By the Rev. Jenny Phillips
I’m sitting in a coffee shop in Georgia. Rain is streaming down the windows, and the sky looks more like Seattle than Atlanta. My office, along with schools and government buildings are closed today as we await the arrival of Irma.
Over the weekend, I went to the Atlanta Beltline Lantern Parade. A photo of this event posted on Facebook two years ago provided the inspiration for what became the General Conference Climate Vigil in 2016.
The first lantern I made for the General Conference Climate Vigil was decorated with my prayers for the 2015 wildfires in Central Washington. The lantern I made for this festival was once again decorated with prayers for wildfires, not only in Central Washington, but throughout the West. But even as I prayed for my old home, I also prayed for my new home. So while I glued shapes to resemble burning forests on one side of the lantern, I covered the other side with a hurricane. As I worked, I was struck by the irony that a scarcity of water contributed to the strength of the wildfires on one side, while too much water exacerbated the storm on the other side.
I glued a lot of tissue paper to a lot of lanterns in the months before General Conference, always with intention and prayer behind my brush. But as I made this lantern, for the first time I found myself weeping. Weeping for the burning trees and smoky skies. Weeping for the flooded streets and the broken lives. Weeping for the immense challenge ahead of us, not only to harness climate change, but also to respond to the impacts that are already here.
I’m experiencing climate change grief more acutely than ever, haphazardly bouncing between Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’ five stages. Denial is taking a new shape for me these days as I find myself wondering, “Is this really it? Is THIS climate change?” Yet I know that while climate change may not start a storm or spark a fire, its attendant sea level rise and warmer ocean temperatures create the conditions for more intense hurricanes in some places, while shifting weather patterns and increasing temperatures contribute to drought in others.
I’m mad, mad, MAD at the fossil fuel companies and at the collective failure of our political and economic systems to acknowledge the risks and accelerate the shift to a low-carbon economy. I bounce through bargaining, wondering what bible study/program/campaign I can create that will tilt the needle toward change. The depression is real, and it is legitimate in the face of this problem that is beyond the human scale.
In the midst of all of this, I’m doing my best to process the pain and spend as much time as I can in acceptance. Not acceptance that this is how things should be, but acceptance that this is how they are. The world as we knew it is changing around us, and we must change too.
Washington Governor Jay Inslee writes, “It is not mutually exclusive to care for and respond to those being most impacted by these disasters and at the same time hear the clarion call to take action that will keep these disasters from becoming even worse.” In other words, it’s okay to pray, donate, make UMCOR kits and participate in disaster recovery AND talk about climate change. Indeed, it is imperative that we do so.
As I carried my prayer lantern, lit by my Nokero solar light bulb, I remembered some of the stories shared at that General Conference Climate Vigil. I remembered Alaska District Superintendent Carlo Rapanut sharing about wildfires on permafrost, Jeanelle Ablola sharing the stories of conflict triggered by food shortages for the Lumad in the Philippines, and Blessing Kasongo sharing the impacts of drought in the Congo. I wondered what climate impacts people will have witnessed by our next General Conference in 2020. And I prayed, not only for relief from the fires and the storms, but also for the vision and courage of United Methodists worldwide to do what they can where they are to participate in the transition in to a low-carbon economy.
If you would like to contribute to the recovery effort, you can contribute to UMCOR by visiting bit.ly/umcor-901670. Or, you can donate through your church by putting USDR Advance #901670 on the memo line.
Rev. Jenny Phillips is a member of the Pacific Northwest Conference serving in extension ministry in Atlanta, GA.