by Ashley Bair
“We survived the Ottomans; then we survived the British; then we survived Saddam Hussein. After all that we’re still here, but the oil companies may be the end of us.”
These words were shared by a villager in the town of Haji Ahmed, Iraq. The past two years of his life and those living in his village were spent working to protect their land from fossil fuel companies. The land in Haji Ahmed is being used by Exxon Mobil as a drilling site.
Two years ago I, and a team from the Presbyterian Peace Fellowship, met this villager when we traveled on a Christian Peacemaker Team delegation to Iraqi Kurdistan to learn more about how the fossil fuel industry was impacting villages in the Middle East. This June I will walk 260 miles from Louisville, KY to St. Louis, MO for the PC(USA) 223rd General Assembly to raise attention about the need to divest from fossil fuels. As I prepare for that journey, I am reflecting on my experience in Iraq with people and families who welcomed us alongside their journey to resist this industry for their land and lives.
The two largest oil and gas companies in Iraq are Exxon Mobil and Dana Gas. Haji Ahmed is one of the many villages impacted by fossil fuel extraction. Similar stories were told by others in villages we visited on that delegation: the land is drilled for oil and gas, the companies use the village’s water supply for their own purposes, promises are made for job opportunities and prosperous futures. The reality is that the fossil fuel companies have destroyed many acres of village farmland, water wells have dried up, jobs are given to outside recruits and not to villagers, roadways are destroyed, and the livelihood of many families who have lived in these villages for countless generations are gone for the foreseeable future. I will never forget a village leader who told me, “This land has been in our family for a long time. You see that path beside the house? That path is older than Islam.”
The extraction of fossil fuels in this region are compromising the villagers’ access to basic needs for survival. Two villages we visited had to import bottled water for drinking and cooking. Roads are controlled and closed by the companies, limiting access to hospitals and schools. It would seem that there would be help from the government to work with fossil fuel companies and negotiate considering how they are treating the villagers’ property and humanity. However, many of the companies are drilling with the blessing of the Iraqi government. The government has security teams overseeing the sites and is under contract with fossil fuel companies to make money annually. They are supposed to be compensating the villagers for the destruction of their land, but at the time of our visit no villagers had been compensated and they are not offered work. What’s more, much of the land still has remnants of war from Saddam Hussein’s regime which left landmines all along the sides of the road which are accessible to them.
The villagers our delegation met with were striving to act against the fossil fuel companies non-violently. They organized and protested the companies. They met with members of parliament and advocated for their land, compensation, and for work. They resisted in every way they know how. In Haji Ahmed, the villager’s efforts did lead to Exxon Mobil’s exit from their land. However, that result was not typical of resistant efforts, nor made with a promise not to return.
I journeyed alongside the villagers for three weeks, but this reality is their everyday life.
The fossil fuel industry is continuing to contribute to climate change and environmental disaster, impacting those who come into direct contact with them in devastating ways. Two years ago our delegation team left Iraqi Kurdistan with a deep sense of urgency to to help eliminate this devastation and our connection to fossil fuels to the best of our abilities. Today, the resolution we thought best still stands.
We need to divest from fossil fuels.
Enough is enough.
Climate science consistently produces evidence of the irreversible changes that will impact our world––we need to also listen to the voices of those who are most impacted by fossil fuel extraction. These are the voices that speak truth into our present world, like the villagers in Haji Ahmed, people in the disappearing wetlands of Louisiana, and others on the margins. These are the voices telling us time is up––the time to change is now.
Two years later, I have seen little difference from companies like Exxon Mobil and Dana Gas. It’s time for us, as the church, to declare that what is happening is wrong.
In Mark 12, when Jesus is asked, What is the greatest commandment?, he answers, “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”
It is our call to love God, love creation, and love people above all else. Divesting from fossil fuels will show the world that we are a church that believes this call from the Gospel and listens to the needs of our neighbor.
As we left the villagers, we asked them what it is they thought we could do to help in their resistance efforts. They responded with this request: “Speak about us. Tell your people we need their help. Do not forget us.”
1. The science is clear. Climate change is happening faster than originally scientists predicted, with consequences which are increasingly catastrophic for our planet and all people..
2. The need to act is urgent to keep global warming under 2 degrees centigrade. The longer we wait the harder it will be to roll back emissions..
3. As a first stepThe PCUSA is leader in climate change education, denominational policies and worship resources. As a next step, the PCUSA should take the moral and prophetic step to Divest Now.
4. We are blessed that commissioners at GA will consider various responses to climate change. Multiple overtures advocate for other climate change actions. Together they are a powerful response. We support all of these recommendations:
The act of the church divesting is critical to living out our faith, because all the good actions and writings of our denomination to respond to climate change are for naught if we continue to fund the industry that is harming God’s creation.
It rained and poured for 40 days and nights on Noah. The Israelites wandered for 40 years in the desert. Jesus spent 40 days fasting in the wilderness. When the number forty appears in scripture, someone is usually being tested.
When facing climate change and issues of environmental conservation and justice work, there are two tests going on. The first is taking care of the earth, which we have collectively not gotten a passing grade on for some time now. The second test is what we’re going to do about it.
As of this week, this week of Earth Day, Earth Day, we joyfully and gratefully announce that 40 presbyteries have voted to support Overture 08-01 on Directing the Board of Pensions and PCUSA Foundation to Divest from Fossil Fuel and Actively Invest in Securities that Focus on Renewable Energy. See the list of forty presbyteries.
Forty. Several are part of the Synod of the Northeast, which has already decided to divest from fossil fuels as a council. Quite a few of the concurring presbyteries are in coastal regions, facing new threats of potential offshore drilling. Some are in the middle of the United States, with pipelines passing through with great risk, connecting their regions to bigger port cities. A number of these presbyteries are actually in historic fossil fuel extraction regions, too.
No matter where these presbyteries are, we are all complicit in harming the planet. However, we can also hopefully look to the future and do all we can to serve and preserve the earth. This Earth Day, people are celebrating canvas bags, reusable straws, walking and biking, high efficiency appliances, hybrid vehicles, composting, eating local, and recycling among other ways of reducing the human impact on the planet. We are grateful to these forty presbyteries that have voted in favor of adding divestment—and reinvestment in renewable energies—to the many ways we are already trying to care for creation!
by Robin Blakeman
Although held in early spring for the past two years, I would describe this event as a “gathering time”.
This is a Biblical Beatitude reference, in the sense that everyone who has attended for the past two years had, at some point in time, the seed of Creation Care values planted within them. This may have happened from faith based teachings, or could have happened when an ancestor took the time to teach the value of the natural world’s gifts, or from childhood experiences that instilled these kind of values. All attendees seemed to have a story of this kind of heritage which lead them to the gathering of this conference – held in the beautiful surroundings of Pipestem State Park. People came, despite lingering winter weather predictions, from almost all states in the Appalachian region, plus some outlying areas. Approximately 90 attended the conference, from all over West Virginia, Kentucky, Ohio, Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, and further away places like the DC area. There was a spiritual energy in the room which could preclude a revival; at least, I hope so.
Members of the Friday afternoon keynote panel gave the following quietly revolutionary statements (paraphrased from my notes):
“We [Christians] have the tools to show others that we are bound up in Creation… Creation can do quite well without us. Yet, God yearns for our companionship. People of faith can frame the relationship with Earth as not dominion over, but partnership/relationship with… and this framing can lead to governments protecting people over profits” – Rev. Dr. Jennifer Copeland, North Carolina
“We need to get beyond the perceived divide between working class and the educated – or elite – class in Appalachia” – Ms. Jessica Lilly, West Virginia
“We are now exiles in Babylon; memories of our glory days, (e.g. memories of “Jerusalem” and/or fossil fuel boom times), prevent us from making our way out of the slavery, (e.g. dependence on an oppressive mono-economic system, based on fossil fuel extraction), we are trapped in.” – Pastor Harold “Jake” Jacobson, Pennsylvania
The hope of this gathering is that all who were present will return to their communities to plant more seeds, increasing connections (or harvest) in future years. The social justice minded folk who attended this conference have a lot to offer our Appalachian communities, most of which are dealing with economic transitions, drug abuse, poverty, and environmental justice issues. The Poor Peoples Campaign drew quite a bit of discussion and a leader of that campaign, Rev. Barber, spoke in Kentucky and West Virginia during the week after the conference. Another discussion involved people who were highly concerned about the effects of Unconventional Oil and Gas Development (UOGD) in the Ohio River watershed. A working group to develop some means of community education and outreach to faith communities may soon be focusing on that topic, as our region seems to be ground zero for a new wave of fracking and petro-chemical infrastructure build up.
There were also discussions centered on responses to the opioid epidemic, sustainable climate solutions, and constructing a uniquely Appalachian theology. As we gathered together in the context of 2018, we were also reminded of those who gathered before us, in similar rooms for foundational gatherings of the Coalition on Religion in Appalachia, (CORA), and the Appalachian Ministries Educational Resource Consortium (AMERC).
This year’s State of Appalachia conference was a wonderful opportunity to network across state lines, with people in similar yet unique communities across the region. It is possible that future years will bring state specific gatherings of this type. It was a renewing and invigorating time for all; let’s hope that energy multiplies and spreads across our region like Dandelion seeds in the spring time.
by Sue Smith
“Among the resolutions was one calling on ExxonMobil to report how it would work toward a global target of keeping temperature rise to 2 degrees Celsius or less.”
It’s that time again. A fossil fuel divestment overture is coming to the PCUSA General Assembly this summer, and MRTI is blowing smoke in our eyes with disinformation. The resolution is not about working toward a target, it is about an annual assessment of the long-term impacts of global climate change policies to ExxonMobil’s own business.
ExxonMobil’s assessment? Current reserves will be required to meet energy requirements and production will remain economically viable. The solution to reducing greenhouse gases will be met by expanding the supply of natural gas.
Continued production of oil will do nothing to lessen the impact of climate change; fracking for natural gas will continue to pollute the land and the water. Who gets impacted? Primarily communities of color, indigenous communities, and poor white communities.
Why should the church care? “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” (Matthew 25:40). The Gospel of Jesus Christ says when we harm communities of color, indigenous communities, and poor white communities, we harm Jesus.
The letter from Exxon’s Chairman ends, “We will continue to build long-term value for our shareholders and stakeholders.” MRTI represents the church as shareholder. ExxonMobil is looking after its shareholders by harming those the church is called to care for. We have to ask ourselves, on this issue, do we want to be the church of the shareholder, or the church that stands with and walks alongside the least of these?
Let’s not let smoke get in our eyes.
by Robin Blakeman
There are some incredible ironies in local and national news lately. The timing of the Presbyterian Mission Agency’s report, “Engagement is Working,” was certainly one. This arrived in my inbox on the same day as all 55 West Virginia county school systems closed down – due to a West Virginiateachers’ strike, and also on the same day as the Ohio River began flooding some communities in WV and Ohio. These three events may not seem related to an outsider, but let me share my “insider” lens. The WV teachers’ strike was largely one facilitated by our braggadocious Coal Baron Governor, Jim Justice, who proclaimed in his State of the State address that WV was in great shape financially, thanks largely to our friends in the oil and gas industries.
West Virginia teachers, therefore, chose to believe that our Governor and legislators could do better than a meager 2% raise, and they courageously engaged in a state-wide work stoppage. Among many outrageous and insulting things that have happened, one stands out as instructive here: a bill had been proposed in our state Senate which would fully fund public employee benefit packages, if severance taxes on oil and gas were raised a small amount. This bill made so much sense to teachers that many lobbied for it, but sadly the bill has been tabled in the West Virginia Senate. Why no discussion or vote? Oil and gas industry moguls Would. Not. Allow. It.
It is becoming increasingly clear to West Virginians who runs our government, and it’s not our elected leaders. It is industry leaders who pay large sums into campaign coffers; it is those who want to drill and mine every last gallon of oil, ton of coal and cubic meter of gas in our state. The gas industry is taking plays out of the coal industry’s playbook in this regard, and I do believe we are seeing this trend spread out on a national basis via our current EPA director and others. West Virginia is the nation’s resource colony, and we know how it goes…
So, from my perspective in West Virginia, I have to ask those on the MRTI Board: when are you going to get to the boardrooms of ALL the oil and gas companies who have invaded West Virginia and the surrounding region? When are you going to stop them from building more and more well pads, compressor stations and pipelines – all of which are rapidly turning our wild and wonderful mountains into polluted industrial zones – even our state and national forests. When are you going to deal yourself out of this gambling game you are playing with our children’s future? Methane emissions from the increased fracking in our region will prevent us from coming anywhere close to Paris Climate Goals. An “assessment” document of how to deal with those goals really doesn’t cut it.
If oil and gas corporate moguls have their way in our region, there will soon be a new cancer ally in the Ohio River Valleys – from something called the Appalachian Storage Hub. If this project comes to pass, there will be 5-6 cracker plants in the Upper and Lower Ohio River Valleys, multiple pipelines with a system of underground caverns storing highly volatile liquefied gas products – most of which will be used in plastics manufacturing. Can shareholder negotiation stop that? If so, please get on it soon, before the Ohio River - tap water source for 5 million people - is annihilated.
I’m writing these words as the mighty Ohio River floods Louisville, Cincinnati, and surrounding areas to dangerous levels. Thus, I’m pondering how long before we humans live up to our part of the Covenant agreement in Genesis 9 – that sacred Covenant God established with Noah and his descendants and with all of Creation? I hope we live to see the day when PCUSA fully divests from Fossil Fuel entities, no longer sharing in the tainted profits, corruption and pollution associated with the Fossil Fuel industry. I hope, instead, that PCUSA will divert those funds into a burgeoning renewable energy industry. I hope we live through the flood to witness the Rainbow.
Rev. Robin Blakeman is a 8th generation West Virginia resident, Minister Member at Large, West Virginia Presbytery, WV Presbytery Stewardship of Creation Ministry Team Leader, WV Interfaith Power and Light Steering Committee Member, Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition Project Coordinator
For a snapshot of FF environmental exploitation in Greene County, PA (features an interview with one of our allies on Appalachian Storage Hub opposition): https://www.refinery29.com/2018/02/187763/environmental-activism-pennsylvania-center-for-coalfield-justice
LTE in today's Huntington, WV Herald Dispatch regarding the legislative issues I wrote about: http://www.herald-dispatch.com/opinion/voice-of-the-people/article_92788d32-c8f5-5fab-b88b-8fa209e46227.html
Most recent news on WV Teacher's strike: https://www.wvgazettemail.com/news/education/wv-school-employee-strike-to-continue-across-state/article_d824f764-2c6f-51ac-bf00-68f1873ca2a6.html
By Colleen Earp
Lamb of God, Savior of the world,
We praise your good and holy name.
Our hope is in you, Lord.
Our resurrection and our life,
We give thanks for your mercy and grace.
Our hope is in you, Lord.
One who is, who was, who is to come,
Forgive us for the harm we have caused to God’s creation.
Our hope is in you, Lord.
Source of living waters and eternal life,
Strengthen us, that we might care for our neighbors downstream.
Our hope is in you, Lord.
Morning star and rising sun,
Help us to remember future generations when we remember you.
Our hope is in you, Lord.
Advocate and reconciler,
Inspire us to love our enemies and neighbors, and all the earth.
Our hope is in you.
Save us, O Lord, and grant us peace.
By Bob Ross and Susan De George
Organizing for Overtures for General Assembly
Presbyteries across the country, from Boston to Florida to Seattle to San Jose to San Francisco and many more in between have voted to concur with Hudson River Valley’s overture to divest from fossil fuels. So far, we have 21--YES, 21-- presbyteries on board with divestment, with more to come.
Directly related to our work for divestment, we are also advocating for the church to make significant efforts toward undoing environmental racism and creating environmental justice. To these ends, there are two overtures, each of which is making its way through Presbyteries.
Is your Presbytery interested and able to concur on any of these three overtures? If so, please let us know if there is anything we can do to support your efforts. You can email Susan De George at firstname.lastname@example.org for answers to questions or more information..
Volunteer at General Assembly
There will be work to do once we get to General Assembly. If you would like to join us in St. Louis as a Fossil Free PCUSA volunteer, we would love to have you! Whether you can help us for only a few hours or for the entire General Assembly meeting, there are ways in which you can make a difference. There will be opportunities to work at our booth in the exhibit hall, speak at open hearings, pray at prayer vigils, organize with other Presbyterians, and more! Just email Bob Ross at email@example.com and he will be in touch.
Walk to General Assembly
We are also planning to walk to General Assembly! Joined by our Presbyterian Peace Fellowship family and folks from around the Presbyterian and non-Presbyterian world, we will be participating in the PCUSA Walk for a Fossil Free World. If you feel called to participate in any part of this walk, you can register for it here.
See you in St. Louis in four months!
By Emily Brewer and abby mohaupt
What big action do we do to make the urgency of climate change clear to the Presbyterian Church (USA)? After five years of talking about overtures and thinking about strategy, it’s become clear that we need to do something that visually represents the dramatic implications of climate change.
So, in January, a group of people from Presbyterian Peace Fellowship and Fossil Free PCUSA announced a 260 mile journey from Louisville to St. Louis this June—a walk that will center the stories and experiences of communities on the front lines of climate change. More details about the walk are available at www.pcusawalk.org.
From January 31-February 3, we traveled from New York City to Chicago and back, holding public conversations in Chicago, Pittsburgh, and Princeton.
We’ve had good, energetic and enthusiastic interactions with people, as people have supported the walk with their ideas and money. Some people have even registered for the walk. Here are the three things that we’re really coming away with:
Want to support the walk?
by Colleen Earp
So far, the overture on directing the Board of Pensions and the PC(USA) Foundation to divest from fossil fuels and actively invest in renewable energies is already supported 13 presbyteries! (The overture is currently listed as OVT-006 on pc-biz.org until it is assigned to a committee for General Assembly.) This is a brave and prophetic effort toward having our denomination be a leader in climate justice work. The overture was originated in Hudson River Presbytery, part of the Synod of the Northeast, which has already decided to divest its own holdings from fossil fuel industries.
The twelve concurring presbyteries are spread out all over the United States. Also from the Synod of the Northeast are Boston, Northern New York, and New York City Presbyteries. Northwest Coast, San Francisco, and San Jose Presbyteries bring partnership from the west coast. There is support from the middle of the country in Southeastern Illinois and Heartland Presbyteries. Presbytery de Cristo brings representation from the southwest. And Pittsburgh, Shenandoah, and Mid-Kentucky Presbyteries connect us with the Appalachian Mountains, plateaus, and foothills, a region where the fossil fuel industry has a long history of influence and impact.
Two of the concurring presbyteries, Boston and San Francisco, have served as originating presbyteries for the fossil fuel divestment movement in PC(USA) at previous general assemblies. We are excited to have such wonderful partnership as we seek to do all we can to be good stewards of God’s creation. Rev. Stephanie Sorge Wing of Presbytery of Southeastern Illinois reminds us of the importance of this stewardship work: “[Climate change] is especially impacting the poorest, most vulnerable populations—those who we are consistently charged to care for throughout Scripture.” We are aware of at least ten more presbyteries in the process of concurring with this overture. Will yours be next to join us in this important work?
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