Video by Ed Sackett
EAST ST. LOUIS, ILL — In preparation for the 223rd General Assembly, Fossil Free PCUSA, a project of Presbyterian Peace Fellowship, organized a walk from the headquarters of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) in Louisville to the doors of the America’s Center Convention Complex in St. Louis, where General Assembly is being held.
The asphalt at the BP station where marchers for Fossil Free PCUSA assembled on June 15 was a brutal incubator, pushing the heat index to 105 degrees. In a patch of grass, organizers and walkers who’d driven ahead set up lunch on a folding table. Soon, the rest of the Fossil Free PCUSA crew arrived, clad in orange shirts emblazoned with “for creation!” They came to congregate, eat and coordinate the final few miles of their journey.
After lunch, about 30 people who had trekked from the offices of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) in Louisville, Kentucky, to a dusty BP in East St. Louis, Illinois, began assembling two-by-two along the sidewalk. With banners reading “God loves the world” and “Presbyterians marching for a fossil fuel free future” and “Time’s up, divest now,” they made their way across the Mississippi River on the Eads Bridge. As the walkers crossed the bridge, the demonstrators chanted, “You can’t love God and money.” (Of note, constructed in the 1870s, Eads Bridge was the brainchild of, and funded by, Andrew Carnegie. He was also – at least nominally – a member of a Presbyterian church.)
Fossil Free PCUSA’s work, as stated on their website, is “ focused on our commitment to divest from the industry that has contributed the most to climate change.” At the 2016 assembly, the Immigration and Environmental Issues committee voted in favor of divestment, but during plenary the assembly voted 391-161 to approve a minority report, which in part directed MRTI to pursue focused engagement and report back to the 2018 assembly with recommendations – including the possibility of selective divestment – “if significant changes in governance, strategy, implementation, transparency and disclosure and public policy are not instituted by the corporations” during the engagements with MRTI and its ecumenical partners.
At the 2018 General Assembly two years later, divestment is once again on the table with an overture that has concurrences from at least 40 presbyteries.
Emily Brewer, one of the leaders of Fossil Free PCUSA, is optimistic about the chances of a fossil-fuel-unaffiliated Presbyterian Church. “We’ve done some research and we don’t think that there has ever been an issue before GA that has received as much attention and support as divestment,” she said.
After arriving in St. Louis, many of the walkers said that the highlight of the 210-mile journey had been engaging, teaching, learning from and worshipping with churches along the way. In response to concerns over maintaining a united and courteous church, Abby Brockway, one of the walkers who lives in Seattle, said: “Divestment is not trying to villainize people in the fossil fuel industry, it’s just saying goodbye to fossil fuels, and hello to renewable energy. There’s two tables, and we want a place at the alternative energy table.”
Oluwatosin Kolawole is the president of Climate Aid, a nongovernmental organization in Nigeria, who walked with Fossil Free PCUSA. Kolawole said that he thinks concerns around the PC(USA)’s divestment have global implications. Global warming has caused northern Nigeria’s desert to creep south, said Kolawole, and the agrarian economies of northern Nigeria are collapsing. In the wake of the dearth of agricultural work, people are fleeing as economic and climate change refugees to the cities of the south, and can fall prey to extremist groups such as Boko Haram, he said.
Aida Haddad walked as well. She is a graduate of Princeton Seminary who lives in Indiana and is planning to attend medical school in the fall. Haddad said she was disheartened by the faith community’s lackluster response to issues of climate change and struggled to reconcile the hard science of environmental science with the missiology of the larger Presbyterian Church. “This week the American Medical Association voted to divestfrom fossil fuels, because of the danger to humans, like big tobacco. Sometimes it’s felt hard to stick around when a place that has informed your faith isn’t willing to acknowledge the human cost of climate change,” she said, tearing up, then quickly adding, “but I would never leave, I want to make it clear that I would never leave. My parents were immigrants taken in by United Presbyterian Church in Bloomington, Indiana, and our family would not have a sense of place if it weren’t for them.”
Haddad said she thinks the future of the Presbyterian Church is less in the tradition of one great hour of sharing, and in more multifaceted, justice-based missionary work. “Flying in the face of Midwestern Presbyterian politeness, we’re here as prophets,” she said. “The future is not high church and tall steeples, and we believe that divestment is the next move [that must be made] to remain a prophetic church.”
Story by Joseph Duffield