Faith Groups Bring New Voices to Climate Change Discussion: Social Justice, Health Are Key Messages

By Krisberg, Kim | The Nation's Health, May 2008 | Go to article overview

Faith Groups Bring New Voices to Climate Change Discussion: Social Justice, Health Are Key Messages


Krisberg, Kim, The Nation's Health


EVERY DAY after the credits roll, moviegoers shuffle from dark theaters, bringing with them empty popcorn buckets and feelings of romance, sadness, laughter, fright or plain disappointment at wasting another $10. Two years ago, the Rev. Gerald Durley left a movie theater so inspired he began walking down a new and unexpected path.

A longtime civil and human rights activist, the senior pastor at Providence Missionary Baptist Church in Atlanta had been invited to a presentation of "The Great Warming," a documentary about climate change. While Durley said he was reluctant to attend at first, he left the film with a new mission to bring environmental stewardship to his congregation and help his congregants make the connections between environmental justice and the many social and health concerns facing the black community. Today, Durley preaches on the responsibility of spiritual leaders to protect "God's creation," encourages church members to take action in their own lives to reduce their environmental footprints and is helping amplify a fairly new voice in the fight against climate change: people of faith.

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"Our role has always been to make something exciting--we do it every Sunday," Durley told The Nation's Health. "Now we have to take the scientific and make it come alive in people's lives."

Issues of environmental degradation and climate change have been gaining ground within faith communities for some time, and often fit into religious teachings that promote helping impoverished communities and upholding justice. "A Religious Agenda on Poverty and Global Climate Change," released by the National Religious Partnership for the Environment last year, calls on national policymakers to make protecting vulnerable populations a central focus of climate change legislation and urges that at least 40 percent of funds generated from climate change programs be set aside to assist low-income families in facing an uncertain environmental future.

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In 1993 when the National Religious Partnership for the Environment was forming, Paul Gorman, the partnership's executive director, said he was talking with a Catholic bishop who wondered why he never saw images of people on environmental posters. That observation, Gorman said, "spoke a lot because it heightened the view that religious people look at these questions less as just issues of wilderness, wildlife and wetlands, but of people and poor nations and communities." For many in the faith community, climate change is a "profoundly moral issue," Gorman said.

"We're not just about having the religious community be one voice in the chorus, but about having the chorus sing songs that really come from the heart --that's the way you reach people," he told The Nation's Health. "Nobody will come to a church basement for a meeting on (carbon dioxide) emissions, but they will come to hear about the well-being of their children."

The effects of a changing climate on the most vulnerable is at the heart of the Catholic Coalition on Climate Change as well, which is working to integrate the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' statement on climate change into church life. In 2001, the conference of bishops declared that "global climate change is not about economic theory or political platforms, nor about partisan advantage or interest group pressures. It is about the future of God's creation and the one human family." Like the partnership, the two-year-old Catholic coalition advocates public policies that help the poor in withstanding climate change and assist developing nations in adapting to shifting environments, said coalition Executive Director Dan Misleh, who noted that the world's top greenhouse gas emitter--the United States--has a "special obligation to help."

"We're all in this together," Misleh said. "As climate change unfolds, more and more groups will look toward the faith community to help motivate people to act. …

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