Youth inspire overture calling for fossil fuel divestment

Their ‘own futures are at stake,’ high schoolers convince Twin Cities Area

February 5, 2014


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.

Sessions at St. Luke Presbyterian Church, Wayzata, Minn., and Presbyterian Church of the Apostles, Burnsville, Minn., sent the overture to the presbytery.

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.

  1. Carmen- It would probably be useful to reference the article from which the text of your comment was extracted: Context is always a valuable thing when dealing with potentially controversial topics.

    by Dan Terpstra

    February 6, 2014

  2. The PCUSA has a long-established process for resolution with corporations in which Presbyterian agencies hold investments. Mission Responsibility Through Investment "MRTI) implements the General Assembly’s policies on socially responsible investing (also called faith-based investing) by engaging corporations in which the church owns stock. This is accomplished through correspondence, dialogues, voting shareholder proxies and recommending similar action to others, and occasionally filing shareholder resolutions." "MRTI enjoys the full participation of the Board of Pensions and the Presbyterian Church (USA) Foundation. Their assets, including those of the Foundation’s family of New Covenant mutual funds, are managed according to General Assembly guidelines." So, the right path for those who are interested in the denomination’s assessing its investment in fossil fuel extraction-related companies is to ask the matter to be referred to MRTI. Instead, advocates are seeking “immediate” divestment in terms of any new investment and full divestment from all identified companies within 5 years. The Presbyterian Foundation estimates that it holds direct long-term investments in 95 of the 200 companies targeted for divestment. However, both the Board of Pensions and Presbyterian Foundation face a great challenge in even estimating the percentage of commingled funds’ investments in the companies identified on the anti-fossil-fuel advocates’ list. What do the advocates really want? If what they want is to positively impact the environment by reducing carbon emissions, the carbon footprint of the denomination, and the denomination’s corporate responsibility for the negative effects of the coal, oil and gas industries on the environment, then you would expect them to be targeting behavior. Instead, they are targeting divestment — and not even divestment from the greatest offenders of carbon sin. The divestment list focuses exclusively on the 100 coal and 100 oil and gas companies who hold the extraction rights for the greatest percentage of reserves still underground. That makes this an exclusively a supply-side attack. What might a balanced request look like? A collaborative approach that would promote peace, unity and purity within the PCUSA might include: 1. Referral to MRTI of the concerns raised by the fossil-free advocates; 2. Intentionally seeking out Presbyterians who are directly involved in the coal, oil and gas industries for input; 3. Including members of the presbyteries whose churches depend upon revenue from investments in fossil fuel companies to work collaboratively on a plan for reinvestment in other industries; and 4. A denomination-wide accountable call to diminish fossil-fuel consumption, starting with the GA itself.

    by Carmen Fowler LaBerge

    February 5, 2014