The United Church of Christ added another milestone to its list of "firsts" this year when it became the first major religious body in the United States to urge divestment from fossil fuel companies as a way to address climate change. But the move toward divestment, one of several strategies to reduce fossil fuel use and the UCC's carbon footprint, is just part of the denomination's many wide-ranging efforts, initiatives and campaigns that placed environmental concerns front and center in 2013.
"If the church is not getting out in front of some of these environmental issues, like climate change, we are not doing our job," said the Rev. Meighan Pritchard, the UCC's minister for environmental concerns. "Climate change and environmental issues are forefront in people's lives and the church needs to respond to that."
The divestment resolution was brought to General Synod 2013 by the Massachusetts Conference of the UCC and backed by 10 other conferences. It calls for enhanced shareholder engagement in fossil fuel companies, an intensive search for investment vehicles that are free of fossil fuels, identification of "best in class" fossil fuel companies by General Synod 2015, and a plan to divest from fossil fuel companies not identified as "best in class" by June 2018. The resolution sparked debate among those who support the UCC's progressive stance on climate change, those who think the effort is little more than a political maneuver, and still others who are worried about the financial implications it would have on jobs and the economy.
"In 2013, the UCC declared our recognition and acceptance that our generation is the first to foresee – and the final generation with an opportunity to forestall – the most devastating effects of climate change," said the Rev. Jim Antal, conference minster of the Massachusetts Conference who spearheaded the divestment resolution. "As people of faith, it falls to us to lead the effort to leave 80 percent of the known oil, gas, and coal reserves in the ground. This is what it means for our generation to live out our covenant with God and all creation."
Keeping with the environmental theme, General Synod 2013 also saw the passage of a resolution encouraging congregations to take steps towards carbon neutrality, and another expressing the UCC's opposition to mountaintop removal coal mining and its support for clean, renewable sources of energy.
"Strategizing is starting to happen about how to implement all of the General Synod resolutions," Pritchard said. "How are we taking action? What are some of the opportunities? We plan to make more resources available on how congregations can participate in 2014."
This year, more than 2,100 UCC churches, seminaries, outdoor ministries, and health and human services organizations greened up, powered down, and shouted out during Mission 4/1 Earth, the UCC's 50-day church-wide earth care initiative. As one church, the UCC accumulated more than 600,000 earth-care hours, planted nearly 142,000 trees, and sent 50,000-plus advocacy letters to government leaders during the campaign which began on Easter Monday, April 1, and continued through Pentecost on May 19. The campaign was so successful that the Connecticut Conference of the UCC has been inspired to implement its own version of Mission 4/1 Earth after Easter 2014.
While the campaign fell short of its goals of generating 1 million earth care hours and 100,000 advocacy letters, the campaign greatly exceeded its goal of planting 100,000 trees. Through a partnership with the Arbor Day Foundation, trees were planted in national forests and in communities throughout the United States, and through a number of global tree-planting partners, UCC members also planted trees in 13 other countries including Afghanistan, China, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ecuador, Ghana, Haiti, India, Kenya, Nicaragua, Palestine, Peru, South Sudan and Uganda.
"The response to Mission 4/1 Earth across the life of the UCC was overwhelming, but not surprising," said the Rev. M. Linda Jaramillo, executive minister of the UCC's Justice and Witness Ministries. "Our congregations have a long-standing commitment to engagement in so many important issues, among them is our concern for the whole of God's creation. It is one more testimony to the excitement of coming together on one common mission."
The UCC will also continue its series of environmental justice retreats in 2014. The "Train the Trainer" events originated in 2012 as a partnership between the UCC's Justice and Witness Ministries and the Pacific Northwest Conference to fill a need for environmental education, but have since become a series of educational opportunities that take place throughout the country. Using video, discussions, hands-on learning opportunities, and immersion experiences, the retreats offer curriculum designed for participants to take what they learn and share it with their congregations and communities afterward. The first event for 2014 will take place Feb. 19-21 at Pilgrim Firs Camp and Conference Center in Port Orchard, Wash., followed by an event March 25-27 at Christian Church Conference Center in Silver Springs, Fla.
"In 2014 I hope we can continue that momentum and continue to provide opportunities for congregations and conferences and individuals to live into our calling as followers of Jesus," Pritchard said. "That we can continue to be good stewards and to be in good relationship with the rest of the planet."