Engaging the Climate Crisis: a training for times like these

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Clergy and members of the Church of Christ rally for a response to climate change. Over the last number of years rallies by churches has intensified as large and small denominations and local people of faith demand divestment from fossil fuels and a switch to a clean energy economy that will respect and honor creation. Photo courtesy of Brooks Bernt, used by permission.

By Rev. Richenda Fairhurst

When you look out the window in a standard American neighborhood, things look pretty good. Get in the car or take a stroll, and for most of us, things seem largely as they should be. With the exception of the too-hot summer time, our grocery stores are stocked with produce, there is church on Sunday, and the first bulbs of Spring are coming up.

We live in a cross-time. From where we stand it can seem to many of us that Climate Change is an elaborate myth cooked up by the sunscreen companies, just as Valentine’s Day was a cash boon for those selling greeting cards and chocolate.

Looks can be deceiving. We all know that, too. But on another weird warm and sunny 68 degree day in Portland in early March, it seems really easy to just be glad the sun is shining and imagine that, with the bills to be paid and the shopping to be done and that report due next week, climate change can wait.

Fire is increasingly devastating in the west due to changing forest conditions brought about by climate change. Drier, dehydrated forests burn faster and hotter, burning many more acres and overrunning berms into neighborhoods and destroying homes. Relief of the devastation caused by these fires is limited. In the aftermath of the Okanogan Fire, the Pacific Northwest Conference of the United Methodist Church stepped up with Project Rebuild mobilizing volunteers of faith from across the western states.

This is not everyone’s experience. For those caught up in the hurricanes and super storms on American east coast; for those who sweep the ashes of raging forest fires from our front porches; for those who make their home near the ocean shore who must retreat from rising seas, Climate Change cannot wait at all. Indeed, when the smoke from last summer’s burning forests darkened the sun across the west, we knew then that Climate Change wasn’t waiting at all.

Jill Leaness, Climate Speakers Network Manager, is a graduate of the University of Idaho. For her, the imperative of Climate work came into sharp focus while she was working as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Panama. “For 2 years I lived in a rural, mountain community in central Panama, that had no electricity, no cell phone service, and sporadic running water,” said Leaness. “Yet, the people… were gravely impacted by climate change. They could no longer grow coffee, their orange trees had a plague, and these were their two largest income generating products. I realized that we, as a global community, needed to be doing a better job of connecting our actions to the consequences even if we couldn’t visibly see those out our front door.”

On May 1-3, Climate Speakers Network, a project of Climate Reality, will be partnering with the First United Methodist Church of Ashland to bring a Climate Conference, ‘Engaging the Climate Crisis,’ (ashlandmethodist.org/climate) to the west coast. The goal of the conference is to bring people of faith together from across religious denominations in order to better understand climate change, its impacts, and how mitigate them.

Jill Leaness will be one of a number of presenters at the conference. “These trainings show attendees that … acting on climate change and communicating climate change, doesn’t have to be intimidating,” Leaness explains. “We are able to give participants the tools they need to go back to their communities and effectively communicate the impacts and solutions of the climate crisis and some concrete actions that they can take.”

The Rev. Sharon Delgado will also be presenting at the conference in Ashland in May. Her newest book, Love in a Time Of Climate Change came out through Fortress Press in July, 2017. She is also working on an update to her first book, Shaking the Gates of Hell, to be published later this year. “Climate chaos is accelerating,” Delgado says. ““I wrote this book to help people of faith, especially Christians, to think critically and biblically about climate change and to respond in faith.”

Rev. Delgado first became involved in the environmental movement when there was a chemical plant fire in her hometown of Oroville, California. There was an EPA hearing due to the contamination of dioxin, but it did not go as Delgado and others had hoped. “The hearing…was a disaster. Farmers like I had grown up with were reduced to tears because the hearing was more like a public relations event.” Delgado began to look for more information and discovered there were more than 30,000 superfund sites in the US. Then she read Bill McKibbon’s The End of Nature, “it was groundbreaking for me.”

United Methodist Women and other faith organizations have long raised the call to love our neighbor and work for justice. United Methodist Women, pictured here, participated in the People’s Climate March alongside thousands of other people of faith. Photo by Andrew Cheu.

From there Delgado never looked back, she was in Rio at the first international Climate Change Conference in 1992 and published Hope For The Earth, a handbook for Christian groups published through the United Methodist General Board of Church and Society in 1995. She founded the organization Earth Justice Ministries and writes for the United Methodist Women’s Response Magazine.

Says Delgado, “I’m excited for this upcoming training because it will be a chance for the Holy Spirit to light the spiritual fire of all who attend, reigniting our commitment and our hope for the action of God.”

The Climate Conference will be held in a United Methodist Church, but it will be an event that will welcome people from across faith traditions and denominations. Clergy, church leaders, persons of faith, and members of denominational groups such as United Methodist Women and Presbyterian Women are invited to apply.

The United Church of Christ is one of many denominations that has a long history of participation in environmental work and witness. Rev. Dr. Brooks Berndt, the Minister for Environmental Justice for the UCC, recognizes the real harm of climate change, especially the harm that will come to future generations. He sees the vital importance of advocating, training and networking on climate issues, and is one of many ecumenical voices behind Our Children’s Trust, which is an effort to ensure the rights of young people through the courts.

Rev. Berndt explains, “The 21 youth who are suing the federal government over climate change are provoking a moment of moral reckoning for our nation. They are also an inspiration for all of us who realize that this time of reckoning calls upon us to raise our voices and take action. In short, they are the prophets of today.”

Other denominations have formed organizations to raise the alarm concerning climate change, as well as forming ecumenical organizations such as Interfaith Power and Light, Earth Justice, GreenFaith, Quaker Earthcare Witness, Orthodox EcoStewards and active groups through Quaker Friends networks, Disciples of Christ, ECLA Lutherans, Unitarian Universalist Association and so many more.

Coyote-Marie Hunter-Ripper is a Cherokee traditional practitioner deeply involved in human rights efforts on the ground from New Zealand to, most recently, the camps of the Rohingya in Bangladesh. “If we want climate justice we must have social justice, human rights and respectful dialogue with each other,” Hunter-Ripper says. She paraphrases Romans 8:18-25 explaining, “‘To save humanity is to save creation; to save creation is to save humanity.’”

Hunter-Ripper brings the wisdom of American Indigenous traditions to the training, traditions that can help us remember ways of stewardship that have been honored by indigenous people across time. “Much has been lost,” she says. “But we are dreaming the wisdom-keepers’ words, the healers’ practices, and bringing prayers and rituals back. The Creator’s teachings offer wisdom to follow; One Sky, One Earth, One people, and beyond.”

For Hunter-Ripper, her Christian faith affirms care of the Creation. “In our Bible the front page news headlines charge us with and tell us we are responsible for being stewards of the Earth and all that lies within.”

Engaging the Climate Crisis is an ecumenical training open to clergy, ministers, church leaders, and people of faith. The training will provide opportunities to learn about climate issues from a number of perspectives including indigenous people’s voices, social impacts, and hard science—always centering in faith, the local community and the local church. In addition, there will be opportunities for application and practice, such as learning how to preach the big story of climate, and how to show up as a person of faith to events and hearings.

Applications must be in by April 1st as space is limited. More information about the training is available online at ashlandmethodist.com/climate and through social media.


Richenda Fairhurst is an elder from the Pacific Northwest Conference serving as Senior Pastor of Ashland First United Methodist Church in Ashland, Oregon.

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