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Climate and the People: September 19-23, New York City

By Ruth Broyde Sharone


Photo: GreenFaith

Photo: GreenFaith

Sunday, September 21, 2014, the UN International Day of Peace. The sky was clear, the sun shining, and the air was vibrating with excitement. You could sense an unmistakable whiff of history-in-the-making. Soon midtown Manhattan would become a rolling wave of humanity, a moving festival of people of every age, race, ethnicity, nationality, and belief. Most wore casual attire, some religious garb, and others chose colorful costumes and body paint. An impressive assortment of headgear showed up as well: hijabs, turbans, kippas, garlands, feathers, panama hats, and baseball caps.

Thousands of children tagged along, walking, some in strollers, some on the shoulders of a parent. More than 300,000 men, women, and children marching together for four hours, singing, chanting, and drumming.

What looked like a giant Fellini film-prop cruised slowly through the crowds: a 26-foot, bio-diesel-powered bus transformed into a wooden “Noah’s Ark,” carrying religious and interfaith leaders.

In the pre-march hours, huge numbers of people gathered in various designated areas surrounding Columbus Circle in Manhattan. The individual parade arteries were organized in advance, street-by-street, according to religious, neighborhood, or activist affiliation. Once all were assembled, the arteries were opened and the marchers poured into Columbus Circle and onto Sixth Avenue, south to 42nd Street and west to 11th Avenue. Everyone mingled with everyone as we walked. That alone was a scene to be treasured. 

Dense crowds left little room to navigate. Later pundits argued over whether 300,000 or 400,000 actually participated in the People’s Climate March. Those who were marching understood we were representing not only ourselves and our extended communities, but millions of people around the world who have decided to join together – in person and in spirit – to issue a clarion call to our leaders and the governments of the world that we demand significant change in the care and stewardship of our earth. Our feet were announcing what our collective voices had not always declared with sufficient urgency – even though our Indigenous brothers and sisters had been warning us about this possibility for centuries.

Ruth walking with members of a Buddhist community. – Photo: GreenFaith

Ruth walking with members of a Buddhist community. – Photo: GreenFaith

The message came from every direction: We have reached the tipping point of frustration with world leaders who gather periodically with pomp and ceremony to announce adoption of the most tepid of measures to stem the tide of worldwide environmental degradation. We have had enough and were saying so clearly with our songs and chants, our signs and banners, with our feet and our voices: “We care about our future and we are not going to accept the status quo anymore.”

Never before have so many diverse spiritually and religiously motivated people joined together in a single action for the sake of us all, a milestone in the interfaith movement.

Interfaith Focus

The interfaith community was a strong, vocal component of the March. In the hour preceding the official opening, interfaith leaders and activists gathered on 58th Street near 7th Avenue for a rally organized by the dynamic Rev. Fletcher Harper, executive director of GreenFaith, Interfaith Partners for the Environment, and coordinator of Our Voices-Bringing Faith to the Climate Talks, a new international, multifaith campaign for a strong climate treaty.

Peter Yarrow of Peter, Paul, and Mary, standing next to his daughter and granddaughter, sings “Where Have All the Flowers Gone” at the early morning rally. – Photo: Ruth Broyde Sharone

Peter Yarrow of Peter, Paul, and Mary, standing next to his daughter and granddaughter, sings “Where Have All the Flowers Gone” at the early morning rally. – Photo: Ruth Broyde Sharone

A platform had been erected for opening speeches. Musical performances fired up the crowd and got everyone dancing. The crowd cheered as they listened to the prayers, poems, hymns, and inspirational riffs offered in this early hour by interfaith leaders, priests, rabbis, imams, swamis, Indigenous leaders, Pagans, and Humanists. The 26-foot Noah’s Ark, built by New York’s interfaith-friendly Auburn Seminary, GreenFaith, Middle Collegiate Church, Judson Memorial Church, and the Shalom Center, sat on one side of the stage. “With the ark, and as people of faith, we were calling on people around the world to think of themselves as modern-day Noahs,” said Isaac Luria, vice president of Auburn Action at Auburn Seminary.

To the World’s Leaders from Indigenous Peoples

The Indigenous Elders and Medicine Peoples Council sent the following message to the United Nations and World Leaders ahead of the September 23rd Summit, including these words:

The people of the world cannot continue to ignore Aboriginal Indigenous Peoples, the Natural System of Life, the Natural Law and our connection with All Life. We strongly urge all leaders to work and consult with us, the spiritual people of the Earth, to solve the world’s problems, without war. We extend to you an open invitation and extend our hand to you, so that together we can begin to shift from the path of self-destruction to the path of peace, harmony and balance with All Creation.”

The Council urged the people of the world to

“restore the Sacredness within ourselves, within our families, within our communities and within our Nations. We must respect, follow and uphold the Creator’s Natural Law as a foundation for all decision-making” and “work in unity to help Mother Earth heal so that she can bring back balance and harmony for all her children.”

At the end of the day, an evocative and dramatic multifaith service was held at the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine. Upon entering, we each were given a stone and later were asked to make a silent commitment of how we would each become an advocate for the Earth and then place that stone on a central table in the middle of the sanctuary.

More than a March

The massive September 21 parade was straddled by related events in New York City. For two days preceding the March, a thoroughly interfaith Religions for the Earth Conferencewas held at Union Theological Seminary. It was organized by the seminary’s Union Forum, headed by Karenna Gore, the ecologically savvy daughter of former Vice President Al Gore. It brought together more than 200 religious leaders from around the world focused on “galvanizing faith-based action on behalf of the Earth” at a time when “profits are prioritized over the wellbeing of people, and the effects of pollution are being felt in extreme weather patterns, exacerbated social instability and a decrease in the quality of food, air and water.”

Union’s co-hosts included the Interfaith Center of New York, Parliament of the World’s Religions, World Council of Churches, Religions for Peace, Jewish Theological Seminary, American Indian Institute, National Religious Partnership for the Environment, the Yale Forum on Religion and Ecology, GreenFaith, and the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine.

Indigenous leaders played a central role at the conference. Often at interfaith gatherings, First Peoples are given a respected-but-limited role, ceremonially blessing an event and the land where it’s held. But at this conference, First Peoples were involved in all aspects of the programming and presenting. Participants included Chief Arvol Looking Horse, Lakota Sioux 19th generation keeper of the White Buffalo Calf Pipe Bundle; Chief Oren Lyons, Faithkeeper of the Turtle Clan of the Onondaga Nation; and Indigenous leaders from Australia, Bolivia, Iceland, India, and Africa.

Morning workshops focused on climate change related to Gender & Human Rights, Economic Disparity, Disaster Relief, and Environmental Racism & Climate Justice. Afternoon workshops covered a host of issues including Integrating the Earth into Worship; Liturgy and Devotion; Conservation, Advocacy, and Divestment; Engaging Ecological Despair and Grief; Spiritual Experience in Nature; and Regional Identity and Climate.

The atmosphere was serious, yet upbeat. Keynoters, including scientists, confessed to being “realists, but filled with hope.” Despair was not an option, they concurred. On the contrary, most agreed that through collaboration and heightened consciousness, the people of the world – even in our most critical moments of environmental degradation – can nevertheless come together and create the positive shift needed to change our dangerous trajectory.

First Nations at the General Assembly

Following the March, a September 22-23 summit at the United Nations was titled The World Conference on Indigenous Peoples. It was time for Indigenous Eldes to have their say at a special UN General Assembly Meeting. More than 1,000 delegates and heads-of-state attended. 

Many indigenous peoples remain extremely vulnerable to land grabbing, forced displacement, and involuntary resettlement in contexts where their customary practices are not fully recognized. – Photo: United Nations

Many indigenous peoples remain extremely vulnerable to land grabbing, forced displacement, and involuntary resettlement in contexts where their customary practices are not fully recognized. – Photo: United Nations

As Huffington Post’s Zi-Ann Lum wrote, “On day one, nations voted on the adoption of “the document” – the first “outcome” results following the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, introduced in 2007. In opening remarks, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon spoke about the document’s significance, saying it helps “set minimum standards for the survival, dignity and well-being of indigenous peoples” – morethan 370 million around the world.

An Indigenous Elders and Medicine Peoples Council’s statement was subsequently published making their position clear. “We lack leadership and we have misplaced our trust in government leaders and the leaders of industry,” they wrote, adding “they failed us by trying to maintain their profits, economies and their power over the people.”

The Indigenous Council did, however, underscore the value of the People’s Climate March and sent participants the following congratulatory message. “Know that you yourself are essential to this World. Each of us is put here in this time and this place to personally decide the future of humankind. We must sacrifice and move beyond our own comforts and pleasures. We must stop the damaging activities and begin working on restoring the natural environment for the future of All Life.”

Rebecca Tobias, a participant in the March and both conferences, was impressed by a heightened sense of partnership and shared values that she has observed developing among many organizations and many people around the world. A URI Global Council trustee intimately involved in issues related to ecological sustainability, Indigenous rights, and the preservation of sacred sites, Rebecca summed up the combined effect of the three back-to-back events in these words.

“What we experienced reflected a tremendous amount of collaboration and cooperation from peoples from all walks of life partnering together. Here, just as I’ve seen in the Pacific Northwest, we are witnessing a groundswell of collaboration among Indigenous people, environmentalists, and faith communities, working together to protect and restore the sacred, because we all face the same challenges – the same destiny. People are leveraging collective intelligences and relationships with one another to find solutions to rescue the many living systems on the planet currently in decline. I urge people to take action by signing up at Our Voices." 

At the end of the four-hour march, as the crowds were dispersing, I interviewed a young, smiling woman who didn’t seem to be experiencing any fatigue.

Do you think this outpouring of people will make a difference to our government or to world leaders? I ask.

“It doesn’t matter,” she said, without missing a beat. “What matters is that we were here today, and everyone around the world witnessed us marching to make the world a better place. That’s what matters.”