Guest commentary by Angela Williams, written for the Presbyterian Outlook in the midst of the PC(USA) Walk for a Fossil-Free World from Louisville, Kentucky, to St. Louis where General Assembly will be held.
“What are y’all doing?”
“We’re walking to St. Louis!!”
This conversation happens about every mile or so, typically from someone in a car that slowed down along highway 50 or someone mowing their grass. We usually get looks of confusion or exasperation. Why would anyone choose to walk from Louisville to St. Louis? Certainly there are more scenic routes to take.
The story of why I walk begins three and a half years ago on the streets of Tacloban, Leyte, a city on an island that was my home in the Philippines for my year of service as a Young Adult Volunteer (YAV). I was in Tacloban for an ecumenical memorial service remembering the thousands of lives lost when Typhoon Yolanda/Haiyan wreaked havoc one year earlier. At the time, Typhoon Yolanda was the strongest storm to ever make landfall, a title that has been usurped multiple times since as climate change continues to intensify tropical storms around the world. The memorial service seamlessly moved into a community march protesting the agonizingly slow recovery. In that moment, I learned that worshipping God and protesting injustice are not so different from each other. I stood in awe as a woman stood on a vehicle, megaphone in hand and organized 20,000 worshippers into marching formation. This spiritual experience clarified my call to ministry as a pastor and a community organizer.
In the years since that fateful day, I have learned more about community organizing and the church in the classroom, in the streets and in the sanctuary. When I first heard the murmurings of this idea to walk to the 223rd General Assembly to call on the PC(USA) to divest from fossil fuels, I was intrigued. After a few emails and a seismic shift of summer plans, I started convening the team that planned worship and organized teach-ins for each day of the walk. Our team had many wonderful conversations about how to order our time with daily rituals of music, Scripture, prayer and learning. We knew that we would be forming an intentional community of mostly white people walking (virtually or in-person), hosting and teaching. Climate change is an issue that affects all of us, but it primarily affects frontline communities in the Global South that are made up of people of color and/or people living in poverty. We have centered the voices from these communities by hearing the stories of people of color or frontline communities about their experiences of climate change and our imperative to act now. Additionally, we are ritually naming the groups of indigenous people who historically have cared for the water sources and lands we traverse each day.
Even with this preparation, we could not anticipate the sacred experience of the walk. We could not prepare ourselves for the outpouring of hospitality we have received from countless Presbyterian churches along the way. We could not foresee a walker choking up while reading a story of women walking hours each day to find water for their families in West Africa. We could not know that two children from a host church would join us for a 15-mile day of walking in the blazing sun. We did what we could, and the Spirit has truly shown up, guiding our way, opening our hearts and propelling our bodies forward, step by step.
As I finish my second year of seminary and discern what ministries the Spirit may be calling me to after graduation, I am humbled and excited by this experience of church. This walk is showing me what the church is, what the church can be and what, I argue, the church should be. As Christians, we follow a man who walked from town to town. Jesus of Nazareth experienced hospitality from unlikely folks who accompanied him on the way.
On our second day walking, Andy drove by in his Jeep multiple times, and offered us water to sustain us the last few miles to his church. The third day, we met Jim, who taught us about the grassroots efforts to build a biking path on the dangerous stretch of highway where we were walking. On day six, God sent us Elena, a physical therapy assistant, who did blister care on many of our tender feet. None of us would have had these experiences if we had not shown up and taken this truly inefficient and extremely relational way to get to our destination.
Walking through the Midwest has given many of us a different perspective of this part of the country. I have found my own assumptions of people and churches challenged and dismantled through each holy encounter. Similarly, I have felt defenses fall as we sit at tables and talk about whom the vegetarian in the family is, how deep the roots go in the community and just which church in Indiana is the oldest. It has been a spiritual experience for all on the walk, and I hope the same for all who have showed up to host us.
However, we must still recognize that our group of mostly white people walking along the highways of southern Indiana and Illinois carries a great amount of privilege. This is not a critique of the individuals and churches who have shown us hospitality. This is recognition of the systems of power and privilege that are constantly at play and that we are all complicit in, no matter our experience or identity. As a group of predominantly white people walking across the country and calling on our predominantly white denomination to divest from fossil fuels, we are putting our bodies on the line where others may not have the privilege to do so. We hope to use our privilege to create good in the world and to bend the moral arc of the universe a bit closer toward justice.
A few months ago I realized how this walk creates a vocational full circle for me. While my call started with a worship service that became a protest march for ecojustice, I am showing up again, using my community organizing skills and planning worship for a walk for climate justice in my own corner of the world, carrying the frontline communities in the Philippines in my heart.
ANGELA WILLIAMS is the seminary intern with Presbyterian Peace Fellowship this summer. When she’s not walking across the country to GA, she is a third-year student at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Austin, Texas. To learn more about the PCUSA Walk for a Fossil Free World, please go to https://pcusawalk.org/.