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United Methodists Join Tar Sands Action for Environmental Justice

United Methodists gathered in Lafayette Square Park near the White House in Washington, D.C. to protest the proposed Keystone XL pipeline.
United Methodists gathered in Lafayette Square Park near the White House in Washington, D.C. to protest the proposed Keystone XL pipeline.

By Leigh Rogers

United Methodist Women’s Green Team members, along with United Methodists from Maryland, converged on the White House on Sunday, November 6, 2011, with over 10,000 others to press President Obama to block construction of the Keystone XL pipeline.

The project, contracted by the company TransCanada, would transport crude oil 1,700 miles from the Tar Sands of Alberta, Canada, to refineries in the Gulf of Mexico. Those against it argue it would deface the natural landscapes of the Tar Sands and the Nebraska Sandhills, destroy indigenous Canadians’ communities, and raise carbon dioxide levels to dangerous realms. If the pipeline leaks or is not secured properly, it could contaminate vast freshwater aquifers like the Ollagala in Nebraska, making it undrinkable.

Participants rallied in Lafayette Square Park in Washington, D.C., before standing shoulder to shoulder around the White House, with enough people to encircle it five times.

The Tar Sands Action, organized by environmentalist and United Methodist Bill McKibben, was a follow-up to a civil disobedience event for the same cause at which 1,252 people were arrested, including United Methodist and Green Team member Pamela Sparr, who was also in attendance at Sunday’s event.

The action took place during the World Council of Churches’ North American Hearing on Poverty, Wealth and Ecology, November 5-11, 2011 in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. The Rev. Kathleen Stone attended, who is chaplain of the Church Center for the United Nations and a staff member of United Methodist Women. She saw the Tar Sands firsthand and met with those affected by economic, health and ecological problems caused by the pipeline in Ft. McMurray, Alberta.

United Methodists get involved

Green Team member Pat Watkins and Ms. Sparr, an environmental consultant for the Women's Division, attended out of their belief in the biblical message of environmental stewardship to protect God’s creation and that now is the time for action. Esmeralda Brown, executive staff member for environmental justice, also attended as the core organizer of United Methodist Women and Green Team members to the event.

Mr. Watkins, a United Methodist church and community worker from Virginia, started a ministry out of the Virginia Conference on environmental stewardship called Caretakers of God’s Creation, and he serves as its executive director.

“United Methodist Women has a great history of standing up for what is right. I wanted to help continue that tradition by being present at the rally,” Ms. Sparr said. “I am putting my body on the line for the indigenous and poor people who are already hurting because of climate change, and for my godchildren, my niece, the children in my neighborhood and around the world. They are the ones who will pay the price of the decisions our elected leaders make today.”

Other United Methodists came from the Baltimore-Washington and Virginia Conferences. Norm Williams, 90, is the son of two Methodist missionaries based in Bengal, India. He served in the Carter Administration and stood behind President Carter when he signed critical bills on environmental issues.

Lisa Jenkins, who came with a group from the Fairlington United Methodist Church in McLean, Va., said, “I truly believe we as Christians have a responsibility to watch over God's Creation and to take care of it--not to exploit and destroy it but to work toward making it heaven on earth. We are also expected to take care of ‘the least of these,’ and I see that as including plants and animals and others without a voice.”

She continued, “I'm concerned with what I see happening as we extract hydrocarbons from the ground and emit them into the air, which causes local pollution and climate change on a global scale. Transporting them via pipeline and other means can lead to spills and accidents. It is so much more effective to protect the world from degradation than to try to clean it up later. I’m showing my support for ... decision making that is protective of our natural world--God's world.”

Ms. Stone, who visited the Tar Sands in Canada, said, “We were devastated by this tour, not only by the woundedness of the earth but by the kind of human arrogance and conquering [taking place].”

Rally calls for environmental stewardship and economic justice

Seventeen speakers, emceed by Mr. McKibben, each made their way to the stage to say why they stood against the Keystone XL pipeline.

The lineup included actors Gloria Reuben and Mark Ruffalo, Sierra Club executive director Michael Brune, Congressman Steve Cohen, NASA scientist James Hansen, author Naomi Klein, the Revs. Jim Wallis and Lennox Yearwood, Nobel Peace Prize recipient Jody Williams, National Wildlife Federation president Larry Schwieger, Maryland State Delegate Heather Mizeur, indigenous activist Tom Poor Bear, National Resource Defense Council founder John Adams, and others.

Faith leaders said the Tar Sands Action was a call to conversion from America’s dependency on oil. “I look out at the crowd and see a revival for a clean economy,” said Mr. Wallis of Sojourners, an evangelical Christian social justice organization. “We need to go from a bad theology [of environmental destruction] to a good theology of environmental stewardship.”

“It is selfish to allow our future generations to pay for our affluent sins,” he continued. “This campaign is an intervention in the soul of the economy.”

Mr. Yearwood of the Hip Hop Caucus spoke of the urgency to act for environmental justice. “As humanity, we’re at our lunch counter moment,” he said.

Ms. Mizeur challenged participants to stand up to large corporations like TransCanada that put profits and greed over livelihoods and communities. “Big Oil has big money, but we have big voices,” she said.

The participants then split off into groups and peacefully marched and surrounded the White House, from the front of Pennsylvania Avenue to the bottom of the South Lawn. A group helped carry a giant inflated tube reading “STOP THE PIPELINE,” symbolizing the actual tubes that would carry thousands of gallons of oil through the middle of the United States and Canada.

United Methodist Women’s environmental justice work

United Methodist Women calls for sound stewardship of the earth and environmentally friendly lifestyles that preserve creation for the benefit of present and future generations. United Methodist Women's environmental advocacy responds to this call. United Methodist Women started the Green Team to activate local United Methodist Women members to organize their communities around environmental issues impacting their area.

For United Methodist Women, environmental justice is also a racial justice issue. Social injustices compound the health risks for low-income communities and those that have a high proportion of residents who are people of color. Racism and class play a big role in who we hire to do the "dirty work,” where we locate industrial processes and where we dispose of waste. The indigenous communities affected by the Tar Sands oil pipeline calls United Methodist Women to action on behalf of these concerns.

A proposed resolution for General Conference 2012, “Caring for God’s Creation,” emphasizes the biblical foundations of environmental stewardship and a renewal of justice-seeking actions by the United Methodist Church and governments to fulfill responsible caring of creation.

Leigh Rogers is public relations and web content associate for United Methodist Women.

Last Updated: 04/10/2014

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