We Are Pilgrims on a Journey

Plant growing on a decaying tree trunk.
© Ionescu Begdan


Friends across the country are grappling with finding a faithful response to the immensity of the climate crisis, and faithful responses have taken many forms. This is the story of a year of faithful seeking and acting by New England Yearly Meeting Prophetic Climate Action Working Group (PCAWG). Our year together provided much spiritual fruit and action. We pray that God is illuminating a path to faithful action in these times of crisis, and we share this journey in hope that others may find light and hope within it.

At New England Yearly Meeting (NEYM) Annual Sessions in 2016, Friends returning from Friends World Committee for Consultation World Plenary in Pisac, Peru, delivered a challenge to us: commit to two concrete steps addressing global climate change within the year. By the end of our sessions, Friends had recognized a group that was led towards prophetic action on climate as one of those concrete steps. That group coalesced to become PCAWG (pronounced pea-cog), which worked faithfully through 2016 to discern God’s will among us and enact it in the world. Looking back now, we see much in our journey which illuminates the Quaker way to powerful action.

We met first September 5, 2016, at Mount Toby Meeting in Leverett, Massachusetts. After the rush of energy during sessions, which included large gatherings brainstorming what the yearly meeting could do, we began with an investigation into prophecy. Prophecy isn’t about telling the future but about breaking through the numbness of our routines and calling our community to greater faithfulness and deeper relation with God. We were clearly called to a kind of prophetic action and witness that springs from our authentic Quaker existence.

But we did not know what to do.

So we gathered a larger group. Over 30 Friends gathered October 28 for a weekend retreat in Framingham, Massachusetts. We worshiped and felt moved to prepare the ground for helping the Religious Society of Friends listen for and respond to the leadings of Spirit. We thought of our work as being that of mycelium, which invisibly work through soil and nurture plants and trees. Only at some late stage, do they blossom into visible mushrooms. Grieving emerged as a central theme. A group that coalesced in Maine planned gatherings on climate grief, which were first held at NEYM’s mid-year gathering in Providence, Rhode Island.

But we still did not know what to do.

Over the winter, we felt abandoned by the Spirit; our way was lost, and no clarity arose. We waited and continued to meet.

In March, we gathered at Worcester, Massachusetts, and many sensed that this would be our last meeting, if some way did not open. But open it did. New life arose, and through brainstorming, we became clear that our witness was to the transforming power of God to re-prioritize our lives and reorder the world. What resulted was a pilgrimage. We set off on July 9 on a seven-day, 60-mile pilgrimage between the two coal plants in New Hampshire. With radical hospitality from Dover, West Epping, and Concord Meetings and participation by many other Friends meetings and churches, as well as Friends from across our yearly meeting and beyond, it was a powerful experience. This was a journey made by many more than the dozen people who walked every day; it was a corporate witness.

The pilgrimage concluded with a meeting for worship appointed by Concord Meeting in Canterbury, New Hampshire, which gathered over 50 people at the gates of the coal plant in Bow, New Hampshire. Following worship, in an act of civil disobedience, a smaller group set up an encampment, which blocked the train tracks that feed coal to the power plant.

Six days of walking and worship prepared the ground for us, allowing time to center in Spirit and connect. The fruits of that centering were love and trust, which invited many into the bold work of the direct action on the coal tracks. We were invited to live up to the teaching of Jesus, and found deep within ourselves the willingness to give over our lives to whatever was to come—whether arrest, condemnation, or transformation.

The police never arrived, and our time on the tracks was spent in Bible study, worship, and deepening relationships. Let us be honest: there were rough edges. Disagreement arose in the group Sunday morning following worship, stemming from a lack of a clear decision-making process as well as issues of patriarchy and power. Taking the time to address the hurt was where we found the true work: the holy struggle of living into the beloved community.

Honor Woodrow wrote a reflection following the final weekend:

I chose to join the pilgrimage because it was clear to me that it was not a “protest” but rather an opportunity to gather in the manner of Friends with a common concern, and to listen for how the Spirit might be leading us into transformation, both as individuals and as a group.

On Saturday evening, there were several Friends who heard a clear calling to sleep on the tracks in the encampment that they had built earlier in the day. Several others (myself included) had not found their way clear to risk arrest at that time…. What I needed was to sleep in my own bed, and I was eager to take a shower. (After accumulating six days worth of sweat, bug spray, sunscreen, and pond water, I felt long overdue.) So I made my way home, where I showered and slept (which was glorious). When I woke up the next morning, I returned to the tracks for a final time of worship before helping to dismantle the encampment.

During this worship, it became clear to me that while it is nice to sleep in a comfortable bed, to have a clean body, and to be in my own space, the rest and comfort I am yearning for is actually found in worship with those who share a common expectation that the Holy Spirit might just show up among us at any moment with all that we need.

I am bringing this insight with me out of that time, and thinking about what it means for how I choose to orient my life and decide to spend my time. Should I prioritize what feels most within my comfort zone or risk being uncomfortable, knowing that there is a possibility that I might find greater peace, connection, and rightness there?

George Fox’s words, written  to his parents in 1652, resonate:

“To that of God in you….I speak, to beseech you…to return within, and wait to hear the voice of the Lord there; and waiting there, and keeping close to the Lord, a discerning will grow…. Oh! be faithful! Look not back, nor be too forward, further than ye have attained; for ye have no time, but this present time: therefore prize your time for your souls’ sake.”

Friends, we believe we are discovering new vessels for God’s work. We offer this as a story of our experiment—an experiment of a small group with a commitment to following Spirit—in hope that it may inspire others to do their own experiments. We have felt the love and support of many Friends across the country this past year, and we ask for your continued prayers as we discern where God is calling us. And we long for you to “Go and do likewise,” taking up your own experiments in what God may be asking of you in this time.

Jay O'Hara

Jay O'Hara is a member of Sandwich (Mass.) Meeting, and a co-founder of the Climate Disobedience Center, climatedisobedience.org. The NEYM Prophetic Climate Action Working Group consists of Alice Grendon, Brian Drayton, Dunan Herman-Parks, Jay O'Hara, John Humphries, Katherine Fisher, Louis Cox, Meg Klepack, Minga Claggett-Borne, Peter Blood-Patterson, Ruah Swennerfeldt, and Wendy Schlotterbeck.

3 thoughts on “We Are Pilgrims on a Journey

  1. I have been deeply concerned about humankind’s poor relationship with the rest of creation since the early 1970s. As more more people became concerned about this issue their concerns deepened my understanding of the enormity of the problems we were creating for ourselves and the rest of life. I was able to attend the initial gathering that formed The South African Faith Communities Environmental Institute [SAFCEI]. Whilst at the gathering it struck me that Friends, with our reliance on the Spirit to guide us in the actions that we take either singly or as group, are thereby uniquely suited to tackle issues arising from humankind’s flawed relationships with the rest of creation because the problems arising from this flawed relationship are beyond human comprehension, but. the Spirit knows what should be done even if we don’t. Jay O’Hara et al are doing exactly that, more strength to their efforts and I heartily commend them for them.

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