The following comments were given at the closing of the April 27, 2019 Prayer for the Planet interfaith vigil sponsored by 350 Indiana-Calumet in Gary, Indiana. Represented at this Earth Week service were Buddhist, Christian, Humanist, Jewish, Mormon, Muslim, Pagan, and Sikh religious communities.
A friend of mind recently sent me a quote:
“There’s nothing more radically activist than a truly spiritual life. And there’s nothing more truly spiritual than a radically activist life.”– Brian McLaren, Naked Spirituality
I believe that, but I’ve struggled to live it.
I want to tell you a story about something that happened to me recently, but first I have to give you some background.
I have been religious all my life. I was raised Mormon. In my young adulthood, I connected with the Pagan community. And when my children got be school age, I joined a Unitarian congregation.
Prayer is something I have always been comfortable with, having been trained from a young age to pray both publicly and privately–though the form my prayers have taken has changed over the years.
In recent years, I have become passionate about public activism–especially around climate change and environmental justice. And a few years ago, I helped found the first chapter of 350.org in Indiana.
But I have mostly kept these two lives apart: my private spiritual life and my public activist life.
Last year, I was participating in an action, and I was very nervous because I had an important role to play. My friend, Elizabeth, was with me. And maybe Elizabeth noticed I was nervous, or maybe she was nervous too, but she asked me to say a prayer.
And I was dumbstruck. Because no one had ever asked me to say a prayer in an activist setting before. I fumbled my way through it, feeling very self-conscious.
Afterward, I wondered about my reaction. Why was it so difficult for me to pray in this setting, when I have been praying my whole life? I realized how much I had been keeping my spiritual life and my activist life apart.
And I think that’s emblematic of a lot of the environmental activist movement today. For a variety of reasons, activists–even if they are privately religious or spiritual–are reluctant to bring their spirituality into heir activism, or their activism into their spirituality.
George Marshall is the author of Don’t Even Think About it: Why Our Brains are Wired to Ignore Climate Change. One of the things he writes about is how the discussion of climate change is so often framed as a matter of the mind–largely leaving out the heart. Climate activists speak the language of science, of facts and figures, but often ignore the language of story and symbol, and the language of values. This, says Marshall, is a mistake, because we are both rational and emotional beings. Our heads and our hearts are in constant communication. This is as true of the most skeptical atheist, as it is of the most spiritual mystic.
Facts and figures can only take us so far. To create real change, we need to do more than convince people. We needed a collective change of heart–something like a conversion. And this is something that our religions and spiritualities have been doing for thousands of years.
This is why we need the world’s religious voices–like those gathered here today. We should remember that many of history’s social justice movements–like the abolition moment and the civil rights movement–began in churches. But even more than that, I think we need to find ways to bridge the gap between our private spiritualities and our public activisms.
I want to end with a quote by Pancho Ramos-Stierle, who is quoted in the book Occupy Spirituality. Ramos was 26 years old when he was arrested at Occupy Oakland while he was meditating. Ramos told a Yes! magazine reporter afterward:
It is time for the spiritual people to get active and the activist people to get spiritual. We can have total revolution of the human spirit. I think that we need both now. We need to combine this inner revolution with the outer revolution.