On Thursday, Sept. 24, around 50 people gathered at James Madison Park in Madison, Wis., to reflect on climate change as a moral issue in an interfaith call to action. The event, called “Light the Way: Faiths for Climate Justice,” was organized by local environmental and faith-based groups such as 350 Madison to show solidarity for Pope Francis’s visit to the U.S. this past week. A People’s Rally for the Climate was held the same day in Washington D.C. — the morning of the pope’s address to Congress — as part of the Week of Moral Action for Climate Justice. Other organizations and cities across the country hosted their own rallies and events.
Local singer-songwriter Clare Norelle started off the event performing two songs about the injustices committed against humans and the environment in New Orleans. Next, Father Thomas Saucier of the Roman Catholic Parish of the Diocese of Madison said a prayer and lit a candle. Eleven local faith leaders each gave speeches remarking on various aspects of the importance of global climate change as a moral issue, sharing their faith’s perspective. A variety of beliefs were represented, including Catholicism, Unitarian Universalism, Islam, Judaism, Lutheranism, Evangelicalism, Quakerism and Native American spirituality, among others.
Rabbi Renee Bower, Director of the Interfaith Coalition for Worker Justice of South Central Wisconsin, drew on her experience fighting for worker justice to tackle climate change. The two issues, she said, are inherently related. “How we treat the Earth and how we treat each other have always been linked,” she said. “We must break apart the false barriers that keep us from working in our own silos.” She ended by emphasizing the importance of grassroots efforts. “Change will come from the ground up.”
Reverend Karen Quinlan of the James Reeb Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Madison spoke from her experience working as an ecologist, arguing that “convergent evolution” led to a “throwaway culture” in which people have become “dismissive of anything that doesn’t serve individual needs.” She urged the audience to change their ways, and praised this interfaith collaboration. “The only way out of this mess we’ve created is to learn how to hope together, and to act out of that hope,” she said. “We need to develop other habits that support a culture of encounter and relationship, and faith can get that.”
Sue Schneider of Trinity Lutheran spoke of the importance of global solidarity, saying “It is countercultural to fight not for the fittest but for the common good,” pushing the audience to challenge former notions. She called for a global consensus on climate change so that the political and scientific communities can take concrete action.
When Pastor Marcio Sierra of Lighthouse Church, a bilingual Christian church in Madison, came to the microphone, he spoke of people’s duty to appreciate nature as “God’s creation.” “I want you to look behind you,” he said, pausing for the crowd to admire the late sunset over Lake Mendota and crisp autumn air. “That’s what God made.”
The pope’s second encyclical, Laudato Si’: On Care for our Common Home, was released on May 24. For the Catholic Church, encyclicals traditionally are letters from the pope addressed to other Catholic leaders concerning significant issues pertaining to Catholic doctrine. Laudato Si’, however, is addressed to the entire world. Translated as “Praise Be,” its 184 pages critique the exploitation of natural resources, excessive consumption under late capitalism and unequal development that lead to the environmental and societal degradation known as climate change. Citing scientific and Biblical sources, he emphasizes that humans are indeed causing climate change, a somewhat controversial stance in the context of a conservative Catholic tradition. Furthermore, the pope argues that nature has inherent value, a significant deviation from the Judeo-Christian tradition of anthropocentrism, which treats Earth as merely providing resources for humans to use. The document has deepened the efforts for interfaith organizing for climate justice as more connections are made between personal, communal and societal values.
After the speeches, Father Thomas’s candle led a procession to the Capitol building. Participants sang songs and carried candles and signs with words of faith leaders, such as “Earth is a shared inheritance whose fruits are meant to benefit everyone,” a quote from Pope Francis, and “Our common home is like a sister we live with and a mother who opens her arms to embrace us,” a quote from St. Francis of Assisi.
At the Capitol, members of the Overpass Light Brigade enlisted volunteers to hold up lit letters spelling out “Light the Way.” The Overpass Light Brigade formed in 2011 during the Wisconsin Uprising, and consists of a loose international network of activists who bring lit letters to various demonstrations and protests, or set them up over highways.
When the procession arrived, an interfaith statement of solidarity for climate justice, drafted and signed by the faith leaders at the rally, was read. The statement summarized the major points of the speeches and again highlighted the importance of interfaith movement-building. It called for an end to the fossil fuel industry and a transition to renewable energy. Participants reflected silently on the evening’s messages, and shared a prayer. Lastly, the organizers called the audience to action, urging them to “carry that wisdom from the moral sphere to the political sphere.”
The rally was significant in creating the space for quiet reflection more than loud chants common at other rallies. In being deliberately interfaith, the event added a unique element to the climate justice fight. This kind of faith or value-based reflection is crucial for any movement. It is important, especially for allies or advocates, to reflect on their own personal investment and what brought them to a cause. Interfaith coalitions in particular always make movements stronger.
As the UU minister Quinlan stated in her speech, “The only way out of this mess we’ve created is to learn how to hope together, and to act out of that hope.”