CEE Convenes New York City Faith Leaders for Climate Justice Training

In the first week of June, smoke from the uncontrolled wildfires drifted down from Canada to the tri-state area, blanketing New York in a cough-inducing reddish haze, forcing residents to don masks outside or retreat indoors, and earning the city the unwanted distinction of having the worst air pollution of any place on the planet.

The dissipating smoke formed an inescapable backdrop to “Resilience and Resolve: A Climate Justice Training for New York City Faith Communities,” that the Center for Earth Ethics led on Friday, June 9, 2023. The one-day training at Union Theological Seminary marked the return to in-person climate trainings by CEE after the pandemic.

“The last two days have been frightening,” said Karenna Gore, CEE’s executive director, in her welcome. 

This year’s training was focused on New York City; more than 40 participants representing churches, synagogues, mosques, temples, faith-based organizations and city agencies were selected to attend.

In the opening plenary, moderated by Ms. Gore, climate scientist Christian Braneon and Dayenu founder Jennie Rosenn discussed the impacts of the climate crisis on the city. Braneon, who co-chairs the New York City Panel on Climate Change and co-leads the Environmental Justice and Climate Just Cities Network at Columbia University’s Earth Institute, highlighted the dangers of sea-level rise, extreme heat and more extreme rainfall events. “We have a pretty good idea of what New York City will look like” because of climate change, he said.

We need to be spiritually adapting to this moment

Rosenn, who founded Dayenu to mobilize the American Jewish community to confront the climate crisis, emphasized that “we need to be spiritually adapting to this moment” and “our religious traditions have so much to teach us” on how to respond.

As a themes document, distributed before the training stated, “those who are being hurt first, and threatened most intensely, [by climate change] are those who have done the least to cause it.” The climate crisis is “a racial, social and economic justice issue,” said Rosenn. “Black and brown folks are most likely to suffer from extreme heat,” said Braneon.

The training focused on three key areas: practical action, pastoral care and spiritual support, and ethical communication. New York Disaster Interfaith Services organized a morning panel that directly addressed disaster preparedness and resilience efforts. “We’re all in the same storm, but we’re not all in the same boat,” said Lucy Cummings, director of director of faith sector resilience at NYDIS.

Amy Chester, managing director of Rebuild by Design, presented a summary of climate change impacts and responses in the city, noting that every single community is going have major problems with flooding because of climate change. Pastor Gil Monrose, who leads the New York City Office of Faith-Based and Community Partnerships, moderated a panel with Chester, Bibi Esahack, executive director of the Bay Ridge Community Development Center, and Zack Hodgson, emergency services director at the Salvation Army, about how specific groups are responding.

“It is our responsibility, it’s our city, it’s our people,” said Monrose.

Gregory Simpson, one of the training’s organizers and co-chair of the CEE Advisory Board, led the panel on spiritual and pastoral support with Dr. Ife Afriye Kilimanjaro, co-executive director and managing director of Soul Fire Farm, Wendy Greenspun of the Climate Psychology Alliance- North America, and Diana Kwok of the Buddhist Tzu Chi Foundation. The discussion focused on how faith communities can respond to eco-grief, climate anxiety, and trauma. Greenspun, a clinical psychologist and certified psychoanalyst focused on climate psychology, noted that “people need a way to process the emotions” that naturally flow from climate change.

Former Vice President Al Gore, founder and chairman of the Climate Reality Project, began the ethical communication discussion with a single slide showing the Earth’s atmosphere—“the thin blue shell that surrounds our atmosphere.” “We’ve been using it,” he said, “as an open sewer.”

Nonetheless, Gore saw reasons to be hopeful. Last year, 90% of energy generation was renewable. The U.S. passed the biggest climate legislation in history. And scientists predict that if we succeed in getting to true net zero, temperatures could stop going up in as few as three years.

Roberto Múkaro Borrero, an advocate and author who is a traditionally sanctioned kasike (chief) of the Guainía Taíno tribal community, noted that religious communities must speak out. “We have to give something back.” Kelly Brown Douglas, dean of the Episcopal Divinity School, said that churches need to be engaged “in the unjust present” while being “accountable to a more just future.”

It is our responsibility, it’s our city, it’s our people.

The training featured afternoon breakout sessions where participants gathered in small groups: a sermon workshop with Timothy Adkins-Jones, pastor of the Bethany Baptist Church and professor at Union Theological Seminary; a discussion of working with impacted Communities with Liz Theoharis,  director of the Kairos Center for Religions, Rights, and Social Justice; a water ceremony along the Hudson River with Paul Gallay, director of the Resilient Coastal Communities Program at the Columbia University Center for Sustainable Urban Development, Owl Smith, a lawyer and advocate, and Karenna Gore; a reflection on sacred texts with pastor and community organizer Thia Reggio and Saffet Catovic, head of ISNA’s Office for Interfaith, Community Alliances and Government Relations; and a storytelling workshop with climate advocate and actor Tim Guinee.

 “There’s so much for us to consider and to work toward,” said Simpson.

In her concluding remarks, Ms. Gore thanked the speakers and participants for “the grace that everyone showed” and for “creating “something that went beyond our hopes.”

“I hope you a bringing something home with you that you can immediately share with others,” she said.