Gabriel, who is “almost 5,” was trying to stand patiently with his father, Tim Emmett-Rardin, a United Methodist from Philadelphia, until the signal came for them to sweep into the throng that became the People’s Climate March.
It had been a long wait Sept. 21 on the New York block where pennants held aloft on poles announced the presence of United Methodists, Lutherans, Hindus, Episcopalians and numerous other faith groups stationed there by march organizers.
Baptists clad in green T-shirts demanded “Climate justice for all God’s creation” and Hare Krishna danced joyously. The music and amplified speeches offered from various faith perspectives did not always rise above the din of the crowd.
“He keeps asking when we’re going to start moving,” Gabriel’s father said.
Early on, organizers estimated that 100,000 people would come to midtown Manhattan to demand significant commitments by world leaders to deal with the climate change issue.
On Friday, Bill McKibben, a United Methodist from Middlebury, Vermont, and president of 350.org, a group that helped organize the march, mentioned that 200,000 people might show up.
By midafternoon Sunday, organizers released an estimate of 310,000 people based on the crowd density along an expanded march route. That estimate later was increased to nearly 400,000.
“At 5:00 p.m., march organizers had to send out a text asking marchers to disperse from the march route because the crowds had swelled beyond the route’s capacity,” said a press release from peoplesclimate.org.
Gabriel had a lot of company.
What The Church Teaches
The Book of Discipline, which contains the denomination’s laws and teachings, includes multiple statements on being caretakers of God’s creation.
• On Water, Air, Soil, Minerals and Plants: We support measures designed to maintain and restore natural ecosystems.
• On Energy Resources Utilization: “…We call upon all to take measures to save energy. Everybody should adapt his or her lifestyle to the average consumption of energy that respects the limits of the planet earth.”
• On Global Climate Stewardship: “[We] support efforts of all governments to require mandatory reductions in greenhouse gas emissions and call on individuals, congregations, businesses, industries, and communities to reduce their emissions.”
Read more church teachings on the "Natural World."
Crashing the party
The march preceded the Sept. 23 Climate Summit at the United Nations, arranged by U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon — who also took part in the march — to spur political action on global warming and encourage leaders from government and the private sector to announce new initiatives.
McKibben, who spoke about the march during an International Day of Peace symposium on Sept. 19 at the United Methodist-related Church Center for the United Nations, was skeptical about what the summit might accomplish given what he considered the “complete failure” of the U.N. Copenhagen summit on climate change in 2009.
“We don’t have much hope that this week, in New York, the world leaders will get us much farther,” he said. “That’s why we decided to invite ourselves to crash this party and come, too.”
March participants — representing government entities, labor, neighborhoods, environmental and social justice groups, faith communities and indigenous groups, as well as families and individuals — began assembling Sunday morning on Central Park West.
A few blocks away, Rosina Pohlmann — the energetic “Green Team” coordinator at the Church of Saint Paul and Saint Andrew, United Methodist — had worked with the pastors and church staff to arrange for four days of housing at the church for up to 60 young people attending the march.
“There is a spirit of maturity and peace at the core of this movement, and I think that spirit is issuing in great part from the active participation of so many religious and faith groups,” she said.
The Rev. Jenny Phillips of Seattle was among a group loosely organized through United Methodist Women and the United Methodist Boards of Global Ministries and Church and Society who gathered at Saint Paul and Saint Andrew before the march.
She had come to promote Fossil Free UMC, a project calling upon the United Methodist Board of Pension and Health Benefits and other United Methodist institutions to divest from fossil fuel companies and reinvest in clean energy.
Phoebe Crismo had extended a U.S. visit from the Philippines to attend the march and other climate action events. As staff of the Philippines Central Conference, she helped produce a campaign on climate change for children, youth and local churches. She is concerned about the impact of deforestation and open-pit mining on her country.
“With the forest gone, when the monsoons come, down comes the mud as well,” she explained.
Michael Black, a member of Decatur First United Methodist Church in Georgia, and an active participant in Caretakers of God’s Creation, is a veteran of similar, if smaller marches and considers such activities as essential to his faith. “If you’re not speaking out about the problems, you can’t complain (when) there aren’t solutions,” he said.
Intertwining faith with action
A group from United Methodist-related Drew University gathered near the “seminaries” pennant in the interfaith block. The group included Tyler Kaufmann from Nebraska, part of a student group called Transforming Ecological and Religious Resources into Action, and Laurel Kearns, an associate professor of the sociology of religion and environmental studies who helped found the Green Seminaries Initiative.
Nikki Edelman, a part-time Drew student and a New York Conference member from Pawling, New York, said she was motivated to march by her background in chemistry and her concern as the mother of an 8- and 10-year–old.
“I’ve always been interested in the ecology and biology of the earth,” she added. “To me, it’s totally wrapped up in faith.”
Not far away, the Rev. Carol Windrum and Tim Fickenscher, a United Methodist couple from Omaha, Nebraska, were preparing to walk, shaking off the fatigue of a 27-hour Greyhound bus ride.
Both expressed concern about how climate change will impact younger generations. Windrum directs the Micah Corps, a 10-week summer internship program for young adults focusing on social justice issues, for the Great Plains Annual Conference. Flickenscher is a high school teacher.
“If we don’t do something now, it will be too late,” he said.
Bill Ewing, who had a shorter journey, was one of the congregational members carrying the large banner of First United Methodist Church of Germantown in Philadelphia.
“We’re in the process of doing real damage to the planet,” he declared. “We need to get people’s attention to stop it.”
Pat and Dave Herber, members of Calvary United Methodist Church in Frederick, Maryland, simply showed up.
“We were in the city for the weekend and didn’t know about this until we saw the news coverage and decided to join in,” explained Dave Herber, who teaches environmental science to high school students. “I do look at this as caring for God’s creation.”
At a crossroads
Education about climate change is a personal and vocational priority for Tim Emmett-Rardin, who stood with Gerry Felix, a fellow member of Calvary United Methodist Church in Philadelphia, and Gabriel, who was hoping the parade would begin soon.
“It really feels like we’re at a crisis point, at a major crossroads,” he said.
Emmett-Rardin is starting a new job promoting wind energy in Pennsylvania that will have an educational component. “It’s probably the easiest way to help congregations evaluate renewable energy,” he said. “It’s a small step but it’s an easy one for people to take and it makes a difference.”
Finally, shortly after 2 p.m., it was time to march, with the Cross and Flame held high and the banners of the Germantown church, United Methodist Women and Saint Paul and Saint Andrew following.
Pohlmann of the Church of Saint Paul and Saint Andrew hopes other United Methodists will feel inspired to connect with faith-based climate action groups and join what she considers to be a “historic push” for change.
“The march created a huge, unprecedented opportunity,” she said. “But an opportunity only matters if it is seized, and in order to seize this one we need to start now.”