I was honored to write guest blog post for The Presbyterian Outlook, a national Presbyterian magazine. Click through to read the entire post!
"We’re learning all kinds of things on the #walk2divest:
It takes us two hours to walk five miles, with a snack break in the middle.
Ten miles in a day is an easy goal; to finish 15 or more we have to push our pace a little.
As a group, we like flavored potato chips better than plain.
We learn that Casey often breaks out in dance, Ashley often breaks out in song and three people have broken out in poison ivy.
We learn how to identify poison ivy."
“Goose Creek. Pass it back.”
Rick turned to face forward again and we passed the words back along the line of walkers. Goose Creek. Goose Creek. Goose Creek. I looked down at the muddy water running under our feet as we walked where the road crossed – apparently – Goose Creek. That’s what that bit of water is called, here in occupied Haudenosauneega Confederacy, Miami, Osage, and Shawnee land, in the state of Indiana, in the Ohio River watershed.
Every night in worship we name aloud the people groups who lived here for years before “civilization” arrived with violence, striving to honor them as we face the complicity of Christianity (particularly U.S. Christianity) in the colonization of this land and genocide of its people. In our pursuit of justice, we have to acknowledge how badly we’ve gotten it wrong – the confession of sins en route to the promised assurance of pardon.
In this same confessional ritual we also name the watershed through which we walk. For most of this 150 mile trek, it will be the Ohio River Basin. Walkers leading worship urge us to note the rivers, streams, and rivulets we cross, and to reflect on the precious nature of this water that sustains us.
This is the land flowing with water and sweat. Everything is green, except the grey-brown water and the blacktop road. Coming from Tucson, my eyes still haven’t adjusted. The color is shocking. The ease of just looking down at water underfoot is shocking, too, so far removed from the experience of crossing the dry bed of the Santa Cruz River on my bike. I want to fill my pockets with water, siphon Goose Creek into my backpack, twine honeysuckle vines around my arms and carry all this life back to the desert with me.
In our teach-in tonight, New Jersey State Climatologist Dr. David Robinson gives us a layperson’s intro to the climate system and climate science. He shows us maps of the U.S. with projected climate and precipitation change into 2070, and my eyes go straight to the Southwest: there’s Arizona, headed for even hotter and drier days.
We're walking with hope of a pardon, some kind of reprieve, something world-changing. And/and yet, the truth is that climate change is here. Not coming, come. “We’re not gonna mitigate ourselves out of this,” Dr. Robinson says, “—the train has left the station. We’re gonna have to learn how to adapt.”
I don’t know what that means for my life personally, or even for our populated world over the next decades and centuries. I hope I’ll learn more about that in the coming days, as we continue to walk and to listen. I’m pretty sure, though, that draining other rivers (like we have the Santa Cruz) to water our desert golf courses and cotton fields is not the way to go. The water will have to stay in Goose Creek, and at home we’ll have to continue to learn to function in the desert as it is – and as it changes.
21 miles down, is 151 to go.
It’s just because I’m running late today, I tell myself, and my bike has a flat tire.
Of course, my bike tire has been flat for a full month now - a convenient excuse to drive the 2.2 miles to my office instead.
Bike commuting is important to me, at least in theory. It’s better for the planet, better for my body, better for my wallet, and saves me the hassle of finding a parking spot downtown. Bike commuting is something I promote for the volunteers I coordinate. It’s something I’m proud of, something I believe in. And, nine times out of ten, something I don’t actually do.
I can blame a flat tire or the desert heat or a hundred other things, but that’s just me pretending that my choice to drive is due to circumstances beyond my control. Really, my comfort, my laziness, my five-more-minutes in bed and now it's too late to bike, are simply more important to me than the health of this planet and the lives of other people.
Or at least, that's what my actions say.
My car commute is fueled by domination culture as much as by diesel, and harms the world in many ways: through militarism, colonialism, extractive capitalism, and the super-exploitation of resources and people, especially in the two-thirds world. Those 2.2 miles a day each way are made possible by the consumption of people as much as the consumption of fuel. Along the way, what comes out of my car is as harmful as what goes into it. The emissions from my trusty station wagon contribute to climate change, help warm the oceans, and make farming harder for people around the world.
This slice of the world is set up to keep me from having to face those nasty parts of a simple drive. My social location - as a white, middle class, U.S. passport holder - insulates me from what is required (what other people sacrifice and are forced to give up) to make my life easy. I can zip around town, gassing up Vincent at convenient locations on every block without having to face what gives me easy access to fossil fuels. This is true of many systems of domination: white supremacy keeps white people from having to face what white supremacy does.
I’m thinking about climate change in particular because I am preparing to walk 260 miles, from Louisville, KY to St Louis, MO, as an action for climate justice. I expect it will not be a very comfortable experience.
The simple story of the action is this:
The Presbyterian Church USA is a denomination with about 1.5 million members and about $10 billion dollars in investments. Roughly 3% of those investments are in fossil fuels, more than $200 million dollars.
There's a meeting this summer of the national decision-making body of the PCUSA. Forty Presbyteries (regional councils) across the U.S. have signed on to a proposal asking the denomination to take all of our money out of the fossil fuel industry. To emphasize this request, a group of us are walking from the headquarters of the PCUSA in Louisville to the site of the meeting in St Louis. We’ll be sharing worship and learning from teach-ins along the way.
We are choosing discomfort together, because we know that comfort will not save us. Comfort is an enemy of change, and justice requires change.
My bike commute is a small discomfort. It’s a small change that has a relatively small impact on the big, big issue of climate change. But it is something I can do, one way to lessen my participation in this culture of consumption and reduce the harm I do to the world.
I know that we need big changes too, institutional as well as individual commitments. The change we’re asking for from the PCUSA comes with the discomfort of trying something new and the fear of financial loss -- but it can be a holy discomfort that strips us of the lie of ease without consequence, and fear that pushes us into a deeper life of faith.
Climate justice means recalibrating our priorities, shaking off our comfortable paralysis, and investing in people over profit. It calls us to discomfort, to acting as though we care about this planet and all God’s creatures, not just saying we do. It’s time for us to end our investment in this structure of domination culture, both figuratively and literally.
And perversely, I am comforted by this: after walking 260 miles, perhaps that 2.2 mile bike ride won’t seem so uncomfortable after all.
On some level, I don't really believe change is possible.
I like to joke about a theoretical Nihilist Site Coordinator. My job, being a regular site coordinator, is to support and nurture young adults as they explore the world. I help them develop deeper life skills, critical thinking, systemic analysis, and commitment to work for a more just world. (This is why I'm constantly inviting my volunteers to "say more about that" as they process.) But sometimes when days have been long and conversations complicated, I deliriously imagine what the Nihilist Site Coordinator would say.
YAV: "My work supervisor is avoiding meetings with me, what should I do?"
NSC: "Take a nap, probably, work is meaningless."
YAV: "I can't figure out how to connect with one of my community members, how would you suggest I approach them?"
NSC: "I suggest you take your stipend and go out for tacos alone; relationships are fleeting and we'll all be dead eventually."
YAV: "We just fought about the dishes for the 50th time, what do we do?"
NSC: "Destroy all dishes and all hope."
It gets... a little dark.
There's some relief in these flights of fancy, though, too. If everything is meaningless, we don't have to struggle to hold people accountable to their commitments. If nothing matters, there's no point to fighting to build connections or community. If everything is meaningless and nothing matters, why try at all? Wouldn't it be easier just to stop, to give up, to acknowledge that things are wrecked and there's nothing we can do about it?
There are many parts of this world where the nihilist in me sounds right. Murderous white supremacy is woven into (is) the foundations of the society that made me, the heteropatriarchy in which I live and am complicit continues to kill without consequence, climate change is forcing migration and hunger and is as big as the whole world. Everything is terrible and exhausting.
This last piece is one where I feel particularly futile. I put solar panels on my house, and decreased my meat intake, and shut off the water when I brush my teeth, and still I know that entire industries - including energy, cement manufacturing, and agriculture - drive climate change on a global level. No amount of at-home changes I make will change those huge systems, and it's impossible to separate myself entirely from those systems. So what does it even matter?
This is where the Nihilist Site Coordinator in me meets the Gospel in me. All those years of trundling to church with my pastor father infected me with stories of Jesus, the compassionate homeless preacher who believed everyone was loved and should be treated that way. The friend who laughed and shared food and calmed the storm even when he was irritated at his nap being interrupted. The radical community organizer who taught non-violent resistance against empires of oppression and was killed for it. The dedicated, faith-filled community member who saw his own death coming, and kept working anyway. Who didn't take the easy way out. Who demands that we do the same.
Thinking about that Jesus pushes me up off my bed, onto my feet, and out once again into the work of resistance.
This June, those feet are going to carry me 260 miles, from Louisville KY to St Louis MO, in a community action to (among other things) ask the PCUSA to divest from fossil fuels. For me, this walk is an extreme "fake it till you make it:" I am choosing to participate in a community of resistance because I need it to carry me until I believe enough to carry myself. I want to do something with my body, since deep down, my spirit is a traitor. I hope to learn about the possibility of change from people who believe it, so that I can believe. More about the walk here.
NSC: "The planet is wrecked, why are you doing this ridiculous thing?"
Me: "Because Jesus changed the world, and since I signed up to follow him, I have to at least act as though I believe that I can too."
Author, Alison Wood
queer, white, cisgender, U.S. passport-holding, Presbyterian, church-employed, challenged by faith, imagining something better.
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