DETROIT – An overture proposing that PCUSA Board of Pensions and Presbyterian Foundation divest their funds from fossil fuel companies, as an act of demonstrating their theological and moral responsibility to care for the environment, has generated high debate at GA221.
While proposals to divest from companies in Israel-Palestine have been before GA in the past, never before has an overture proposing divestment solely based on environmental concerns been raised at GA.
A grass-roots movement promoting divestment, Fossil Free PC(USA), was organized, prepared and quite vocal during the time of open hearings. To quote recently retired scientist, Dan Terpstra of the organization said “It’s about the moral, theological, and ethical stance – that we can’t profit from a company that is destroying creation.”
During open hearings on the overture, commissioners raised concerns about the impact of divestment on the overall financial stability of the PC(USA) if divestment were to be approved. These concerns were addressed by Fossil Free PC(USA), stating that the overall social trend is towards environmental responsibility, consequently making these companies less financially stable in the long-term.
Once the committee came to its debate on 15-01 Tuesday late morning, commissioner Peter Mann proposed a substitute motion requesting the Board of Pensions and the Presbyterian Foundation to categorically divest from fossil fuels over five years, and requested the appointment of a commission of seven persons to work with MRTI (that would meet electronically at no expense to PMA), in order to develop a comprehensive strategy towards full divestment from fossil fuel companies within that time frame.
The overture to Mission Responsibility through Investment committee (MRTI) was put forward, halting debate on the motion by Commissioner Mann. Many in the committee thought this motion to refer was premature, not allowing for in-depth debate on the substitute motion or the main overture.
Proponents of the motion stated their stance that MRTI would be better informed and prepared to dialogue with and continue their current work with fossil fuel companies regarding social responsibility. Commissioners also raised that, if approved, divestment would cause the church to “loose a seat at the table,” ceasing ongoing dialogue with fossil fuel companies.
An amendment to the motion to refer was discussed and then voted down.
The committee then addressed the Motion to Refer (15-01): Request 221st General Assembly to refer the subject matter of this overture to the Committee on Mission Responsibility through Investment (MRTI) for action and discernment in accordance with its long standing and detailed procedures to engage with individual corporations to advance their actions in support of important social policy issues. The motion also asked MRTI to make a report to 222nd General Assembly in 2016].
The motion to refer was debated passionately by the committee for some time:
Theological Student Advisory Delegate Samantha Gonzalez-Block, speaking in support of divestment and against the motion to refer, said, “We, as a denomination need to make a stand, and I think the urgency was expressed, this would take away from our agency to do something.”
Commissioner Albert Butzer, in support of referral stated “I support of the motion to refer- it doesn’t remove anything from the original overture. Referral to MRTI is a very Presbyterian way to handle this.”
Commissioner Mary Beth Lysobey spoke strongly near the end of debate “We need to go down in history as supporting divestment”.
Emotions ran high and a commissioner called for a time of prayer prior to the vote. The Motion to refer was passed by the narrowest margin: Approved: 30; Disapproved: 29.
Audible gasps were heard throughout the room. A question about possible action to reconsider the vote was asked as a point of order, but was not acted on.
YAAD David Smith then suggested the addition of a comment to express the spirit of discussion during debate. “I believe we want to express our intense desire to care for God’s creation.”
The comment finally added to the motion was: “Committee 15 is deeply concerned about both the need for action and the need to remain in dialogue with companies that are in the fossil fuel industry.”
Throughout the discussion was a prevailing support of faithful environmental stewardship. Members were deeply moved by the time of open hearings and by an abiding concern for the issues before the committee for action. A minority report is underway.
YAAD Ben Terpstra who spoke during the open hearing on 15-01 stated, “There are many important issues at GA. By far this is the most important issue and is the reason why I’m here.
Dan Terpstra, of Fossil Free PC(USA), reflecting on the day, commented. “The motion to refer, trumped any opportunity to have any discussion about this vitality important issue. Our goal is still to create space to bring this issue before the church. The opportunity we have now, is to lead on this issue as a church. In two years… we will be even more behind the curve.”
Teaching Elder Stephanie Anthony reflected on the day’s discussion and action: “Across the board our committee shared deep commitment to the church’s role in encouraging faithful stewardship of creation. Multiple motions and amendments proposed throughout the deliberations reflected the tension that existed among our call to faithfully follow the Spirit’s leading, the sense of urgency for action, a desire to honor the past engagement that MRTI has cultivated in the fossil fuel industry, and discerning the best way to ensure maximum efficacy through our recommendations”.