We’ve been hearing for years that the mainline Protestant churches are on the wane in the United States, emptying out in an increasingly atomized society. And Catholicism has been clearly weakened by recent internal events. Is the Christian church only a force on the Right in the United States?
I don’t think so. In my personal life, my ten-year membership in a small church here in Boston has deepened as I’ve realized the extent of the environmental and economic crisis we are living through. I consider my church to be my community in a unique way: I rely on the congregation for my deepest sustenance — even those who are not my “friends.” These are the people I can be real with, and the ones I will count on as times get harder. I worry about the “unchurched,” and I often find myself recommending to friends that they find a liberal religious community to join, reminding them that there are many places that accept non-believers and agnostics.
Many activists working on climate change, peak oil and the economic crisis think similarly. The threat to our growth-based economy, and the materialistic lifestyle it has afforded us, has brought strong moral questions to the fore. Can we, in good conscience, continue to live in a way that threatens the well being of our planet, our poorer neighbors, and the generations to come? This question, and its answer, falls squarely into the realm of religion.
The Reverend Cecilia Kingman, of Cascade Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in East Wenatchee, Washington, feels the church has a unique role to play in this moment of crisis: “All of the old stories are failing us, and we need new stories. Religion is the only institution that creates new stories, and a new theology.”
Cecilia has served several congregations in the past decade, and has observed a heightening amount of anxiety and depression in her congregations over that time. “People are overwhelmed by grief and anxiety…part of my job is to put grief work before them on a regular basis. I try to be deft about it — one upcoming service is about “how to keep moving forward in times of despair,” dealing with climate change, the economy, and so on. Rather than provide the congregation with false assurances, I’m approaching it through the story of Jonah (in the belly of the whale): We have to feel the loss and despair first. If we are clinging to trying not to feel bad, then there’s no possibility of real transformation.”
I work for the Institute for Policy Studies as an organizer, and my main project is the Common Security Club (CSC). CSCs are groups of about 20 people who come together to face the economic crisis in community. A facilitator takes them through a 5-session curriculum with three intents: learning together about the economy, fostering mutual aid and cooperation among group members, and moving into taking larger actions to create a livable economy. The Clubs create an intimate environment in which people are honest about their finances, their troubles, and their fears about the future. Slowly and cautiously, a space is formed in which people can face the reality that we are not going back to a growth economy, that our earth is truly imperiled, and that we must create the new world now.
We have found the Common Security Club a particularly effective tool for strengthening congregations in this time of economic and ecological crisis. These groups may seem unique, but really they help recreate the role that churches have always played in communities. The crisis we face is too big for us to hold alone. It’s imperative that we find communities in which to share our grief, pledge our support, and receive the aid and generosity of others.
Jim Antal is the conference Minister and President of the United Church of Christ in Massachusetts. Jim preaches in a different congregation every Sunday, and 90% of his sermons focus on climate change. Jim believes that “the unit of survival going forward is the local town–and guess what? There’s a church in every town! The circumstances of the planet require that churches embrace a new vocation — for all faiths. We must realize that “our “neighbor is all of creation, not just human beings, and we must think of unborn generations as our neighbors too. This idea has theological purchase, it grabs people, and then they can begin to change their lives, to do the things we can and should do for the earth, things which are in fact spiritual practices.”
When I talk to friends about church I tell them to find a community they like, a theology they can embrace (or at least tolerate!), and then dig in and be tenacious through the hard stuff. There will be long and ineffective committee meetings; there will be weird people in the pews; some of the sermons will be boring. There should also be music and potlucks and moments of inspiration and real connection. But it’s all together in one package. If we can’t tolerate that, it’s because we’ve forgotten what community is. It is both enduring and enjoying the company of others, with the knowledge that we can rely on them.
Marla Marcum chairs the Climate Change Task Force of the New England Conference of the United Methodist Church. “One very important role of the churches, and other faith communities, in these difficult times is to face the emotional tolls of the problems of our world head-on. When we are at our best, our congregations are compassionate communities of support, filled with individuals and groups with the skills and desire to support and comfort those who grieve, to help one another find the courage to act boldly through the power of the Spirit to confront the hard truths we face and to transcend the fears that paralyze us.”
My local Common Security Club met last night at our church. We had our usual potluck — everything from baked tofu to cornbread to mac n’ cheese — then a quick check-in where everyone summed up their personal news, free to reveal any anxieties or difficulties they were facing. Next up was the “budget makeover” part of the evening, in which we look closely at the budgets of two or three people, in order to help them resolve a financial quandary. The intimacy of these discussions has increased, as the group has now been together over a year. Last night a good deal of time was spent helping an older group member confront a tenant who hadn’t paid rent in almost a year. Everything from legal advice, to a thoughtful discussion about the moral quandary of her positions, was addressed. We then moved on to a discussion of the recent Supreme Court decision to maintain “corporate personhood”, and what action we could take together to oppose the decision.
The evening wrapped up around nine and I left with a full list of topics the group wanted to address in future meetings, everything from local co-housing options, to getting together to can vegetables in the church kitchen, to joining local foreclosure demonstrations. We ended with a prayer of thanks for our community and the hope it brings us.