by Ben Heimach-Snipes
Discerning a faithful path for our financial relationship to the fossil fuel industry has been a major part of my experience as a leader in the Presbyterian Peace Fellowship. As a new leader, I relied heavily on the wisdom of my elders who built the PPF endowment to maintain the work of peacemaking for future generations. Like all forms of divestment, there were questions about ethics, about the bottom line, and about our relationships to corporations and employees who would be affected. We took time to discern our answers to all these questions and found new ones too!
Finding a Foundation
I got excited about fossil fuel divestment at the 2014 General Assembly when I first found out about Fossil Free PCUSA. I supported their message as an advocate for the Presbyterian Peace Fellowship. There was obvious overlap between peacemaking and environmental justice, however this was a new issue to PPF, and our focus was on supporting divestment from three companies profiting from the occupation of Palestine. When the fossil fuel overture failed to pass, it still made waves within our group.
This became very personal for me as I spent the August 2014 in the farming communities of central Colombia where the oil industry has had a tremendous impact on local communities. My wife, Abbi, and I were part of a Christian Peacemaker Teams delegation. We learned there was a direct geographical correlation between access to oil and incidence of violence. I learned from these communities that if their land becomes valuable because of a natural resource like oil, they are violently forced to leave, and there is no legal system to protect them. Many don’t survive. Abbi and I brought these stories back with us from Colombia.
Questioning Our Investments
In September, we flew to Stony Point in New York for the National Committee Meeting of the Presbyterian Peace Fellowship. On the first day we had breakout sessions to discuss organizational issues in greater depth. Abbi and I had our experience of Colombia fresh on our minds. As people spoke up to form groups I felt my heart start to race as my face got hot. “God, what does this mean?!” I thought. I needed to say something, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. At the last second before the groups split up, I raised my hand and said, “I need to say something about how we invest our money. We have divested from the occupation of Palestine, so what is next?” Somehow people spoke up and we formed a group.
I have experienced PPF as an older organization that is intentionally inviting and embracing my generation in its work and leadership. The National Committee had nominated my wife, Abbi, and me to join the leadership before either of us had a reputation for peace activism. We were quickly trusted and given authority to run with new projects. So, I was excited to gather in the empty Stony Point cafeteria with four other young adults in awe of our task to discuss the investment practices of our PPF family. After our conversation, Aric Clark wrote, “We believe it is time for us to commit to applying the logic of nonviolence thoroughly and sensitively to our finances… We envision this not as a once and for all event, but as a perpetual process tied to the liturgical structure of confession and repentance.” We were not seeking purity, but moral transparency. My generation of PPF leaders were enthusiastically affirmed by the National Committee who voted to take up this challenge starting with a closer look at the issue of Fossil Fuels.
Discerning Our Call
Our discussion group was recruited onto the endowment committee and by winter time, the committee had committed to six months of discernment around investments in fossil fuels. Our committee became a reading group. Colleen Earp brought PCUSA documents on fossil fuels as well as articles from Market Watch and even Rolling Stone to grasp what environmentalists and investors alike were saying about fossil fuel divestment. Terra Winston brought her experiences with Christian Peacemaker Teams in Colombia, Canada and Iraqi Kurdistan which have each experienced violence influenced by the fossil fuel industry. We discussed the long term impacts of global warming and the current impacts of the fossil fuel industries on vulnerable communities. Some of us had spent time in Colombia as accompaniers with internally displaced people in congregations of the Presbyterian Church of Colombia. Violence and displacement caused by land grabbing corporations was not a new concept for the Presbyterian Peace Fellowship. However, shifting our divestment approach from limited geographic boundaries, as in occupied Palestine, to global industry categories such as fossil fuels was a significant step to take.
Jan Orr-Harter articulated our main concern: divesting from the industry removed our influence as stake holders to demand change from fossil fuel companies. The problem with maintaining this form of influence, as Abby Mohaupt expressed to our group in the spring, was that demanding fossil fuel companies stop extracting, processing and selling fossil fuels is as futile as asking a beaver to stop damming up the river. That’s just what they do. It’s in the name of their industry. Stepping away from the industry does not make it more difficult to invest in sustainable energy companies. It allows us to move our investing closer to our ethical mandate as Christians and remove confidence from a violent industry.
This was especially evident as we looked into the technical process of divesting from fossil fuel companies. Our endowment is held with the New Covenant Trust Company, which came out of the Presbyterian Foundation and engages the values of the PC(USA). When we asked about divesting from fossil fuels, our investment manager gave us a Sustainability Survey where one of the many options was to divest from the top 200 fossil fuel companies. This was informed by the Carbon Tracker Initiative which creates an annual list of 200 companies with the largest reserves of fossil fuels in the world. This is the same research-informed list that Fossil Free PC(USA) is advocating for. By checking the box on this survey, we were able to divest from the companies that have the greatest influence on current and future violence related to fossil fuel extraction and pollution. They really made it that simple! Our committee agreed to recommend the divestment action for PPF.
In the Fall of 2015, the Activist Council met for the first time as the new governing body of PPF. The first action of the council was to divest from fossil fuels! Co-Director Emily Brewer said, “For our children, grandchildren and those who come after them, unmitigated climate change will lead to a future of war and violence… On this most complex issue, we act out of faith in a creator God and a love for creation itself.” One major aspect of this action was to promote alternative energy industries to counter act jobs lost in the fossil fuel industry.
Love for the earth does not make me stand against job creation. I believe in a world where there is enough creativity with God to create new jobs in old places, to protect our families with wind farms rather than warfare. I am proud of the work of PPF to divest from the Carbon Tracker 200 and will continue to seek ways to diminish fossil fuel use in my personal and institutional life. It is an affirmation of God’s gift of life to me.
Ben Heimach-Snipes is a resident chaplain at Rush University Medical Center and a candidate for ministry in Whitewater Valley Presbytery. He is now serving as the assistant treasurer of the Presbyterian Peace Fellowship. He lives in Chicago with his wife Abbi.