On Tuesday, January 15, the 84th birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., I took part in the Pray-in for the Climate at the White House. The Shalom Center endorsed the Pray-in and I helped plan it as a member of the Steering Committee of IMAC (Interfaith Moral Action on Climate). For my earlier report that includes the full text of the Call to the Climate Pray-in, click to: https://theshalomcenter.org/content/walking-back-climate-cliff-pray-white-house-january-15
As about 200 of us gathered first at a church near the White House, we began carrying a large-size globe of Planet Earth as we solemnly walked in procession to the White House gates. That globe is the symbol we could today – in every culture and community – affirm as sacred. For part of the day we entrusted the carrying of Earth to James Hansen, the NASA scientist who 25 years ago first broke the news of global scorching to a Congressional committee –- the news of what has become a full-fledged climate crisis. (See the photo above; click on it to expand it.)
And we sang, “We’ve got the whole world in our hands /the seas and the mountains in our hands/ the clouds and the rivers in our hands/ our sisters and brothers in our hands / our children and their children in our hands / – The whole world in our hands!”
Because it’s true.
We began with calls to prayer: a shofar blast by Rabbi Dan Swartz of Sctranton PA, a chant from the Quran, a smudging of sage by a First Nations spiritual leader, a Buddhist invocation, a Christian prayer. Then we invoked Dr. King’s words about the “fierce urgency of now” and the danger facing civilizations that wait “too late” to cure their deep ills. We moved through three aspects of prayer: Celebration of the Earth; Lament for the woundings of the Earth; and Commitment to Action for healing of the Earth.
We mournfully recited more than one hundred names of people killed by Superstorm Sandy –- all victims of the Climate Crisis. To each name the crowd responded “Presente!” – their memories are fully present among us through our commitment to act.
Then some of us, including me, Rabbi Mordechai Liebling of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College faculty and the Board of The Shalom Center, Nili Simhai, co-director of the Teva Learning Alliance, and a variety of other religious leaders –-18 of us –- risked arrest to italicize our call to President and Congress to act quickly and vigorously to prevent any more deadly climate-spawned disasters like Superstorm Sandy and the Great Corn Belt Drought. Literally deadly: Not only those killed by Sandy but those driven to despair by the Great Drought that is impoverishing farmers in America and starving the poor in every country.
Inviting arrest, 18 of us blocked access to two gateways into the White House grounds that are normally used by the press and other visitors. But the police refused to arrest us. They locked the gates and moved away. We finally concluded that higher-ups – perhaps even the President –-had decided that arresting 18 religious leaders for prayerfully demanding action to heal Mother Earth, all less than a week before the Inauguration, might not be the best PR for the President.
But the media did cover the event, drawn especially by the unusual focus on religious and moral protest about the climate crisis and the affirmation by religious folk of the climate science embodied in Dr. Hansen. Media coverage included the Green Blog of the NY Times, CNN, McClatchy News, Fox News and the Huffington Post. See/ hear
And perhaps the President already knew that he would be taking our message, our voices, into account. For in the Inaugural Address six days later, he said:
We, the people, still believe that our obligations as Americans are not just to ourselves, but to all posterity. We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations. Some may still deny the overwhelming judgment of science, but none can avoid the devastating impact of raging fires, and crippling drought, and more powerful storms.
The path towards sustainable energy sources will be long and sometimes difficult. But America cannot resist this transition; we must lead it. We cannot cede to other nations the technology that will power new jobs and new industries – we must claim its promise. That is how we will maintain our economic vitality and our national treasure – our forests and waterways; our croplands and snowcapped peaks. That is how we will preserve our planet, commanded to our care by God. That’s what will lend meaning to the creed our fathers once declared.
The President also made clear that it would take us acting together, together, together —
“You and I, as citizens,” he said, “have the power to set this country’s course.”
“You and I, as citizens, have the obligation to shape the debates of our time — not only with the votes we cast, but with the voices we lift in defense of our most ancient values and enduring ideals.”
Among the religious leaders present at one or another part of the Pray-in were Rev Richard Cizik, an Evangelical leader; Rabbi David Saperstein of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism; Rev. Bob Edgar, former general secretary of the National Council of Churches, now CEO of Common Cause; Rev. Lennox Yearwood of the Hip-Hop Caucus, and Imam Johari Abdul-Malik of a mosque in Falls Church, Va.
These leaders are important — but even more important are the 300,000 houses of worship and celebration in American society. as Rabbi Saperstein reminded us. The power for change locked in those 300,00 buildings could, if it were freed through God’s Empowerment rising up from the living grass roots, overcome the special-interest top-down power that is holding us all hostage to their profits.
We need to spread the Word of Spirit for healing of the Earth. We must move from outside the White House gates to inside all the open doors of all those 300,000 houses where we gather to celebrate and to make real the Vision.