers Children’s Rally


Peace Rally July 2015 copy

We received an email from Brother Terry Walls of the Wilmington Peacekeepers Association asking for help with their annual Children’s Rally on Saturday, July 11. The event was postponed on June 27 due to bad weather.

Join the Peacekeepers on Saturday, July 11, at Kirkwood Park in Wilmington, in the 1100 block of Kirkwood Street. Parking is available at Stubbs Elementary School, entrance is off of N. Pine Street, Wilmington, DE.) 


Volunteers are needed for setup, which will begin around 7:00 a.m. at the park. If you wish to help with the rally itself, please arrive about 10:00 to do the following:

  1. Help on the grill (we can do in shifts).
  2. Help serve water ice (again in shifts).
  3. Walk around picking up trash if any (this will be done all day).
  4. Make and serve popcorn and cotton candy (in shifts).

Everyone else’s job will be just being happy spreading peace and love throughout the day.

P.S. those who have coolers please bring as we will need to keep beverages cold.

We the Peacekeepers would like to thank everyone in advance for your support participation to make this event successful.

Much love.


Please spread the word.

Call or email me if you have questions.
(302) 383-2490