Joining the swelling movement among churches, colleges, and cities across the country, last Saturday the Presbyteries of both Mid-Kentucky and Arkansas voted with six other presbyteries for an overture to the Presbyterian Church USA General Assembly recommending that the church divest from fossil fuel over the next five years, reinvesting our money instead in a future we--and the planet--can live with.
In Mid-Kentucky, several spoke for the motion, and only one against. The voice vote was decisive: we became the first presbytery in a coal state to endorse divestment from coal, gas, and oil, and investment in sustainability instead.
That afternoon I drove to West Virginia to talk about prophetic courage with Christians whose land has been deeply scarred by mountaintop removal, and whose water has been poisoned from chemicals used in coal processing. More about that later.
The Rev. Jane Larsen-Wigger, pastor of Crescent Hill Presbyterian Church, introduced the overture. I asked her permission to reproduce her words....
“Back in September our congregation’s Earth Care Team brought the overture to the PCUSA to divest from fossil fuels to our Session. As we sat in an air-conditioned room discussing whether to bring it to you, our own complicity in the issue of climate change did not escape us.
“We use—and we will continue to use—electricity and gasoline even as we are taking steps individually and as a church to cut down our use of them. But, that alone is not going to do it. Our small individual efforts, important as they are, will not reverse—or even halt—the direction we are headed. Bigger efforts at another level are needed. This overture offers one such effort.
“It puts some public pressure on companies to actually make efforts they can and must toward alternative forms of energy;
“It lets us use our resources to invest instead in such alternatives that we can feel good about profiting from;
“And it gives a broader public forum for this conversation – a conversation that needs to be happening, here, and at General Assembly, and in board rooms.
“This overture has already pressed that conversation. There have been more public forums in this presbytery about this in the past three months than ever in my sixteen years in this presbytery. And I know, personally, I’ve learned a lot from these conversations. I’ve learned why we need efforts like this. I came into it all pretty skeptical. Not about the reality of climate change. I think that is clear. And not about our Christian responsibility to be caring for creation as well as the poor who are hurt the most by climate change. Our own Presbyterian Church has already been clear about our responsibility.
“But I did wonder why divestment. We know it is controversial and our church has enough to argue about already (let alone in families like ours where some work for a big oil company). And also…it’s been asked, and I’ve wondered if it isn’t better to stay at the table and try to elicit change from inside. The thing is, we have done that for years now. But its effectiveness is very limited because companies do not have to deal with shareholder proposals that deal with matters relating to a company’s ‘ordinary business operations.’
“But, this overture does call for a slow 5-year withdrawal which means we are still at the table in the meantime.
“I’ve also wondered what difference anyway when our church’s investments don’t add up to all that much in the scheme of things. Which is true, but ours, along with the 20 other religious institutions as well as 23 cities, 9 colleges and universities, 2 counties, 28 foundations…well, that might start to get the attention of fossil fuel companies.
“What I have learned the past few months is that this is an urgent situation. We’ve got lots of flowery theological statements and calls to act. But we’ve really done very little. This overture, this approach might not be the best. There might well be better ways to go at it. And we need to be pursuing those too. Because this is a dire situation and we who have been charged to care for God’s creation should not be sitting back, feeling okay about things because we recycle or are considering putting solar panels on our church buildings.
“We should be taking the lead, trying everything we can to call attention to the reality before us. And that starts by learning and talking which this overture has already helped happen. This may not be the best way to go. It is definitely not the only. But it is something. And I’m convinced that we need to do something—we need to do anything and everything we can. This overture presses the conversation and adds an urgency to what we’re already doing.
“At one intergenerational learning event at our church, I was struck by how much our youth know about all of this. They do not need to be convinced of the situation that we are leaving them. The question was asked what they, our teenagers, thought the world would be like by 2050. Their visions painted a picture of the U.S. as a vast desert, the beaches on the Atlantic being a lot closer to us, the temperatures so erratic that they are destructive.
“It all pressed for me the question that David Maxwell asked: ‘What will we tell future generations we did at this point in history when we knew what needed to happen?’
“I hope as a church we can say that we did every possible thing we could think of. This overture is one of them.
“Because this overture has already been endorsed by six other presbyteries, it will be going to General Assembly. They may very well just send it through our regular MRTI channels. But, the more voices like ours which are behind it, hopefully the more weight and urgency there will be to do something.
“For this reason alone I hope we will vote in favor of this and add our voice to that prophetic call.”
Thank you, Jane, for voicing the questions and the concerns of so many! Certainly changing where we invest is only one of the many necessary changes, but it has sharpened the debate over the future we imagine.