Imagine a group of people committed to the flourishing of a neighbourhood. To address poverty, they start several social enterprises that open meaningful opportunities for folk facing multiple barriers to work; to combat skyrocketing housing prices, they build a social-housing complex for people across the economic spectrum; to welcome refugees, they start an organization that walks with displaced migrants to help them find a place in a foreign land; to respond to the food crisis, they begin experimenting with a buying club to foster direct trade with responsible farmers.
Sounds like a fairy-tale in our age of displacement and me-centeredness, doesn’t it? But such group of people actually exists. It’s a community called Grandview Calvary Baptist Church in Vancouver, unceded Coast Salish territory—a community sustained by a couple and by a group of committed folk who have nourished it for over 25 years now.
Not that Numbers Ultimately Matter, but…
Following an example like Grandview Calvary’s, what are some reasons the sustainability community could see churches as key partners in the energy transition?
There are an estimated 350,000 church communities in the United States, and 21,000 in Canada, which combined gather around 70 million congregants. Not that numbers ultimately matter, but let’s now imagine that a fraction of these congregations commit themselves to taking thoughtful and compassionate action to address climate change.
In my recent book A Climate of Desire, I argue that such a possibility is both uncertain and promising. Uncertain because, as renowned American pastor Eugene Peterson has pointed out, some churches have ceased to be churches to become, instead, centers of entertainment for individuals. But promising, nonetheless, because faith communities have the great potential of becoming “relational hubs” where the threads of our torn societies can be rewoven.
A brief explanation is in place.
Potential Oases of Hope
Fuelled by the blind faith in the market fundamentalisms regretted by American economist Joseph Stiglitz, the neoliberal mythology has done a good job of portraying our societies as little more than a rambling lump of selfish and self-contained individuals. Consciously or not, this propaganda has championed a new spin-off of the “entertain, divide, and conquer” mentality that has prevailed since the time of the Romans. And it is such mindset that makes us believe that the best we can do is to “vote with our dollar” to support virtuous businesses or to “raise our right foot” to save gasoline.
Important as individual contributions may be, in the recent Community Resilience Reader many fellows of the Post Carbon Institute have made it clear that confronting climate change is a matter of acting primarily on a community level. And, as they well highlight, being part of a community requires both courage to face challenges, and also neighbours who are engaged and have a shared commitment to the place where they live.
The PCI fellows are not alone. Arguing on rather different grounds, both renowned sociologist of secularism Peter Berger and moral philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre see faith-communities as groups with a crucial potential of fostering the sort of relational closeness that is needed to cultivate moral virtue. Not only is caring for our neighbours at the core of what Christianity was always meant to be about. But, as it turns out, doing good is a learned, contagious affair. One is more likely, say, to purchase fair-trade produce or use public transit if one’s friends do so too. In that way, faith communities are already-existing hubs where we can be more naturally inspired to collaborate toward larger goals that escape the short reach of individuals.
Extending an Enduring Spiritual Legacy
Following the nineteenth-century abolitionists or the work of the early civil rights advocates in the twentieth, what would happen if today’s pulpits stretched their reach to include climate change alongside poverty, child abuse, or racial discrimination? More than ever, the time is now ripe for priests, ministers, pastors, and spiritual leaders to take courage and exemplify what it looks like to respond collectively and concretely to this most urgent situation.
If the algebra above doesn’t fail, that would lead to a decentralized groundswell budding all over. Faith communities can bring people together around a higher vision and combat our virtual isolation while doing so. Churches can also encourage their members to take pledges as a way to be mutually-inspired and hold each member accountable. Means allowing these commitments could include guidelines for what foods to eat and where to source them, modes of transportation to use, energy-saving practices at home, switching to renewable energies, etc.
By committing collectively, congregations can both challenge and inspire their members to embrace smaller personal changes that add up in the end. A Rocha’s ‘Eco Church,’ the Office of Social Justice’s ‘Climate Witness Project,’ or the Faith & the Common Good’s ‘Faithful Footprints’ offer valuable guidelines and testimonials.
Acting as a Body by Embracing Collective Commitments
But pledges could also be embraced by churches institutionally.
Consider, for instance, the global Fossil Free campaign. Its latest report lists churches and faith-based institutions worldwide as topping the list by representing close to 30 percent of the divestment pie, which keeps growing beyond its current level of $7.18 trillion USD. Besides larger bodies like the World Council of Churches or the Episcopal Church in the USA, thousands of individuals and dozens and dozens of small parishes and congregations are also (taking away) their grain of sand from the fossil fuel industry.
Equally, if not more significantly, these sorts of community and collective actions make for inspiring institutional stories, which can send bold ripples through the media and through one-on-one conversations—all necessary elements to inspire a cultural climate that leads toward wider change.
“Seek the Welfare of the City…”
An agrarian poet by the name of Jeremiah long-ago addressed his exiled compatriots, urging them to embody a vision of urban wellbeing. Displaced from their native land into a foreign country, he nevertheless encouraged his fellows to plant vineyards and look after the welfare of the alien city they inhabited.
This is a long-standing call that has both local and wider repercussions today. Exiled as we are in our impersonal urban deserts, churches today can both nurture and encourage their members to become agents of healing and sustainability within their neighborhoods, companies, and institutions.
For one, that may mean supporting collective initiatives such as the Climate Action Network or the Business for Innovative Climate and Energy Policy. That may mean, too, that faith-communities become just that: communities—relational hubs of people doing life together, kindled by the slow-burning logs of faith, hope, and neighbourly love.
Call it sourcing food directly from virtuous farms; call it bartering and homesteading; call it using bikes and transit to attend weekly services; call it supporting municipal coalitions working towards low-energy urban reconfigurations. But their light will truly shine insofar as they are also sustained by shared song, by millenary traditions, and by the far deeper sources of collective meaning that we’re so in need of in our modern and postmodern worlds.
Such shared life rephramed around an alternative vision is perhaps one of the most significant contributions that faith communities can offer in our way out of this darkening age of fossil fuels. Time will tell if today’s churches will raise to the occasion. And time will tell if the old spiritual will again lead the way, this time inspiring us beyond previous measure into a more equitable and sustainable future.
“We shall overcome some day.
Oh, deep in my heart, I do believe,
We shall overcome some day.”
Teaser photo credit: Showing a stage on the Ecological Stages of the Cross. EarthKeepers Facebook page.