Video: Intersections of Spirituality, Social Justice, and Climate Change

March 10, 2021
The special panel discussion "Intersections of Spirituality, Social Justice, and Climate Change" took place March 3, 2021.
The special panel discussion "Intersections of Spirituality, Social Justice, and Climate Change" took place March 3, 2021.

A reflection and panel discussion on how and where spirituality, social justice, and climate change come together and intersect within faith traditions.

Speakers included: Dan McKanan, AB ’89, Ralph Waldo Emerson UUA Senior Lecturer at Harvard Divinity School; Sofía Betancourt, Associate Professor of Unitarian Universalist Theologies and Ethics at Starr King School for the Ministry; Elizabeth Eaton, MDiv ’80, Presiding Bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America; and Rosalyn LaPier, WSRP '17, Associate Professor, Environmental Studies at University of Montana.

Full Video Below:

Full Transcript: 

Lori Stevens: Welcome, everyone, officially. I'm Lori Stevens. I'm the associate dean for Development and External Relations here at Harvard Divinity School. We are thrilled to say we have over 600 people signed up for this conversation. So I think many people are as excited as we are to talk about these important intersections between climate, spirituality, faith, justice.

With that, I am excited to introduce our moderator for today's discussion, Professor Dan McKanan. Dan is the Ralph Waldo Emerson Unitarian Universalist Association senior lecturer in divinity here at Harvard Divinity School. He studies religious and spiritual movements for social transformation with a particular emphasis on environmental activism. We are honored to have you lead today's discussion, Dan. And I will turn it over to you to introduce the panelists.

Dan McKanan: Thank you so much, Lori. And thanks to everyone for being part of this event. I welcome you to Harvard Divinity School's virtual gathering space. And it is my honor and delight to introduce today's conversation on spirituality, social justice, and climate change. Today, we will be in conversation with three recognized leaders from three very different religious traditions. All of our panelists are thoughtful scholars who have spent years reflecting on the relationship between spirituality and social justice, and they share two essential convictions.

First, that climate change is one of the defining spiritual challenges of our time. And second, that climate change cannot be addressed in isolation, but only in relation to the intersecting challenges of white supremacy, settler colonialism, heteropatriarchy, and so many structures of injustice that are both the age old and reinventing themselves every day.

I will introduce each of our speakers and then launch the conversation. Rosalyn LaPier is an indigenous writer, ethnobotanist, and environmental activist who serves as associate professor of environmental studies at the University of Montana and is an enrolled member of the Blackfeet tribe of Montana and Métis. She works to revitalize indigenous and traditional ecological knowledge, to address environmental justice and the climate crisis, and to strengthen public policy for indigenous languages.

Professor LaPier received her doctorate from the University of Montana and is the author of the award-winning book Invisible Reality-- Storytellers, Story Takers, and the Supernatural World of the Blackfeet. Here at HDS, we got to know her when she was a fellow in our Women's Studies and Religion Program in 2016, 2017.

Sofia Betancourt serves as associate professor of Unitarian Universalist theologies and ethics at Starr King School for the Ministry. She's been a transformative leader in Unitarian Universalism, first as director of racial and ethnic concerns, and more recently as interim co-president of the Unitarian Universalist Association during a time of challenge and transformation. Professor Betancourt received her PhD in religious ethics and African-American studies from Yale University, where she wrote an eco-womanist ethical interpretation of the Panama Canal.

And finally, the Reverend Elizabeth Eaton is now serving her second six-year term as presiding bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. Bishop Eaton earned her MBA from Harvard Divinity School, served three congregations in Ohio, and then served seven years as bishop of the ELCA Northeastern Ohio Synod before being elected presiding bishop in 2013.

As presiding bishop, she's led the ELCA through an extensive visioning process that culminated in a strategic framework called Future Directions 2025. Her travels as bishop have connected her with social justice and environmental initiatives around the world. Welcome to all three of you.

I'd like each of you to ground today's conversation by telling us about one place where spirituality, social justice, and climate change come together in your tradition. This place could be literally a physical place, or a ritual practice, a justice campaign, or a conversation. Please use that one place to help us see how you understand the intersections that might shape a shared response to climate change. Professor LaPier, could you start us off?

Rosalyn LaPier: I'd like to begin by thanking the Harvard Divinity School for inviting me to share my story, but also to share with the larger community about some of these issues. So I want to talk about a place that was very important to my grandmother. My grandmother was a well known ethnobotanist.

And from her, I learned ethnobotany. So traveling with my grandmother was a nonstop history lesson. She told who was ever in the car the story of each hill, bluff, creek, and river. Every place in Blackfeet territory had a history of human interaction. Some stories were places that Blackfeet use for collecting plant medicines or food. Some were places for hunting. Some were places where triumphant battle scenes she told to us. And some were places of death. And others were places of prayer and ritual.

Sometimes her stories of one place led her to tell us stories of other more distant places. Together, her stories amounted to a kind of historic or even sacred text that told the entire history of the Blackfeet. I learned from these stories that the Blackfeet did not have our shared American concept of wilderness as a place separate from or untrammeled by man.

There were places on the landscape, of course, that the Blackfeet never stepped foot on. These were our holy lands, places where supernatural entities lived and humans set them aside for their use. The ancient Blackfeet, as my grandmother shared, used and understood their landscape in two ways, through its utility and through its sacredness. Over the millennia, the Blackfeet territory filled with stories of places.

Each place became part of this mnemonic text that people memorized and learned to recount. My grandmother learned this narrative from her grandmother, and she shared it with us. So it is no wonder that my grandmother had a story for every place on the landscape.

During the time that I learned this sacred landscape from my grandmother, I learned something that she had not intended to teach me. Blackfoot territory and what is now Montana, Alberta, and Saskatchewan, has been impacted by global climate change. The places that my grandmother had relied on for both medicinal plants used for healing and edible plants used for sustenance had changed. Plants that once grew in their longtime places were now being impacted by new weather patterns.

For those who do not spend much time outdoors, it can be difficult to fully appreciate the changes that are occurring. For those who work on the land such as farmers and ranchers, or those who go out hunting and gathering, climate change is having a real impact. It impacts the health and well-being of countless indigenous people. But more importantly, climate change impacts the spiritual life of indigenous people.

And now, today, there's an added threat, that of the fossil fuel and extractive industries on indigenous landscapes. Today, the Rocky Mountains that lie within traditional Blackfoot territory is threatened with open-pit coal mining and mountaintop coal removal.

The Grassy Mountain Coal Project in Alberta, for one example, is slated to begin coal extraction just this fall. It is expected to be profitable for only 25 years. However, by then, the project will have blasted the terrain with explosives, separating the soil from the rock, and creating a new rockscape, erasing our traditional Blackfoot landscape and our sacred territory.

You don't have to go far to see what this looks like if you can go to places such as West Virginia that have been dramatically impacted by mountaintop coal removal. And you recognize that once the mountains are gone, there really is no going back. So a growing number of indigenous people both in Canada and the US are opposing places such as the Grassy Mountain Project because of their concern for environmental degradation, water pollution, the damage to the traditional landscapes and sacred landscapes, but also the impact of coal production on global climate change.

So today's theme for our discussion is really timely. The intersection of spirituality, social justice, and climate change is something that impacts indigenous people on a daily basis. And it's something that our young people deeply care about and are very interested in. So I'm looking forward to today's discussion. Thank you.

Thank you so much. Now, Professor Betancourt?

Sofia Betancourt: Thank you so much, Professor LaPier. I'm also really looking forward to being in dialogue. I want to say that I come to these questions this morning to this intersection from my work in eco-womanist thought, which, as Melanie Harris has written, is an approach to environmental justice that centers the perspectives of women of African descent and reflects upon women's activist methods, religious practices, and theories on how to engage Earthjustice.

So in my teaching this semester, I'm offering a course on womanism and Earthjustice. I work to unpack what it takes to dismantle the habits of the mind that undermine our ability to respond effectively to climate disruption from within our own religious communities. Now, this, in turn, requires me to engage in my own Unitarian Universalist faith, particularly given how many Western thinkers in what we consider the Americanist environmental movement, such as Ralph Waldo Emerson or Henry David Thoreau, had ties to my inherited tradition.

I'm strongly influenced by the work of environmental ethicist Wallace Jenkins and others who invite us to re-imagine the contours of our religious teachings in relationship with what environmental scientists teach us about climate disruption. Jenkins's insistence that many of our religious teachings arose in a time when we could not or perhaps would not conceive of the immense impact humanity could have on Earth itself feels critical to me. It asks me to question not only our thinking, but how we unpack the habituations of our religious teachings to allow for greater responsiveness and consistency in dismantling our own collusion with environmental destruction.

So in my mind this morning is that both Emerson and Thoreau were transcendentalists. American transcendentalism retains a strong influence on the Unitarian side of my tradition. And on its face, it invites us into a beautiful immediacy in our relationship to Earth and encourages us to center the use of universal reason in our inherent knowing and to focus that sense of knowing from within on what arises from our connection to nature.

Now, I'm using the term "nature" intentionally here, and I appreciate that Professor LaPier already spoke some about wilderness. At the same time, my Ecowomanist commitments remind me that reason, that the idea of nature encourages us to think in ways that imagines our relationship to earth as something akin to hiking in the wilderness, but a wilderness that is free of problems and the injustices of human life and that calls us to a kind of preservation or stewardship of Earth in line with romantic ideas of a privileged and individualistic solitude outdoors.

The unequal impact of toxic dumping or childhood asthma rates, things easily attributable to predatory racialized violence play little to no role in the idyllic wilderness imagining. As George Hochfield writes in his introduction to American transcendentalist writings, transcendentalists made a lasting impact on the American character. And transcendentalism give shape and meaning to a kind of inchoate American idealism, this portrait of the self-reliant man, the follower of his conscience, the divinely inspired Democratic individual helped to create and identify an American type that seems to have become a permanent element of national life.

And I agree this remains true in parts of the mainstream environmental movement today and that those inherited tendencies are also live within my own Unitarian Universalist tradition. This poses real challenges to our collective call to the work of justice and to climate justice because it assumes that each individual one of us, no matter our lived experiences or social locations, can look within to our sense of Earth connection and find wisdom to direct the work of climate justice, which is different than to participate in the work of climate justice.

I think we have all seen how easy it is to reinscribe the same injustices we mean to eradicate when our organizing commitments insist on keeping our own individual perspectives and priorities at the center of the work. This is a common failing in our dominant culture, and I experience it at the philosophical foundations of my own community of faith. Now that sounds helpless, hopeless at first. But I see practices of humility and the discipline of centering voices pushed to the margins as a corrective that is permeating Unitarian Universalism not easily, right, but immediately.

And this is significant to me because of how central those teachings of the Americanist environmental canon still are to our inherited theologies and cultures in community. So when I look at our international organizing work through the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee, our denominational leadership, our state action networks like here-- I'm in Oakland-- the new Justice Ministry of California-- also, our local congregations, I'm witnessing you use centering the leadership of frontline communities and the priorities of those whose lived experience not only bears the greatest brunt of climate disruption, but offers a type of knowledge production that can make a lasting change to humanity's environmental impact.

I don't mean that we get to sit back and rely on frontline communities to save Earth or humanity writ large. But I do mean that it is past time to prioritize and authorize the voices of those pushed to the margins. So I offer this example to say that we are not only called to reimagine our inherited theological traditions, but also to provide correctives to the social norms that continue to cause harm on both human and ecological levels. Rather than allow those habits of mind to fade into an unacknowledged norm, we are called to provide correctives and to center the wisdom of those whose lived experiences call for another way. Thank you.

Thank you so much. Bishop Eaton, now it's your turn.

Elizabeth Eaton: Thank you. Thank you very much. It's good to be back at HDS, if only virtually, and then to meet these new sisters who are on the panel. It's been fascinating so far. I'm going to speak a little bit from the American Lutheran tradition and how I see it, which, in our case, is predominantly European settlers.

But that's not that that's not entirely true. And how we have somehow-- I think in the West, in particular, but our folks as well have found a way to, as the previous speaker said, spiritualize the wilderness or spiritualize nature. And at the same time, to divorce ourselves from our creatureliness, which is spelled out immediately in the Hebrew scriptures.

We think that Adam and Eve are actual names, but we know that Adam, Adamah, really means "the Earth creature," and God was active in creation and we believe still continues to be active in creation not as though creation were inferior or the material somehow was subject to the spiritual. But these are all ways in which God appears, in which God continues to create, and God calls us to live, and work, and breathe.

Our social statements on caring for creation, vision, health, and justice makes it abundantly clear that humanity's separation from God and from the rest of creation is a central cause of the environmental crisis. And I see us doing this in a number of ways, and ignoring our own scriptures, and our own faith tradition, the Lutheran movement within the Christian tradition, over and over again. We see that God is active in the world, that this is something that God declared very good. In fact, good even before human beings came along, that set us as part of the creation. We are creatures and are part of the creation.

And too often, we divorce ourselves, particularly, I would say, in Western thought, from the notion that we are Earth creatures. In Christian scriptures and particularly in the Gospel, of Jesus, the miracle of the incarnation, becoming a creature. Taking on this creaturely form is central to the Christian understanding of how God is active in the world and how God is reconciling the world to God's self.

And Jesus was very human. There are two stories in scripture where women anoint Jesus shortly before his crucifixion. And we hear that he was anointed with pure nard. And the account in Gospel According to John, Mary of Bethany is there. She's anointing Jesus, and it says that the fragrance filled the entire house. Nard, it turns out, is an extremely pungent perfume. And it might not be as attractive to us in modern times, but in those days it was considered incredibly valuable and also healing, in a sense.

And the fragrance of nard has been described as earthy, woody, dank. So it smelled like the Earth. So for us in the Christian tradition, shortly before Jesus's crucifixion, he was anointed as the Earth creature with this fragrance, this oil that had an earthy scent to it and was probably so strong that even on the cross and perhaps in the tomb, some of that fragrance still clung to him. That is all part of our understanding that we are not separate from creation. Nor does God put a hierarchy on the spiritual versus the material, which we ignore at our cost, and we can see this over and over again.

Well, for us, sacramental practice is extremely important. And I want to focus just for a moment on Holy Communion. Well, we understand that we're eating bread and wine, and we understand that to be Jesus's body present in, with, and under the elements. But we also understand it's not somehow a spiritualized presence, that these are actual physical elements that connect us not only to Christ, but to one another.

A colleague of mine, Dr. Carmelo Santos, said that when we eat the bread and wine, we're also eating the rain, and the sunshine, and the labor of the hands of those who made it. And so with the impact that we see now on climate, it makes it even more difficult for people to be sustained not just in our physical needs, though we can see the terrible effects of this in drought, in flooding, in pollution, the air quality, all of this going on, but we're not sustained in our spiritual lives.

We've cut ourselves off from that. And if we cannot continue to receive these elements, the physical elements that connect us to the Earth as well as to the creator, we're impoverished. And I was thinking about this today. We're the season of Lent. And for us on Ash Wednesday, which begins Lent, we always have a reading from Joel.

And if you remember the story in Joel, in Chapters 1 and 2, Joel's recounting this terrible drought that was happening and the approach of locusts, who were going to come and just destroy everything, strip everything bare. Nothing would be left. So a metaphor of the devastation of God's people when God's people turn away from the source of their life, their creator.

And the part we read on Ash Wednesday is, "Yet even now, says the Lord, return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning. Rend your hearts and not your clothing. Return to the Lord your God, for He is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing." And here's the part. "Who knows whether he will not turn and relent and leave a blessing behind him, a grain offering and a drink offering for the Lord your God."

The environmental degradation that had happened and was depicted by the drought and the locusts-- and now, we see swarms of locusts emerging again, which is frightening-- also lays bare the threat of climate change. These people did not even have the wherewithal, the material elements to offer a proper sacrifice to God. It was God who gave them the grain offering so that they might worship God in holiness and in wholeness as well.

Our understanding of the sacraments is that those are gifts that come from God, that they're the work of our hands, but it's all a gift from God. And as we continue our work in the ELCA on climate justice and advocacy, we have to make it clear that it's a spiritual issue, a spiritual issue, and that the material world, as I think we see in other religious traditions, in other Christian traditions-- the material world is itself a way of us to know. For the creature to understand the creation, we understand the creator.

So for us, it's all one thing. We're Earth creatures. Jesus became an Earth creature. We participate in that Earth creature, also divine, in our sacraments. And we understand that those themselves will be threatened if climate change is not affected and if care for creation, which is one of our spiritual honors to do, if that's not taken care of, we will not even have the wherewithal to worship God as God intends. And I think I'll leave it there.

Dan McKanan: Thank you all so much. You've given us a great deal to think of. And in this phase of the conversation, I'll invite each of our panelists to pose a question for the others. Who would like to start? Rosalyn?

Rosalyn LaPier: So I'm interested in wondering what your communities are prioritizing right now in terms of real action that people can take to address both climate change and social justice issues and that intersection?

Elizabeth Eaton: Well I'm glad you asked that question because my advocacy staff and theological discernment staff sent me a whole list, but I won't read them. All we have a very active advocacy office in DC, also one at the United Nations. And on the state public policy offices, we often send out e-blasts to folks. But we want we want people to be aware of what's going on. We want congregations to realize that they're not without agency and that there's work that can be done. We take a look, certainly, at ways to influence as best as we can legislation at the national and local level. It's all pretty important things that we do, and we keep this to the forefront.

And we also, though, balance-- we have a number of our folks who are ranchers, a number, many who are farmers and many who work in extractive industries. So how do we balance the care for creation and the damage that it's doing with creation while these folks either transition to a new way of making a living. Or how do we learn from them how they're doing sustainable farming in some places to keep us fed? So I can put this in the chat, I suppose. But those are some things.

Sofía Betancourt: I think it's a really great question. And part of what has been delighting me is that I see us doing the vast majority of our climate's justice work in partnerships, which is relatively new work for us. And so I often get invited into individual congregations who are really building very, very local communal, local partnerships. And sometimes that's at the level of education, right? That we're often much more aware of what we imagine is out in the broader world rather than to say this is what is neighborly and communal here and now.

But also, we have learned over time that investing our energy and our resources into specific issues has a much greater impact than trying to address a climate responsiveness writ large, particularly intellectually. So I want to say that right now, our Unitarian Universalist Service Committee, which is one of our affiliated organizations denominationally prioritizes international work, although some of their climate justice work is, of course, also in the continental United States. They're partnering with the-- and I also took notes this morning because I did not want to speak incorrectly for them.

They're partnering with the Alaska Institute for Justice, working particularly on human rights work with native Alaskan nations, very specifically looking at erosion and displacement with melting glaciers and sea level rise. They're supporting work in the Solomon Islands with Ecological Solutions. This is, again, about degraded landscapes. And some of this is about monitoring, really looking to assess the ongoing impact of climate change, the language of slow violence. If you know, Rob Nixon's work is always on my mind. How do we keep in front of us the long, slow changes that we need to be paying attention to?

They're working with Live & Learn, but particularly Live & Learn Kiribati, which, again, this is forced displacement in a Pacific Island community. And they're working in the Louisiana bayou with the Lowlander Center. And again, this is displacement, resettlement as we look at how do we prioritize who gets to define who takes responsibility once climate impact actually is landing on communities and the work of repair.

And then just more locally, our Unitarian Universalist Justice Ministries of California and a lot of the partnerships that you might imagine, the Environmental Justice Alliance, Interfaith Power and Light, the Center for Community Action and Environmental Justice. So a lot of local, regional work that happily intersects and dovetails with other areas of organizing work, too.

So the specifics. I'm actually relieved to respond. The specifics really vary based on the scope and the perspective of the organizations writ large. But more and more of our congregations are realizing that listening to frontline organizers in the community who have been doing the work for decades will probably dictate them to put their resources and time into a location they might not have chosen on their own, and that is actually the appropriate response, to seek, to elevate, and further, and support the efforts that have been ongoing, whether we have been paying attention or not.

We have national organizations like Union ministry For the Earth that are doing more of the internal to our own practice. But it feels especially-- and I think you probably heard this in what I said earlier-- I feel like there is repair work to do in our movement. And it's complicated sometimes to be an eco-woman, a scholar speaking on behalf of a predominantly white denomination. And at this intersection, that work of repair of re-messaging, of promoting a different habit of mind feels urgent. It feels urgent because otherwise, we go off into the idyllic, romanticized landscape that has actually justified so very much.

Dan McKanan: Bishop Eaton, what question do you have for the others?

Elizabeth Eaton: Well, this is for Rosalyn, but for Sofia as well because you've spoken about this, about the degradation of the environment and people having to be displaced. And we see this in our church. One of our congregations is on the island of Shishmaref in Alaska in the Seward Peninsula. And with climate change, the sea is going to take over the Island.

But their elders there remember when the seawall was a lot further out than it is now. And then you in particular, Rosalyn-- this was fascinating. You talk about-- these mountains will be irreparably changed. And I was wondering, how do we honor a sense of place and how do we feel displaced when the actual geography, the terrain is actually changed? I think that really can be-- I feel unmoored when things have changed that much. And I was wondering, what has your experience been?

Rosalyn LaPier: So I think, I mean, indigenous people have had a long history with this because they have been displaced for the last couple of hundred years. And so depending on the indigenous community, some indigenous communities have been completely displaced, being moved, removed from, say, the Southeast of the United States all the way to Oklahoma. So they had to recreate, redevelop their relationship with the natural world, recreate those relationships with the land and landscape, find new places where they were going to practice their religion.

In other places, it's a much smaller displacement. I would argue for the Blackfeet-- the Blackfeet used to have a much larger territory and were pushed all the way to the Rocky Mountains. And so if you look at a map of the reservation in the United States and then the three reserves in Canada, we're all right up next to the mountains where previously, we had been out in the prairies. So the idea of displacement has been part of the colonial history of indigenous people.

So that being said, there is a new kind of displacement that is occurring now in the 21st century. And it's occurring for two different reasons. One is because of the fossil fuel industry and extractive industries within indigenous lands, but then also because of climate change, which impacts everybody.

It doesn't just impact some communities, although you guys have given great examples. Alaska, the Solomon Islands, and Louisiana. There's some places in coastal communities who are being really dramatically impacted right now. And when we're talking about dislocation, relocation, they're doing it now, literally as we speak because of climate change and because of rising sea levels. And so it's not theoretical. It's real.

But I think that the larger question for some indigenous communities is religious practice. So indigenous communities are often called, quote, unquote "land-based religions" because their religion is based on particular places in the landscape. What happens when that changes? And the answer to that question is different for each community and for each indigenous group about how they are going to adapt and change their religion and religious practice based on how their land and landscape is changing. And I'll leave it at that because we have more conversation.

Sofía Betancourt: Thank you. I think this is a great question. And I want to kind of shift gears into my actual scholarship work because I really agree. I really agree with you, Rosalyn. But there is, for many of our communities, a historic understanding of what dispossession and what displacement looks like in the wake of all sorts of colonized and colonial kind of violences and violations. I'm thinking particularly of my work in the Panama Canal.

Coming from my own-- I'm using this language intentionally-- West Indian communities right on the heels of the abolition of enslavement and slavery, you have the kind of economic dispossession that forces you to move from your all [INAUDIBLE] right. I'm talking about people who have multiple forced displacements through various types of violence and violation. But that can all actually be an ongoing history of colonization of Earth and its peoples.

However-- and I always feel like I want to give this caveat. I'm not here to valorize suffering religiously. But I do want to say that we have communities and peoples who have survived what some of us might consider the unimaginable. Even for me generationally, even with transgenerational trauma, I still consider it to be unimaginable. And there is a taught skill that is about the rerouting into land.

How is it that we had peoples who were displaced across oceans and still were in a more balanced relationship with the lands they found themselves on to be better? Better at identifying and raising food, better at surviving with not enough, better at ensuring survival when survival should not have been possible. And how do those lessons teach us both spiritually but also from the point of our organizing in our learning?

Because when I talk about the Americanist environmental canon, we're inheriting these teachings that say if you haven't lived on your homestead for 150 years, you can't know anything. The Earth cannot speak to you, for you cannot know. Well, actually, many communities, many communities have experienced something else and it's that something else that I want to hear more about, not just as a minister in a faith tradition, but also as someone who was asking what are the different directions that we can come at these questions to sustain our work in the face of climate disruption?

I don't think it's that we don't know what the problems are. We have multiple languages, examples, and experiences. But how to keep us in our-- I like your language. I know it comes from your tradition, but in our creatureliness in relation to Earth community long enough to undermine all the things that we've justified with our same theories to construct ways of behaving. But sometimes I think our faith traditions might give us enough of a toehold into storying and storytelling to hold on long enough to live in a new way. But to me, those sites of survival and inherent sacred related knowing are where I look to change how I think and to think of the issues in there.

Dan McKanan: Wow, thank you. Professor Betancourt, you have a chance to offer a question to the others.

Sofía Betancourt: Just really quickly, my question. Here we are. We are in the middle of a pandemic. In my mind, that is also part of climate disruption. But I also know that we are tired. We are tired in our everyday-ness. We're tired as religious leaders. We're tired in community. We're tired as organizers. And I think that all of us have spoken to some degree. I think my speaking has been a little bit more corrective than invitational, but I think we are all resting in some knowing of what sustains us in the face of real struggle not just not just for the furtherance of justice, but actually simply for living in the every day, simply for trying to address how inequitable the consequences of this time are in our communities. So I'm really curious. At that intersection of social justice, climate change, spirituality, reverence, and praise, what do your communities offer themselves to sustain us in this time?

Rosalyn LaPier: I think, if you don't mind, I can start by addressing that. I think that within our communities, one of the things that we have been seeing the last decade or more is of course, increased environmental activism around particular issues within indigenous communities. But with that environmental activism has come, really, the strength of indigenous women, but also indigenous youth. And one of the things that they have been doing is they've really been recreating, I would say, spaces of protest into spaces of religious practice.

So when there is a particular place where activism occurs or a protest occurs, the first thing that happens is taking that place and sanctifying it, whether they're on Parliament Hill, whether they're in Washington, DC, or whether they're on the prairies at Standing Rock, that people sanctify the space, create, make that place sacred, and then act on their particular concern. That, again, is usually environmental and/or addressing the climate crisis.

So having said that, I think that one of the things that we're seeing is again, our youth really taking religious practice, so-called-- and I quote, unquote "because we're indigenous," quote, unquote "out of the church and into the streets." And that has really regenerated and re-energized people within the indigenous community and really has provided a place for hope for the future because we see that new leadership and that new energy within our young people. So I'll end there.

Elizabeth Eaton: This is a complicated question, or maybe it's not complicated. But as I'm taking a look around our denomination, I'm not sure that we've really figured that out. In some ways, we're all physically distanced, and we're all in these little squares. And it just seems that we're quite separate from one another. But then in other ways, it's enabled us to be in closer contact with one another. And we see people being very creative about this.

But for me, what I found briefly from time to time is that when we quit traveling, we quit flying, we quit driving, nature came back to our cityscapes. And so we would hear these stories about penguins in Cape Town and goats wandering around cities in Wales, and that the people in India could see the Himalayas for the first time because the smog had cleared. And I know here in my little place in Chicago that the Coyotes are back, and there are rabbits which devastated my garden, so I'm not quite happy.

But you could see somehow that nature can repair. And so our understanding in the Lutheran movement of the Christian tradition is that God continues to create. And I think, Sofia, some of the things that you brought up about this need for healing is something that God is about.

And some of us, I hope, have had a chance just to be still in this instead of wall-to-wall Zoom meetings that we all go to, which can be a blessing to bring us closer, but a curse to keep us distracted. But just to be still and see that God continues to heal, and continues to create, and has invited us to be partners in this. If any bit of that understanding could seep in, I would find it to be extremely hopeful.

There was a question in the chat about divesting from land that's owned by the churches. And I know this is a small example, but at our denomination, at one of our church camps, our Bible camps, it was not viable. And so we were finished with it. And by title, it belonged to the church.

However, it was on indigenous land. And I don't know if it was Leech Lake people or not, but then we gave that land back to them. That was just one small thing that we did. But I think that's the kind of thing we have to think about because every one of our colleges, universities, secondary churches are all planted on land that was not ours.

Dan McKanan: Thank you all so much. At this point, I invite Lori Stevens back into the Zoom space to guide us through the questions from our audience.

Lori Stevens: Thank you all so much. One of the first questions in the chat actually builds on a few of the different things you were all just saying. I think this is largely pointed towards Rosalyn, and anyone's welcome to add. But, Rosalyn, climate is always changing, just as Elizabeth said. And how can we reconnect better with the environment and adapt to these changes because modern society has distanced us so much from nature? So reflections on that.

Rosalyn LaPier: I live in Montana, a rural state. [LAUGHS] So I don't live in a city. And so I'm always interested in when people ask a question about reconnecting with the natural world because I feel like even in my background here today, I'm immersed in it already. And I think it depends on where you are. And I think that people are doing this in a lot of ways right now. I think the local food movement, people returning to urban farming, there's a lot of ways that people are reconnecting with the natural world. And the natural world doesn't need to be, again, the Western American definition of quote, unquote "wilderness," which is a construct.

But there are a lot of ways to reconnect to the Earth that don't necessarily need to be what we saw in the Ken Burns natural parks. Or was it called National Parks PBS series? So I think that that's sometimes what we see or what we think about when we think about that American idea of wilderness. It is really this false reality. And there are a lot of ways that people are right now and can continue to connect even with their own backyard.

I mean, this is something that the scholar Bill Cronon, who's an environmental historian in Wisconsin, has talked about, reconnecting just to your own place, wherever that place is and not falling into the false narrative of the wilderness. So that's how I'll answer that question, but thank you.

Elizabeth Eaton: Well, I think a real harm of the Western-- even before the Enlightenment, but the Western philosophy was to divorce material from spiritual and then to assign more value to the quote, "spiritual" and that the material was somehow dragging us down to the Earth and entrapping us in this veil of tears or whatever.

And my understanding, and certainly in my tradition, Luther's understanding, is that that is divorcing us from ourselves. And that's when we get into trouble repeatedly, when we see that we somehow treat the world like a warehouse and are disconnected from that.

I know, what, about 10, 15 years ago, Celtic spirituality was all the rage. And my father's side of the family are Irish, so I hopped right on that. But there is something in that spirituality that sees that the divine is not separate from the created and that somehow in the waves, in the wind, in the rocks, and in any special places, God's spirit was present. And I thought, well, that sounds pretty out there. I don't know if a Lutheran could hang on to that.

But it turns out Martin Luther said, "God's entire divine nature is holy and entirely in all creatures more deeply, more inwardly more present than the creature is to itself." So when we step away from our creatureliness, we're actually stepping away from God.

Sofía Betancourt: I appreciate these answers. And I just really want to quickly add that part of the danger of believing this myth that being in a more urbanized environment means you are not connected to Earth, as if the urban places aren't earthly, is that it actually colludes with the work to silence displaced and marginalized communities from having a voice, from having authority in environmental policy debates and conversations.

So we have been taught, we have been taught that protecting the wilderness is what it means to participate in climate work. And we've also, therefore, been taught that Black, indigenous, and people of color communities aren't environmentally invested when the exact opposite is true.

Once we will widen our view or our understanding to realize that so many of the justice issues that come out of climate disruption are centered in urban sites, are centered in toxified lands, are centered in places that by having defined them as not a part of nature, we therefore define entire communities who are primarily impacted as not invested in the environment. And therefore, we invite no leaders, truly powerful, brilliant leaders to the tables of decision making.

And so this myth is part of what continues a silence that continues to undermine the lives of particular human communities and particular ecological systems. And we need to just have that as like a flag in our minds. Wait a minute. We can do an entire environmental-- Dorceta Taylor has done beautiful environmental histories of American cities. And this does this mean that I think that we have no need to be engaged in a range of understandings of what it means to be in relationship to Earth? Of course not. But we have silenced decades-long movements for justice by simply deciding they're not environmental at all, and that's profoundly dangerous.

I also want to say, I saw a question in the chat, yes, that resonated with me out of the blue. Courtney was asking whether there is a place of Earth resilience, a capacity to heal that inspires. And I must say, I grew up as a child in the village of Manhattan, but then on Central Park West. And right across the street from where I lived was a pond with willow trees, and that did something good for my heart, and it was incredibly polluted. I'm not sure how these willows trees survived.

But I was a child in New York City when Central Park conservation work was really active. This is an urban site. Let's acknowledge Seneca Village and the displacement of 1,000 African-Americans and poor white residents to build Central Park in the first place. So I realize I'm talking about a website that is founded on injustice. However, a shared green space over the course of a few decades changed to where the landscape now is visiting egrets and fish in a pond that used to have syringes and trash.

And so much of it was, we've done as much work as our hands can do. Now, please leave this pond alone so that it can heal itself. And over time, it did. And for me, again, this was the climate disaster 100 feet from my living room window. And I watched that journey, and that journey taught me something very important about green space investment and possibility.

Elizabeth Eaton: I grew up in Cleveland and was a resident in the city when the Cuyahoga River caught on fire. Actually, it wasn't the river itself. It was debris floating on the oily surface of the Cuyahoga River, which then led to burning down several bridges and then happily, to the Clean Water Act. And it flows through what we call in Cleveland the Industrial Valley, which is just that. All these industries would just spew their waste directly into the river, and so it was dead for many miles.

And we took action on that in Cleveland. We had help, of course, from the government and also from conservationists to help us understand that by killing this river, we're killing ourselves. And that river has been restored so that there are fish that don't have two heads, or you can actually eat the fish from that, or it's a place where we've restricted dumping refuse in. That was one place in my hometown where we were able, just as you just said, Sofia, to say, OK. Enough is enough. And when water does not quench flame but brings it, then truly, there's a problem.

Dan McKanan: Lori, do we have one final question from the audience to share?

Lori Stevens: We do. Then next in line, it was really about reaching out more broadly across the political spectrum because there are other traditions, in many cases, Christian traditions that have been more supportive of some environmental and destructive industries and practices. And how can these traditions and this perspective reach out to more Americans and really influence more people to see the connections between spirituality, climate, and justice?

Elizabeth Eaton: Yes. This is a question along the lines of a question that I get about anything that people think is a problem with the church. What am I going to do to get more youth and the adults in the church, or et cetera, et cetera? So it's not about what I do or even my denomination.

But each of us, as we have discovered, have a location, have a place, and have relationships and networks. What do we do then to network and activate each other based on, in my tradition, a theology of creation and a responsibility to care for the Earth and to bring about sustainability which means the next generations will have what they need because we're not using it all up?

But we have to do this together. And in some ways, we do. We work ecumenically. I think that has been raised already. We work interreligiously on these very issues. But I always say to my people, especially to laypeople, you're like the undercover army.

They expect me to say things in my tradition because I'm the presiding bishop. But when you start to talk to family and neighbors in your communities and say this is not just some boutique spiritual issue. It's this boutique issue, but this is a spiritual issue, and let's find one little place where we can start. I think that that's really important.

We do work with Evangelicals, the other kind of Evangelicals, though they don't think we're-- whatever. It's--because there's a growing awareness amongst particularly, I think, in the millennial Gen X-ers, Gen Y folks that the understanding of being given dominion of the Earth has been misused in the Christian tradition to allow for exploitation. So we're trying to find these-- I say not the usual suspects, especially when we're lobbying because I think we can get a better hearing than with folks when-- they're used to the Lutheran ELCA showing up for this stuff and the Unitarian Universalists. It's true.

But if we form alliances with Jews and Muslims of different practices, of different movements, and also with Evangelicals or quote, "conservative religious folks," I think that makes a greater impact. So one, it's local. And it's up to us to start and activate this because we're all somewhere. And two, yes, gather unexpected coalitions.

Sofía Betancourt: I completely agree. There is so much to learn from coalition building in a wide variety of organizing movements and direct action groups. And the things that we have learned, especially in faith-based organizing, is that we seek for places of commonality. We seek for shared values. We don't actually have to have exactly shared theologies to show up from the place of our values and our daily sense of living to do the work.

And I think also that there is an unfair stereotype, actually, about conservative Christian movements and the environment that have actually been--


I'm sorry. You're now hearing the tornado warning. It's noon in California on the first Wednesday of the month. Apologies for the noise. But when we look at the history of, say, the Endangered Species Act, you're going to see a conservative religious community showing up to protect because creation care is a theological value. And so I think we really have to prioritize this understanding that the way we've siloed in our religious communities actually is not particularly godly nor sacred and that there are ways to build relationships in human community for a greater good and that we prioritize those spaces.

We can leave some theological debate to the classroom, and to writing, and even to beautiful religious conversations. But actually, when there is urgency in the work, when we're promoting the work of justice, we look for places of overlap. Not erasure. I don't mean making everybody the same. But yes, unexpected coalition is one of the most impactful forward movement kind of investments that we can make. When we show up together, it is actually very difficult to tell us that the community and the country doesn't care about these issues.

Dan McKanan: And Rosalyn, you can have a final word.

Rosalyn LaPier: I guess my only final word-- and it's not connected to our last question there-- is just that we need to really-- and we've mentioned this a few times already-- really rethink that mythology that we have in American society about the idea of wilderness and about the idea of nature as being out there when it can be right here. And I think that unfortunately, that myth has done more damage over the years, I think, than has benefited us as a society. So thank you.

Dan McKanan: Thank you all so much. That's a great ending because through the magic of Zoom, all of us are right here in 200-plus different places. So I invite you to take what you've heard today and let it take deep root in the places where you find yourselves, all of which are sacred. Thank you.