A coalition of more than 1,000 organizations will take to the streets in New York City on Sunday, September 21, for the People's Climate March to demand action at the United Nations Climate Summit taking place the following day.
The Interfaith Contingent hopes to make up a huge section of the march, with groups from a wide range of religious traditions calling attention to the cause the National Catholic Reporter proclaimed the "number one pro-life issue" of our time.
In addition to marching in the streets, many faith leaders and scholars will participate in Religions for the Earth, a three-day gathering hosted at Union Theological Seminary that will coincide with the Climate March and Summit. The conference will gather environmentalists from Christian, indigenous, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhism, Baha'i, secular and other traditions. Religions for the Earth, as well as the Interfaith Contingent at the march, highlights the burgeoning movement of faith communities speaking out on climate change -- and the unique voice they bring to the issue.
Caring for the Sacred
The Union conference will open with a plenary session entitled "What Moves Us: Values, Narratives & the Climate Crisis." For many religious people involved in climate activism the work is as much about values as it is about science.
“Creation is a gift," Sister Didi Madden of the Dominican Sisters in Committed Collaboration (OPSCC) told HuffPost. "When we destroy creation we are throwing away something that is precious and God-given.”
Madden is a "promoter of justice" with the OPSCC, which is comprised of five congregations in the Northeast. Twelve-hundred sisters from the organization are participating in the march in some capacity, Madden said, with nearly 100 actually marching on Sunday.
Climate change is also a sacred issue for many pagans, more than 200 of whom will be participating in the march, according to leader Courtney Weber. Her group, the Pagan Environmental Coalition of NYC, has coordinated rides, housing and a weekend full of activities for the pagan community leading up to Sunday's march.
“Pagans view the earth as divine," Weber told HuffPost. "Our Gods are in the soil, the rocks, the trees, the air. We recognize that we are of the body of the living earth and to destroy it, destroys our souls.”
Katharine Hayhoe, a climate scientist and evangelical Christian, has a different approach to the climate change issue as she explained to HuffPost:
"The Christian faith its based on the idea that we are to love others as Christ loved us. The Christian community already has a heart for people. But climate change has not been presented as a people issue.”
More and more, Hayhoe said, people have come to understanding the far-reaching affects of climate change and the very human dilemmas it imposes. If human beings are a part of the "God-given" creation Madden referred to, then climate change poses a threat to them as much as to polar bears, ice caps and the atmosphere.
A shift will happen when faith communities are able to rediscover the sacred in nature, Rev. Ian Mevorach argued. Mevorach founded the Massachusetts-based Common Street Community Church and has heavily promoted the march in addition to organizing climate awareness events in his community.
“I believe that care for the earth will become central to our tradition when we commit to the process of re-sacralizing nature," Mevorach told HuffPost. This will entail shifting from a view of the world as "an inanimate machine" to "a living body animated by God's Spirit. ”
The Root of All Justice Issues
Faith communities are not new to the world of activism and social justice. They have been at the forefront of countless justice movements -- which many faith-based climate activists see as an advantage.
“We see climate change as the issue that drives all other justice issues,” Madden said.
Far from an isolated problem, climate change is deeply connected to issues of hunger, poverty, war, sanitation, disease, access to clean water, and economic crises.
“Climate change has been presented to us as one more issue on the list of things we care about," Hayhoe said. "But climate change is not one more thing to add to the list… It affects nearly every single thing already on that list.”
Claire Curran, with Minnesota Interfaith Power & Light, is organizing a bus tour of 50 Minnesotans from the interfaith community to take part in Sunday's march. Curran told HuffPost that she sees faith as uniquely situated to help people find ways to combat the threat of climate change, which makes the religious community's presence at the Climate March particularly crucial.
“Faith hold us accountable and helps us connect the dots between seemingly disparate issues into an integrated understanding of suffering and what it means to build a just and sustainable world,” Curran said.
Inspiring Faith Communities Into Action
“The Islamic tradition has all sorts of wonderful resources to talk about the importance of the environment," Jerusha Lamptey, assistant professor of Islam at Union Seminary, told HuffPost, "but how do we use them to motivate people to make change?”
What religion provides more than anything, Weber said, is access to people. Twenty-eight different religious faiths and denominations are represented in the list of organizations endorsing the climate march. These groups have a unique opportunity to activate large populations toward social change.
Karenna Gore, the Director of Union Forum which has played a primary role in organizing the conference, identified materialism as one of the "root causes of climate change" in an interview with HuffPost. Religion, she said, offers an alternative.
"Spirituality can prompt us to make sacrifices and behave in ways that run counter to materialistic short-term self-interest," Gore said. "Many people experience their sense of moral obligations to others through their religious affiliation. We need the power of religion to affect social change if we are going to counter and reverse what we are doing to the earth."
Climate change has the added affect of bringing diverse faith communities together in social action. This will come to bear in the Interfaith Contingent of the march, as well as in the multi-faith and interdisciplinary program of the Union conference.
“In a way, [climate change] is a unique gift to communities of faith," Weber told HuffPost. "We don't have time to try to understand each other. We have to work together whether we understand one another or not--and in that, I think we find even greater understanding.”
Hopes for the Summit
The Religions for the Earth conference and People's Climate March are two ways concerned individuals and groups can take action to promote sustainability -- but the work of climate action will extend beyond the weekend.
Much is resting on Tuesday's climate summit.
“The overarching hope," Lamptey said, "is that it will raise the religious voice so that it is heard by the UN and so that it is heard within religious communities, themselves.”
Hosted by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in New York City, the summit promises to "catalyze ambitious action" by bringing global leaders together to discuss eight action areas: agriculture, cities, energy, financing, forests, petroleum and industry, resilience and transportation.
Hayhoe has followed the environment's decline closely, and she knows that there is no time like the present to address the threat it poses.
“The impacts are here and they’re getting worse," Hayhoe said. "I know as a scientist it’s not too late. The choices we make today will have a profound effect on our future. We still have hope; we can still make choices that make a difference. I hope that some concrete action comes out of [the UN Climate Summit], since the window of opportunity is still ajar but closing fast.”
Gore, who is the daughter of politician and climate activist Al Gore, has spent years dedicated to environmental justice and said she is optimistic:
"I think everyone who has been involved in the issues of global warming and the climate crisis for many years is experiencing a strong feeling of hope."