After walking over 200 miles from the PC(USA) headquarters in Louisville, walkers and ombudsmen for Fossil Free PCUSA gathered to advocate for the passage of Overture 08-01 on June 16, one day after arriving in St. Louis for the 223rd General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). Set before the Environmental Issues committee by The Presbytery of the Hudson River, and with 39 additional presbyteries concurring, the overture calls for a recognition that holding investments in fossil fuel industries makes the PC(USA) “complicit in harming God’s creation and ‘the least of these’ who are disproportionately affected by climate change,” and for the “Board of Pensions and the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) Foundation to divest from the fossil-fuel industry.” In advocating for the passage of Overture 08-01 at their June 16thpress conference, Fossil Free PCUSA also sought to highlight the human cost of climate change, economic incentives for divesting from the fossil-fuel industry, and share personal stories that influenced their decision to march for divestment.
After a brief introduction by Shannan Vance-Ocampo, co-moderator of Presbyterian Peace Fellowship, the parent organization of Fossil Free PCUSA, José Gonzaléz-Colón, a walker and the moderator of the Synod of Boriquen (Puerto Rico), opened the press conference. Relating the story of a fishing community in southeastern Puerto Rico that had been ravaged by Hurricane Maria, Gonzaléz-Colón echoed the “least of these” language of the overture. “The problem of equity is something that is often left out of [discussions on] climate change. … I’m hoping that we divest … because we’re not just voicing the concerns of clean air and clean water, we’re also talking about the conditions in which people can live their lives.” Linking the controversy surrounding divestment with the PC(USA)’s tradition of social activism, Gonzaléz-Colón said: “Our church has suffered a lot, on controversial issues. We’re supposed to be prophets over profit. And we’re here to announce our prophetic voice.”
In a similar vein, former moderator of the 218thGeneral Assembly (2008), Bruce Reyes-Chow of San Francisco addressed a popular counterargument to divestment, which holds that the Presbyterian Church needs to maintain a place at the table of fossil fuel industries. Reyes-Chow said, “We have done that, we continue to do that, but at a certain point we have to be disruptors for our own people and for the world. … It takes all strategies and all tactics for movements to happen, but at the end of the day, if it doesn’t happen, we didn’t accomplish what we had hoped.” Striking a somewhat more conciliatory note, Reyes-Chow said: “There is a place in this movement for every person. What we’re asking for now is for our church to take that prophetic stand and to [be disruptive] so that others may come to know, and may come to learn, and may come to change. This is not easy for any of us, the fact that fossil fuels … will disrupt most of our lives in great ways.”
Highlighting both the personal effects of climate change, and the urgency of Fossil Free PCUSA’s message, former moderator of the 215thGeneral Assembly (2003) Susan Andrews spoke to her family’s own initiatives to divest from the fossil-fuel industry, and offered an example for how Presbyterian church workers can take steps to invest in ecologically-oriented companies using their Retirement Savings Plan (RSP). Beginning in January 2017,the Board of Pensions added Pax Global Environmental Markets Fund Institutional Class (PGINX) to the RSP portfolio.An official statement from the Board of Pensions quotes board president Frank Spencer saying: “With Pax Global, church workers who participate in the 403(b)(9) plan will be able to invest in companies working to have a positive environmental impact. While the Church continues to engage energy companies for positive change, Pax Global gives us the opportunity to be environmentally proactive now, through investing.” This addition to the RSP is a result of the decision of the 222ndGeneral Assembly (2016) to retain investments in the fossil fuel industry, while mandating further market research by Mission Responsibility Through Investment (MRTI) and the Board of Pensions.
Still, for Andrews, who now lives in St. Louis and is the overture advocate for the Giddings-Lovejoy Presbytery, a gradual approach to divestment from fossil fuel industries and reinvestment in environmentally-friendly companies does not go far enough to address the urgent threat climate change poses to the world. “I think MRTI has been faithful, they have been competent. That is not the argument. The argument is … [that] what is happening to our world is so urgent [that] we cannot wait around for a five, ten, fifteen year process. … And so therefore, I think it is time for the Presbyterian Church to say ‘enough,’ and make a prophetic statement that is not based on profit,” she said.
Beyond the opportunity for a “prophetic voice” that Fossil Free PCUSA sees in a decision to divest from fossil-fuel industries, Gonzaléz-Colón highlighted economic incentives for divestment. He said, “Climate change is going to affect the profits of farmers, it’s going to affect the finances of churches in tithes and offerings.” And, beyond the economics of divestment, former moderator of the 216thGeneral Assembly (2004) Rick Ufford-Chase saw divestment as an issue that begins with the church not as an institution, but with the church as a faith community. Gesturing to the eight young people standing behind him, Ufford-Chase said: “Friends, this is church. I spent the last two weeks walking with anywhere between 15 and 25 people, most of whom were under the age of 30. … We were hosted by churches everywhere we went … who bent over backwards to make us feel welcome.”
Concluding the press conference, abby mohaupt (who prefers her name not be capitalized), chair of Fossil Free PCUSA, spoke about her experience working with the World Council of Churches. She recounted meeting a pastor from Indonesia who said that her land was disappearing. Stressing the immediacy of the decision to divest, mohaupt said that Indonesia doesn’t have five or ten years. She said: “We cannot forget that as the Presbyterian Church we don’t just stand for the Presbyterian Church, we stand for all creation, and for all people; that everyone deserves to stay in the place that they call home. To love each other, to love God, and to love that place. We cannot wait any longer, we must divest so that we stand in solidarity with them.”