Two high school seniors appeared before the Jan. 11 meeting of the Presbytery of the Twin Cities Area, asking for divestment of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) Foundation and the denomination’s Board of Pensions from all fossil fuel company stocks and bonds.
Joy Gresham, a ruling elder and youth group member at St. Luke, opened the overture discussion saying this was “an opportunity to act in a new and prophetic way to shift the conversation on climate change.”
Cody Kirk, also a youth group member at the church, closed with the question, “How can we be moral leaders while investing in companies that destroy the planet?”
The presbytery passed the overture with a voice vote, sending it on to this summer’s 221st General Assembly. As of Jan. 25, three other presbyteries have passed the same overture.
Where did this youthful passion come from?
Young people at St. Luke believe church is where you learn to act on what you believe. God’s love for creation and the evil of climate change are frequent sermon topics from pastor Gwin Pratt.
The church property itself is being transformed into a “permaculture” site—an ecologically sustainable food production system. An annual arts and nature camp, plus youth group wilderness trips, further prepare youth to be eco-justice activists.
That’s the background for what happened in the fall of 2013, when Kirk tipped the group toward action by sharing a movie, “The Age of Stupid,” a docudrama about a man living alone in the devastated world of 2055.
In the movie, the man watches news film footage from current times and asks, “Why didn't we stop climate change when we had the chance?” The New York Times described the film as a “much sterner and more alarming polemic than ‘An Inconvenient Truth.’”
Aware their own futures are at stake, the St. Luke youth group sprang into action, with organizational leadership provided by St. Luke associate pastor John Lee, along with Erin Pratt and Julia Nerbonne of Minnesota Interfaith Power and Light, a non-profit organization that brings faith communities together to join the growing climate justice movement.
The St. Luke youth led worship on Children’s Sabbath in October. Kirk and his brother Kevin, along with Chris Winslow and Christiaan van Lierop, prepared a four-part sermon that shared the latest science on climate change, their own stories of relationship with nature, and God’s concern, based on John 1:1-5 and Psalm 104:1-10.
Gresham, who later would introduce the overture, led children’s time with help from chickens, rabbits and a dog. With the benediction, the youth challenged the congregation to walk with them in a longer conversation about climate change.
Four “Walk With Us” sessions were offered over the next two weeks. Each included a 40-minute movie, “Do The Math,” with noted theologian/climatologist Bill McKibben, followed by a youth-moderated discussion for another 30 minutes. More than 120 St. Luke members, one-third of the congregation, attended the sessions.
Discussions revealed interest in fossil fuel divestment, alternative energies, and the Keystone XL pipeline, a proposed pipeline of nearly 1,200 miles that would move crude oil from Alberta, Canada, to Nebraska.
Reinvigorated by the youth in its community, many St. Luke members are now letting go of despair about climate change and choosing to act with hope. More than 50 attended the first Sunday potluck lunch report from the youth on climate change actions.
Sixty members attended a three-hour training workshop on civil disobedience to resist the Keystone XL pipeline. A task force is being formed to guide St. Luke toward becoming a carbon-neutral church, with consideration of a community solar garden. Two hundred postcards were signed and sent to the Environmental Protection Agency to support new carbon pollution standards for new power plants.
The youth of St. Luke have been inspiring, said Pratt in his Jan. 12 sermon: “We are all like Jeremiah. When we look around us on this jeweled Earth, we see violence and destruction, and if we try not to speak about it, our bones hurt. It just tears our guts up. But if we, my people, all become like Jeremiah too, and refuse to be silent, and cry out with the youth, then bones stop hurting. It’s quite amazing how this works: Alone, we suffer and languish, our light extinguished. Together we thrive and flourish, our light a roaring fire!”
The GA overture passed by the Presbytery of the Twin Cities Area states:
“The General Assembly expresses its profound concern about the destructive effects of climate change on all God’s creation. Climate change has had a disproportionate impact on those living in poverty and in the least developed countries, the elderly and children, and those least responsible for the emissions of greenhouse gases. General Assembly thus recognizes the moral mandate for humanity to shift to a sustainable energy plan in a way that is both just and compassionate. This mandate propels us to action as a denomination: to divest from the fossil fuel industry even as we reduce our use of fossil fuels and shrink our carbon footprint.
1. “The General Assembly calls upon the Board of Pensions and the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) Foundation to:a.“Immediately stop any new investment in fossil fuel companies and instruct asset managers in their work for the denomination to do the same; and
a. “Ensure that within 5 years none of its directly held or commingled assets includes holdings of either equities or corporate bonds in fossil fuel companies as determined by the Carbon Tracker list; and
b. “Incorporate, into already existing financial reports, regular updates detailing progress made towards full divestment. These reports will be made available to the public.
2. “The General Assembly calls upon the Stated Clerk of the PC(USA) to inform those fossil fuel companies of the passage and implementation of this resolution.”
The rationale supporting the overture’s recommendations notes that divestment is a powerful public statement removing moral license from big oil, gas, and coal companies, which generate huge profits and overly influence public policy, even while the planet is quickly warming toward an uninhabitable state.
It also notes that divestment communicates the urgent need to leave untapped 80 percent of the known carbon reserves and invest in renewable energies capable of meeting humanity's needs.
In addition, the rationale points to God’s covenant with all things alive and yet to be born—noted in Genesis 9—as the underlying moral imperative for the church to withdraw its support from companies that profit from destroying creation.
St. Luke youth are happy to share their process and enthusiasm with other youth groups that might like to get involved with climate change,. They can be contacted through the church at 952-473-7378. Minnesota Interfaith Power and Light also has many resources for organizing faith communities.
Karen Larson is a member at-large of the Presbytery of the Twin Cities Area.