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Empowering Beloved Community

Rev. Eileen Wiviott of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Evanston was the Keynote Speaker at our Annual Celebration and Fundraiser in the North & West Suburbs on November 13, 2018. She shared her reflections on why our mission to empower communities through Green Teams inspires her.

Rev. Eileen Wiviott gives the Keynote Address.
Rev. Eileen Wiviott gives the Keynote Address.

I am so honored, and more than a little bit humbled to be asked to be your Keynote Speaker. As I told Dan, I do not consider myself an expert in any sense of the word in terms of Environmental Advocacy or Science. I am a clergy person who delights in encouraging and providing spiritual support (I hope) to those more dedicated and educated in these matters than I am. Dan assured me that I didn’t need to be an environmental expert and so I agreed to be here with you. Thank you, again for the invitation.

I have been an admirer of the work of Faith in Place, since I learned about the organization in the early 2000’s from its founder, Clare Butterfield, when she preached about the work of Faith in Place at the Unitarian Church of Evanston where I serve and have been a member.

I truly believe in the mission of Faith in Place, which begins and ends with two of my favorite words: empowering communities. The mission of Faith in Place in full is: empowering Illinois people of all faiths to be leaders in caring for the Earth, providing resources to educate, connect, and advocate for healthier communities, but I really like the first and last words of that mission statement: empowering communities. Perhaps all of our efforts toward justice can be expressed in those two words. Empowering Community. I might add one word in between – Empowering Beloved Community.

Empowering leadership and community with our Eco-Ambassadors, Summer 2018
Empowering leadership and community with our Eco-Ambassadors, Summer 2018

I’ve been at two events in the last week about our failing democracy. Seems to be a topic on lots of people’s minds. One event was on Saturday at Countryside Church, Dr. Mike Hogue, professor of Meadville Lombard was introducing his book, American Immanence: Democracy for an Uncertain World. He spoke of the threats to our democracy, one of them being that complex problems lead to a quest for simple solutions, which makes way for the rise in power of those who would offer false and simple solutions.(1)

I hope you can agree that we are in complex times. It’s hard to think of a problem more complex than the global climate crisis. The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report that came out last month indicated that unless we make drastic, global changes in our emissions policies and practices we are on track to double the global temperature increase from 1°C to 2°C by 2061. This is a huge, complex problem that is and will continue to affect every person on this planet now and in the foreseeable future. I hear things like this and my mind instantly shuts down. I feel defeated before I even begin.

But Dr. Hogue did offer some antidotes, if not simple solutions:

You’ll have to buy the book for the full story, but he spoke of the need for revolution, as distinct from rebellion. Rebellion, according to activist/feminist Grace Lee Boggs, is opposition and resistance – important and certainly relevant for many of us right now. Revolution, however, is “evolutionary, affirmative, and resilient.”

Revolution starts with those who are most impacted, from where they are, building community across difference. Revolution is about building coalitions and solidarity across shared purposes.

Building community across difference at the Green Team Summit
Building community across difference at the Green Team Summit

Remaking our democracy in these uncertain times will require nothing short of a revolution, which means using our collective power to put pressure on our legislators to enact climate-affirming policies that reduce carbon emissions. Having a Democratic majority in the house does give us a possible way forward in terms of passing a carbon fee and dividend policy. To cease on this opportunity requires coordinated, grassroots-led, collective action. Revolution for collective liberation, can only be achieved through relationship – relationship to one another and relationship to the land. This is where Faith in Place comes in.

Empowering Beloved Community is what Faith in Place is all about, bringing folks together, people of faith who care for the Earth, who understand that we were not given the Earth to do with as we please, to use up and discard.

Connecting with the Earth by planting trees in Waukegan
Connecting with the Earth by planting trees in Waukegan

We are people who understand that we are of the Earth, connected to the Earth and through the Earth to one another. It is only through that connection that we can coalesce our power to enact change in our systems.

I am wary of false hope, friends. I’ve been reading thinkers such as Margaret Wheatly, who warns in her book Who Do We Choose To Be? that all civilizations collapse in predictable ways and ours is no different. In the midst of that collapse, it is important that we ask ourselves who we will be. She asks readers, “Are you willing to use whatever power and influence you have to create islands of sanity that evoke and rely on our best human qualities to create, produce, and persevere?”

Wen Stephenson’s book What We’re Fighting For Now is Each Other, makes a similar claim that it is already too late to reverse the damage we’ve done, but that does not mean we are to give up on each other.(2) Environmental Justice and Social Justice that centers the most marginalized and impacted communities is the only ethical and effective way to address the global climate crisis. It matters how we are with one another.

Saving our humanity in the midst of saving the planet is our religious imperative. Unitarian Universalist minister Sofia Betancourt’s essay, The Ethical Implications of Environmental Justice, states:

[…]our environmental justice work […] demands that we address the interconnected desecration and marginalization of oppressed peoples and nonhuman nature…we must seek understanding of what it means to be human in faithful relationship…with the rest of the Earth community.(3)

Rally at Advocacy Day 2018 with a sign that reads, "Support Envirionmental Justice"
Advocacy Day 2018

Each of these activists echoes the message that the situation is dire, and they offer no false hope or easy answers. We are headed for catastrophe and there’s very little we can do about it alone. However, in each of these writings, the authors, dedicated to social and environmental justice in their own ways, encourages us to not give up on one another.

That faced with impossible odds, we must continue to bet on the value of our humanity, the integrity of our souls, and the power of Beloved Community.

Faith in Place has always been about helping faith communities to develop sustainable practices within their walls. Over the years they have become more engaged in the intersections of environmental, racial, and economic justice. We know that we cannot separate our efforts toward a more sustainable planet from the impacts of environmental degradation on our most vulnerable and marginalized citizens.

One of the things I have valued most about Faith in Place, has been their willingness to work with faith communities to support their Green Teams.

Green Team Members from St. Simon's Episcopal Church in Arlington Heights attend the 2018 Annual Celebration & Fundraiser.
Green Team Members from St. Simon's Episcopal Church in Arlington Heights

Our Green Team met with Dan Huntsha who helped us focus on building relationships with community partners. We hosted a town hall meeting with Rep. Jan Schakowsky last month with Citizens’ Climate Lobby on climate justice advocacy and we’ve had Jennifer Walling, Director of the Illinois Environmental Council, speak to us about effective ways to influence legislators. We know that being a Green Team is more than recycling and composting in our building. Those are important components but it’s not enough to build a revolution.

To close, I’d like to share a bit of what Margaret Wheatly says about leaders in a time of collapse:

In full awareness of the trials and tribulations that will not cease, they offer their leadership skills to create islands of sanity, places of possibility and sanctuary were the destructive dynamics of collapse are kept at bay…For as long as they can.(4)

Thank you to Faith in Place for being such a leader in these times. Your work is sacred work – Empowering Beloved Community to heal the planet and restore our connection to it.

Invocation: Spirit of Life and Source of Love we ask that you move in, among, and beyond this gathering of faithful people as we set our intentions together to nurture, sustain and honor the Earth. We ask for courage, strength and a willingness to persevere in the struggle for environmental justice. Help us to remember, always, that we are connected to one another, and that only through knowing our interdependence will our Earth and its people be saved. May we continue to find beauty and joy, even as we face with honesty the devastation in our midst. May all our learning, growth, and striving be toward a more abundant, loving and peaceful world.

In Beloved Community, may we make it so.

(1) Hogue, Michael S., American Immanence: Democracy For An Uncertain World, Columbia University Press, 2018.

(2) Stephenson, Wen, What We’re Fighting for Now is Each Other, Beacon Press, 2015.

(3) Betancourt, Sofia, Justice on Earth: People of Faith Working at the Intersections of Race, Class, and the Environment, “Ethical Implications of Environmental Justice,” Skinner House Books, 2018, page 40.

(4) Wheatly, Margaret J., Who Do We Choose To Be? Facing Reality, Claiming Leadership, Restoring Sanity, Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc., 2017, page 49.

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