Religious and Spiritual Leaders Make Climate Commitment

Photo Sarah Hoffman
Rabbi Ellen Bernstein (speaking) with Imam Abdul Malik Mujahid and Dr. Vandana Shiva (Photo Sarah Hoffman)

By Sarah Hoffman

How will you commit to reversing climate change? On September 21, the muggy eve of fall, world religious leaders and members of New York’s spiritual community gathered beneath two giant, LED-lit, flying phoenixes to ask that very question, calling the world to action for “God’s House,” “Mother Earth” — our home, now so deeply under threat.

The Religions of the Earth Multifaith Service at St. John the Divine Cathedral, part of the Interfaith Summit on Climate Change, followed the largest worldwide gathering to strike against climate change, with upwards of 300,000 to 400,000 marching in the streets of New York City alone. Many of the 1,200 people in attendance came straight from the march, including many leaders who spoke at the service like former Vice President Al Gore.

Writer and conservationist Terry Tempest Williams, voice breaking with emotion as she recalled the day and the sheer force out on the streets with her, said, “I believe [faith] is a call to commitment, and I believe we saw an inkling of what that looks like and the power that can ensue when the community of faith joins the river.”

The theme of interconnectedness and that the world, and climate change, ultimately has no boundaries, echoed time and again after each speaker, each song, each chant. Interspersed throughout the evening were songs from a myriad of times and traditions, from Debussy to Pete Seeger to a Navajo prayer. Regardless of the language or key, the notes and melodies, heartbeats of the earth, could flow through the veins of anyone listening with an open heart.

Photo by Sarah Hoffman
Phoenix art instillation made by Chinese artist, Xu Bing (Photo Sarah Hoffman)

“The ravages of climate change transcend race, gender, culture, class, and faith,” said the Reverend Dr. Gerald Durley, Pastor Emeritus of the Providence Missionary Baptist Church. “Climate change is an equal opportunity destroyer of life.”

Dr. Vandana Shiva, a Delhi-based environmental activist and founder of the organization Navdanya, said that among the three traditions that have shaped her life, Indian civilization sees the earth as the mother, and all beings as members of the earth community, and her scientific training, specifically in quantum physics, teaches that “The word is not separate, that everything is connected.”

“My tradition teaches that the land is a gift from God, and that that gift is conditional,” said Rabbi Ellen Bernstein, founder of Shomrei Adamah, Keepers of the Earth. “If we do not care for the gift, we lose the gift. And my tradition teaches that we are all responsible for each other.”

Each leader and attendee was given a stone — the Great Spirit’s first creation, said Chief Arvol Looking Horse, Lakota spiritual leader and 19th Generation Keeper of the White Buffalo Calf Pipe Bundle — to place on an altar at the center of the cathedral, as a vow to take action and protect the earth. But all vows were deeply personal.

“These [rocks] are not inert matter, they are not dead matter,” Vandana Shiva said. “They are life. And with this rock, I commit myself every moment of my life to bring into reality the beautiful peace prayer that my tradition has given us. Because protecting our species, defending the climate, and protecting the rights of people, is about making peace with the earth, and peace between people.”

Uncle Angaangaq Angakkorsuaq, an Eskimo-Kalaallit Elder, who has witnessed firsthand the ravages of climate change in his native Greenland, as the ice has melted down from more than five kilometers in thickness 67 years ago, when he was born, to now only two kilometers today.

He made a commitment with his stone to do his utmost to “somehow melt the ice in the heart of man.” He then called out to his ancestors: a deep, piercing call that echoed off the walls and arches of the cathedral, filled the ears and the gut so that nothing else could be held within but a deep-seated knowledge of the past and a vision for the future; a determination to make change possible.

Listen to Uncle Angaangaq Angakkorsuaq’s powerful call to his ancestors here:

The call “gave the sense that we were involved in a bigger thing,” said Prudence See, an artist and longtime environmental activist from Saugerties, New York, who marched earlier in the day and whose voice was choked with emotion after the service. “I’ve never heard anything like it.”

Sign made in 1994 by attendee Prudence See (Photo Sarah Hoffman)
Sign made in 1994 by attendee Prudence See (Photo Sarah Hoffman)

Like the phoenixes high above, an art installation by Chinese artist Xu Bing, who used detritus from the quickly changing Beijing landscape to create his birds, at the end was the feeling that we can and must rise from these ashes that we as humankind have created.

“Each of us can be a part of the solution,” said Jan Eliasson, Deputy Secretary-General of the United Nations, a surprise addition to the program who will be convening the UN Climate Summit set to begin on September 23. “Nobody can do everything, but everybody can do something.”

“We are, tonight, the civil and human rights community of this nation, joined forces with all others to say that we shall not be moved. We will stand and fight because we are the rock of this movement,” Reverend Durley called out to a standing ovation. “We are solid in what we do, we will stand as one united force, Muslim and Jewish and Christian and Buddhist and Shia, black and white and male and female. This is our moment! This is our time! We will not be silent! We will stand boldly, because the earth needs us.”


Sarah Hoffman is a writer and human rights researcher and advocate with 16 years of advocacy experience, focusing on China, Tibet, and free expression in the U.S. and worldwide. She has worked most recently with PEN American Center, the free expression and literary organization, where she was co-author of The PEN Report: Creativity and Constraint in Today’s ChinaShe has been featured on ABC Radio Australia, HuffPost Live, Radio Free Asia, Voice of America, and Huffington Post. She currently lives in New York City, where she is writing and developing a culinary blog,

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