Several weeks ago at the Minnesota State Capitol building, I and a host of others met with senators and representatives to lobby them on environmental issues. When I met with one senator he said he understood the issues and was on my side. It was a love fest. But when asked about working with the Republicans, the love fest ended.
He started rattling off how the other side will not listen, how there is no communication with them, how they are funded by the Koch brothers and will not compromise or even consider any proposals but their own, and so on and so forth. I do not doubt that he was speaking from personal experience, but if he only sees the other as bull-headed then that is exactly what he will get.
As he spoke I kept saying to myself, "There has to be another way of doing this…"
Last week I discovered "a more excellent way" when I re-read The Journal of John Woolman, the spiritual autobiography of the colonial Quaker who I describe as America’s first social mystic. It my seem odd to look to a colonial Quaker as the model for amending climate change — I say amend because we have already changed the climate; the best goal now is to stop further change and amend our way of live — but his model/witness may be the exact model/witness we need.
In my work on environmental causes I have acted primarily from a place of loss, sorrow, and anger, centering on the loss of my family farm in northern West Virginia. In the mid-1980s, the farm was sold to a coal company who stripmined the farms and destroyed the community. I had had dreams of farming that land.
But if I dig deeper through the loss, through the sorrow, and through the anger, I arrive at a place of love. I love creation, I feel I am a part of it, and I want it to flourish because if creation flourishes, all flourishes.
Here is where Woolman’s witness comes in. His social conscience was formed because Love was the first motion. He was simply responding to that Love.
How did he respond? Eighty years before the modern abolition movement of the 1830s, John Woolman began his personal mission to end slavery amongst Quakers in the American colonies. His Journal describes the unfolding of his commitment:
When he saw that his life was being influenced too much by wealth, he scaled back his work as a merchant to a tailor.
When friends asked him to write their wills and transfer ownership of slaves, he refused, and stated why. Slave owners often freed their slaves after Woolman’s words.
When he learned that his clothing was dyed with plants grown using slave labor, he stopped wearing dyed clothing.
When he considered that slaves did not ride horses, he stopped riding his own, thinking it too extravagent.
From then on he walked everywhere; He stopped eating sugar and molasses because of its involvement with the slave trade.
When he traveled to England he rode in the steerage, not the cabin, because that is where slaves rode in their passage from Africa on that ship.
And while in England, he asked that his wife and friends not send letters via post because the horses and boys who delivered the posts were often abused.
In order to combat slavery Woolman was willing to talk, listen, and share space with those who were the enemies of abolition. He was also willing to change his life because of his commitment of ending slavery.
Imagine the sight of a man with a reformed sweet tooth walking from New Jersey to North Carolina in undyed clothes, speaking, listening, and sharing space with slave owners with love — not sorrow, nor anger and hopelessness, but love — as his first motion!
Almost every day I feel an overwhelming sense of hopelessness and despair concerning the environment — that nothing I can do will bring change or help amend the destruction we have caused. But then there is Woolman …
Woolman died of smallpox while in England in 1772. By 1787, no American Quaker owned slaves — largely due to Woolman’s influence and witness.
Can we say the same of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, or Benjamin Franklin's influence?
Last year more than 400,000 people showed up in New York City to sound the alarm against climate change. The numbers for critical mass are present. What is needed is a million people to:
Commit, like Woolman, to symbolic actions in our everyday lives that help us to not participate in systems that cause climate change.
Listen to, talk with, and share space with climate deniers, polluters, those you consider your enemies.
Support one another in this work (Before Woolman ventured to speak with slave owners he obtained a certificate from his local Quaker meeting. What if local churches/faith communities started laying on of hands on people during worship charging/blessing them to have respectful conversations on climate change?).
Witness (Why is it that 50 percent of commuters in Copenhagen ride bicycles? Mainly because it is easier for a non-biker to take up biking when s/he sees 50 percent of other commuters biking).
Realize you will more than likely never see the full fruits of your labor.
Develop a sense of humor, preferably a dry one (Laughing at yourself and inviting others to laugh is desperately needed in this work).
And find a copy of the hymn "Love Was the First in Motion." It is about John Woolman. The melody — along with a sense of humor, the witness of others, and the support of a community — will help get you through tough days.
Rev. G. Travis Norvell is the pastor of Judson Memorial Baptist Church in Minneapolis, Minn. He strives to be an urban agrarian.