Praying Emmanuel at COP21 | Sojourners

Praying Emmanuel at COP21

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Before the announcements of the new agreement at COP 21, when the thousands of people who were not closely engaging with official delegates of the 190 countries gathered in Paris, I was sitting at a small white table with my new found friend Kenneth.

We spoke for nearly an hour before I asked him the question.

We had been talking about the work of the Ghanian Religious Bodies Network On Climate Change, which brings together Muslims, Christians, and Indigenous peoples across Ghana to work on climate change because, after all, “climate change impacts all of us.” We touched upon capacity building, workshops, seminary education, practicalities, and visions. It was the kind of conversation that most people who were not directly involved in the negotiations were in Paris to have: networking, information sharing, and building cross-cultural relationships around common endeavors.

Finally, I asked him, “Are you religious?”

“Why yes,” he responded, leaning back in his orange plastic chair. “I am very religious.” He had a big smile on his face. As if he had just been waiting for the question. He was Pentecostal.

“Can we pray together?” I asked in a voice that I hoped did not convey the catch in my throat.

“When?” he asked. Not, “why.” We agreed on a time. I encouraged him to bring friends.

I found him a bit later amid seven young people from Africa. Kenya, Congo, Senegal, Niger, Ghana. All wore nice suits and big smiles. They were eating peanuts and another snack they insisted that I try. It tasted like dry, unsalted pretzels.

“Are you going to pray with us?” I asked them. Some of them started jumping up and down. Others raised their eyebrows, like I was the one offering them a questionable snack, instead of the other way around.

“Pray? Really? Where? When?”

“Now. We can pray anywhere.” They looked around us at the conference building that was kindly referred to as “sterile.” Stands were emptying as people were packing up and beginning to head home. The COP was almost over on their calendars, even if negotiations just beyond our reach were still heavy and filled with uncertainty. Most people had that mildly anxious and exhausted look, like a couple that is not sure if they have, actually, conceived a child. No one knew then. The announcement of the pregnancy would come in the morning. And even when it came, the possible birth of a new world remains a highly risky and uncertain question.

In such a moment, prayer seemed entirely appropriate. Not that I’ve met many moments inappropriate for prayer. Of course, I am, like my friend, “very” religious/spiritual. Or at least I’d like to be.

A few of us wandered off into a side room, near the open door. Visible, but quiet.

A shiver ran through me as I reached out to hold their hands. I suddenly became present to how little I knew about them or where they came from. What had they seen? Did their grandfathers fight for independence from the colonial countries in which we now stood? Did their grandmothers grow yams, or had their fields been destroyed by oil spills, or warfare, or too many pesticides, or abandoned by a younger generation looking for the ‘good life’ in cities that never cared about them? What had stirred in them and their world that they were here, in Paris, of all places? Here, where black intellectuals from around the world had once gathered to discuss colonization and environmental destruction long before words like “intersectionality” were part of the liberal lexicon?

When I remember prayers it is like remembering a starry night. I remember the feeling of tilting my head back to gaze upwards, the awe, the wind on my cheeks, and a few constellations more than any particular star.

Our prayer went a bit like this:

A song rose up, sweet as a pineapple, making me smile. The men beside me have voices like the clearest honey. Someone speaks in French. It is too fast for me to understand. ‘Jesus Christ’ is said many times. So is ‘merci’ and ‘Senor’ and ‘merci’ and ‘adore’ and ‘merci’ and ‘chaque personne’ (each person). ‘Emmanuel’ in Hebrew means ‘being with.’ Prayers for those men who have taken the word ‘Africa’ out of the main body of the text – may they do the right thing. Amens. Prayers for the migrants. Amens. Prayers for those whose land is baked and dry and barren where there was once a great forest. Our grips on one another’s hands tighten. I shook. I whisper, Emmanuel, Emmanuel, Emmanuel. We sing: A-lle-lu-uj-iah.

Our prayer broke with laughter. A young man turns to me and says, “wow, that was great. If we had been doing that every day, this whole COP would have been so much better!”

There were many faith groups at COP. Many religiously themed press conferences. Many statements about climate change as a moral issue. Many conversations — I’m sure many of them are good and it is probable that the combination of morality and sound science made this COP the most successful one in over a decade.

Yet the interfaith group at the COP was unable to secure a room for religious groups, including offering services such as pastoral care (France refused their offer). A prayer room was available – and generally frequented by Muslim men. I did hear a group singing a beautiful song about our grandmothers and I heard rumors of some spontaneous African musical prayers.

None of us gathered in prayer on the Friday night before the Saturday that was the final day of this world-famous gathering had seen or heard of people praying together in the “blue zone” where the officials gathered. Mostly, heads were bent over laptops and printed texts and cell phones. Which was important – even critical.

And yet.

Rarely did people reach out to another person to hold their hands.

Veni, Veni, Emmanuel

And ransom captive Israel.