I thought I understood what it meant to call land sacred. I live on a beautiful farm in Western Massachusetts. I visit a spectacular beach in Maine. I preach about the sacredness of God's creation. But in early May I listened to a Gwich'in elder speak about the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. In response to a question about this pristine wilderness, the Canadian Indian said, "I've never been there; we wouldn't walk on that land. It is sacred to our people." Then I wondered whether I would ever understand.
In early May, I traveled to Washington, D.C., in response to a "Call to Religious Witness for the Arctic Refuge." I felt called. I was responding to an invitation from the Religious Witness for the Earth, an interfaith network dedicated to bearing public witness on critical environmental issues. We wanted to oppose the idea of drilling for oil in the Arctic coastal plain. We shared three days of briefings, lobbying our Members of Congress, and training for the third day's witness and civil disobedience.
On Thursday, May 3, we found our way to the Washington Mall and processed to the Department of Energy. Our congregation had swollen to nearly 150: clergy in robes, stoles, and clerical collars; rabbis in yarmulkes; parents and children and students from as far away as Alaska and California. We prayed and sang for the earth, for the "wolves and whales, owls and otters." We prayed for the president and the workers at the Department of Energy and we prayed for ourselves, recognizing that any change we worked for had to begin with changing our own consumptive ways of living.
At the conclusion of the worship, 22 of us held hands, and singing, knelt by the entrance. And we prayed—out loud—from a variety of traditions and with hearts full and broken. Between prayers and songs, a uniformed officer warned us three times that we were subject to arrest. Continuing to sing, one by one we were brought to our feet, handcuffed, photographed, and led into waiting police vans. Each of us spent between 12 and 17 hours in jail, in time that was both spirited and somber, joyous and sorrowful, humorous and frightening.
I will never forget that day—not because of the sickly green jail cells covered with graffiti and smelling of urine; not because of the moldy bologna sandwiches we received at 9 p.m.; not because of the numerous pat-downs and handcuffs. I will never forget that day because my heart was broken open. I prayed like I have never prayed before. I was aware of my connection with all the earth and with all its peoples.
Perhaps I will never truly understand what it means to talk about the sacredness of creation. Perhaps it's not ours to understand. But for a time that day—under the portico of the Department of Energy in our nation's capital—I felt it. It touched my heart and I will never be the same.
The Rev. Kate Stevens lives on an organic vegetable farm in rural Charlemont, Mass., and serves as pastor of the United Congregational UCC of Conway, Mass.