The Story of a Leading
It may sound odd to say that way opened for me to handcuff myself to the White House fence on February 13, but that was how it felt. As soon as I heard that author Bill McKibben would be doing civil disobedience with Sierra Club’s Michael Brune to stop the Keystone XL Pipeline, I had an intuition that I was meant to be part of it. Although the action was a closely guarded secret and limited to 50 people (many of whom were famous activists like Julian Bond and Bob Kennedy), my inner sense was confirmed when the Earth Quaker Action Team was invited to send a representative, and I was selected to go. The details fell into place with amazing ease, and my whole trip felt covered and filled with joy, from the prayers I felt uplifting me as I prepared to the warm welcome I received when I walked out of the Anacostia Park Police Station and into the waiting embrace of Earth Quakers Ingrid Lakey and Amy Ward Brimmer.
When I teach “Discerning Our Calls” at Pendle Hill, I always highlight Presbyterian minister Frederick Buechner’s quote about discernment: “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” The quote points to the importance of both inner and outer signs when following a leading, as well as the test that a call serve more than ourselves. It is easy to get overconfident when we feel an inner nudge, but I’ve come to trust those nudges most when they are accompanied by way opening and a sense of service. My arrest at the White House was only the most recent example of inner and outer converging during the last two years as I’ve grown in my commitment to climate justice.
Like many Friends, I’ve composted my banana peels and taken short showers for over 20 years. I’ve signed petitions, written checks to environmental organizations, recycled, and purchased electricity that was 100 percent renewable, even if I did consume more bratwurst and gasoline than I was proud to admit. However, I didn’t really feel under the weight of a concern about climate change, to use the Quaker phrase, until my participation in a committee that released my friend Hollister Knowlton from that weight over two years ago.
Hollister and I both had minutes of religious service from Philadelphia’s Chestnut Hill Meeting and were part of a seven-person mutual support committee. We took turns sharing our journeys and listening deeply to each other. One month, Hollister shared her exhaustion after 14 years of speaking to Friends about the need for us to reduce our carbon footprints. She was grief-stricken, both for the Earth and for its poorest people, who will bear the brunt of climate change. The world’s need was still there but not her deep gladness. Our committee had a clear and immediate sense of unity about what was needed: we told Hollister to lay this burden down. It was no longer hers to carry. She felt an instant sense of relief and release.
A funny thing happened in that meeting, though. I had a sense that if we were releasing Hollister from this work, then someone else was going to have to take it up. After all, the issues that she had been speaking about were still urgent, and her ministry had been under the care of our meeting. When I realized that Hollister had not finished putting plastic over the meeting windows for winter—an annual project she often spearheaded—I suggested to our committee that we arrive early before worship to complete the weatherization she had started. Although I was alone at first, others gradually arrived, and the job was done before worship began. I felt buoyed by the community effort.
I didn’t feel off-the-hook, though. I attended a workshop on teaching weatherization in low-income communities, but it became clear quickly that caulking was not my calling. Neither was lecturing people about their carbon footprints, given how large my own footprint was with two kids and two cars. I was not called to become Hollister but to use my own gifts, find my own deep gladness.
When the 2011 Philadelphia Flower Show began, I kept feeling that I should go, specifically on Wednesday, even though none of the friends I invited could make it that day. Only after I got there did I understand why: the Earth Quaker Action Team was committing civil disobedience to pressure PNC Bank—a major sponsor of the Flower Show—to stop funding mountaintop removal coal mining. Although I had never been to a meeting, I knew several people in EQAT (pronounced “equate”), including two who were risking arrest by singing “Where Have All the Flowers Gone” behind yellow crime scene tape. I knew a few more of the Friends who had come to support them and happily joined them in handing out fliers and explaining the issue to passersby.
A few months earlier, at Hollister’s prompting, my meeting had discussed EQAT’s request that we remove our money from PNC Bank because of its investment policies, so I knew the basics of the issue—that mountaintop removal caused increased rates of cancer and birth defects in Appalachia, while burning the coal contributed to climate change and asthma. PNC was one of the major financiers of the coal companies, though it advertised itself as a green bank with Quaker roots. EQAT was calling PNC to live up to its image by issuing a sector exclusion against mountaintop removal mining, and it was calling on Friends to put their money elsewhere until the bank did.
What was surprising for me—along with the serendipity of attending the Flower Show exactly when this action was taking place—was to observe how joyful I felt joining this protest, how hopeful I felt afterwards. That feeling increased when I finally made it to an EQAT meeting a few months later and was greeted with several warm hugs as I entered the Martin Luther King room at Friends Center. During the meeting, five people shared their experience of getting arrested during an action at a PNC Bank, and another reported on his role supporting those in jail. Although I was a little nervous about EQAT’s bold approach, I was encouraged by the joyful spirit of the group and the thoughtful way they discussed strategy. I threw myself into volunteering with EQAT and by the time we organized a walk across Pennsylvania a few months later felt it was a central part of my life.
Joining EQAT coincided with another life-changing event. That same week, I received a phone call from a dear friend in Botswana, where I had served in the Peace Corps 25 years before. Knowing that it was summer there, I asked her if it was hot.
“Oh my God!” Mmadithapelo exclaimed. “It’s 45 degrees!”
My mind raced to do the math. That’s 113 degrees Fahrenheit. I checked later on the Internet to see if I had heard her right and learned that what was an unusual temperature back in the 1980s was now the average summer high. I learned that it was so hot during the brief rainy season that rain evaporated before it could be absorbed into the ground, with devastating consequences for farmers.
A few weeks later I was given a message in meeting for worship about how climate change related to all our Friends testimonies: equality, because it was the poor and people of color who would bear the brunt of it; peace, because of the wars likely to result from drought and famine; simplicity, because ravenous consumption was part of what drove more carbon into the atmosphere. I also spoke about what I consider the unnamed Quaker testimony: love. Climate change in Africa, I realized, was not just some abstract issue for me because there were Africans whom I loved. My voice cracked as I spoke, and I had a sense that I was being cracked open in some deeper way as well. After worship, several people said that my message changed the way they thought about climate change.
A week or so later in worship a Friend told the story of a friend of hers who’d died of cancer. During the miraculous year when the cancer was in remission, he had said, “Whatever you want to do, do it now.” That was the core of the message. When I asked myself what I would regret not doing if I were to die soon, the answer was immediately clear: visit Botswana again.
Friends can be cavalier about the term “way opening,” taking any little coincidence as a sign that what we want is divinely ordained. Still, sometimes circumstances fall into place with such miraculous ease that we conclude our endeavors are rightly ordered, to use another bit of Quaker jargon. That was my experience as I began to plan a two-week trip to southern Africa. When I looked up Quakers in Botswana, I found a woman who had recently visited my meeting in Philadelphia; she offered me a place to stay in the capital. A British Friend, whom I knew from Pendle Hill, happened to visit Philadelphia for the first time in over 15 years just when I was planning my trip and could use her insight as someone who now lived in Cape Town. In another bit of serendipity, an old South African friend—who lives in Europe but just happened to be going home on vacation during my trip—hosted me for four nights and helped me to arrange interviews with eco-justice activists in Johannesburg.
I also felt supported by my meeting and my spouse, who was able to bring our children on a trip to visit his family while I was gone. When I decided to assemble a support committee and invited more people than were necessary because I expected most would be away on a Saturday night in July, my living room filled with Friends who wanted to support me and hold me in the Light as I traveled. They set up a Doodle.com poll so that I had at least one person holding me in prayer each day of the trip.
During my week in Botswana, I visited my friend Mmadithapelo, as well as local Friends; interviewed government officials; and talked to ordinary people about how the climate was changing. The verdict was unanimous. The weather in the region had become unpredictable, and farmers were already facing decreased yields, especially of maize, the staple for most Africans. In South Africa the concerns were the same, though the disparity of wealth made the consequences for the poor even more dire, especially those who lived near the country’s two new coal plants, which would get precedence over people during the expected water shortages. I asked the communications director of Greenpeace Africa about a film they’d made that said that 180 million people in sub-Saharan Africa could die as a result of climate change in the twenty-first century. She said the statistic came from a 2007 UN Food and Agriculture Department study but that the predictions had gotten worse since then. The number, she explained, included deaths from wars over resources as well as famine. In the case of my particular leading, the world’s deep hunger was literal.
In my experience, leadings often use disparate aspects of our experience and integrate them in ways we couldn’t have planned ourselves. As it happened, I had been doing some genealogical research and had discovered that my grandmother’s county in Ireland had lost 50 percent of its population during the Irish Potato Famine of the 1840s. I was just starting to fathom how that trauma had affected my own family, which helped to make that 180 million figure a bit less abstract, more difficult to wiggle out from under. A hundred and eighty million potential deaths: it was horrific.
I came home more determined to hang my wash on the line and eat less bratwurst, but also more clear that such steps were not enough. What the world’s hungry need are big changes from big institutions and people bold enough to call for them. My work with Earth Quaker Action Team felt more relevant than ever.
One of the things that struck me on the trip was the fact that both Botswana and South Africa were continuing to mine and burn coal, despite coal’s disproportionate contribution to greenhouse gasses and their disproportionate vulnerability to climate change. Just like in the United States, addiction to huge profits kept them stuck in a model of development that involved digging stuff out of the ground and burning it, despite the abundance of sun and space in a region that was ideal for solar power. In the United States, our refusal to change course had led to increasingly destructive ways of getting coal, oil, and gas as the easily accessed stuff dried up. Those extreme extraction techniques bore an especially brutal cost for poor and working people, whether it was in Appalachia, Africa, or Alberta, where the dirty oil for the Keystone XL Pipeline originated. I realized that taking the profit out of extreme extraction here was one of the best things we could do for people and the planet.
Especially after spending time with South Africans who had shown tremendous courage during apartheid, I came home feeling that I was being led to show more courage, act more boldly, and more publicly in my leading to work for climate justice. So, it really did feel like way opening when EQAT—only three years old and rooted in a tiny faith community—was invited to participate in a high-profile act of civil disobedience with the 120-year-old Sierra Club, which represents over two million members. My participation allowed me to take the public stand I’d been feeling called to, weaving my concern about Africa in with the talking points we had been given about the Keystone XL Pipeline whenever I spoke to the press. Cuffing myself to the White House fence with other committed people also felt tremendously joyful, despite the seriousness of the issue and the consequences to the world if the pipeline is completed.
When we only focus on the world’s deep hunger—both the literal hunger of famine and the spiritual hunger for a way of life with more integrity—it is easy to feel overwhelmed with the magnitude of the changes we need to make. For me, the deep gladness of this work comes partly from feeling well used and partly from feeling well supported—by my family, my meeting, and an organization where people are seeking to be faithful in community.