The Common Good

Building a Collective Identity: 'Drawing the Line' in Communities of Faith

In my state of Minnesota, there are literally hundreds of faith-based green teams doing a variety of good works. We’ve collectively tackled solar panels and bike racks. We’ve individually been consuming less, doing energy audits of our homes, and taking action in our neighborhoods. It is important work. And yet when I talk to the lay leaders in these congregations, they report that enthusiasm has waned and that their groups have become stale. As one tired (and yet tireless) leader confided in me: “I don’t know what it is, Julia, but it’s like we are swimming in molasses.”

As the new executive director of Minnesota Interfaith Power & Light I am trying to pay attention. What is this feeling of stuck-ness? If it’s not working, what then is the special sauce that will help these tireless leaders to ignite their communities?

A few observations about humans: 

1.    We are pretty darned smart. When we look at the footage from the floods in Colorado, and hear about an Arctic free of summer ice, we understand that riding bikes and even installing solar panels is not going to be enough. And so we become overwhelmed. We also have a unique human trait: the ability to tune out the discomfort of that knowledge. Psychologists describe this as “cognitive dissonance.” If our actions and our knowledge don’t match up, we think about something else.

2.    We really like to feel like we are part of something bigger than ourselves. That’s why we join with others in faith communities that connect us not just to our neighbors today, but to generations of others who share our commitment to something larger. Some call it “justice,” and for thousands of years we’ve brought people together to sing, pray, and take action together.

3.    When given the chance, we are also attuned to great joy and great sadness. As Katherine Preston describes in her article “Mourning for the Earth,” loss is part of what makes us human. As climate disruption unravels living systems we are aware of great loss, even when we can’t articulate what that is.

And so I’ll offer up a humble suggestion to those who are stuck. What if we use the best of what our faith communities has to offer and lean into the climate crisis? Not just in one way, but in three. No “one size fits all,” but here is a 3-legged stool of a recipe for our movement:

1.    Be practical. 
People need a way to act on a level that they can relate to and control. It helps us feel like we are successful, and it gives us a chance to walk the road together. If you are working on greening your congregation, keep up the good work, but don’t do it in a vacuum. Connect the dots between the solar panels and the loss of life in Haiti. If you only develop the practical solutions leg of your stool, it quickly will fall down.

2.    Find some ways to make your work spiritual. 
Bring your community together to honor the pain of lost species, lost towns, lost hearts, while at the same time celebrating the amazing life we have all around us. Let’s find a way to celebrate the miracle of metamorphosis, and the fact that planting trees helps combat climate change — and also to pray for the death of the monarchs who are unable to make it across drought-ridden Texas on their way north. Let’s do what we have done for millennia and use the gathering of our faith communities to make sense of the tensions between joy and pain.

3.    And let’s do what we do best collectively – let’s build an identity around the practical work of seeking justice. 
Once I asked at a church forum: “What does your faith tradition have to offer in the midst of the climate crisis.” A 13-year-old named Jackson answered, “Well, Jesus would have spoken truth to power and I guess he turned over the money tables in the temple …”

What would that look like in your faith community? 

In Minnesota I have had the honor to work with a passionate group of climate activists through MN350 where we have been supporting each other in our grief, laughing together as we celebrate life, taking practical steps to change our own lives, and building a collective movement. This weekend we, like people in more than 200 places around the country, are gathering to “Draw the Line.” This time our movement energy will be focused on tar sands and stopping the Keystone XL pipeline, but it’s part of something much bigger than that.

I think it’s time for green teams everywhere to talk about this “line,” to dig deep into the history of their faith tradition, and discover for themselves how our moral traditions have supported people to sketch out the “lines” we can and cannot cross. Without turning away from our work on creating energy-efficient congregations, it’s time to reaffirm faith’s role in describing and fighting for justice in our time. As we did with the civil rights movement, and as many of us have done with the freedom-to-marry movement, we need to stand with our brothers and sisters all over the world in a collective, spiritual call for climate justice. In Two Harbors, Minn., members of the United Church of Two Harbors are gathering with 350.org and their neighbors in northern Minnesota to “draw the line” on tar sands. For the Great Lakes, for the people and wildlife of northern Minnesota, for their indigenous neighbors in Canada, and for all the earth today and for all of time, they will “draw the line.”

And so, inspired by these newly formed identities, let’s continue to build our movement on the practical and the spiritual. But let’s also get to work collectively drawing the line and standing up for justice.

Julia Frost Nerbonne is Director of Minnesota Interfaith Power & Light.

Image: Drawing a line in the sand, Stephen Rees / Shutterstock.com

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