UCC explores tackling global change from the homefront
Written by Martha Gotwals
March 2002

Sustainable Development. The words are a mouthful and the concept seems far away. But if there's one thing we've learned from September 11, it's that there's no such thing as far away in today's interconnected world.

The topic of sustainable development—how a country or community can grow and thrive in a way that nurtures the environment and its people—was the focus of a UCC seminar held Feb. 1-2 at the Church Center at the United Nations in New York City.

Finding a 'Proper Balance'

What shapes the church's role in developmental issues? Two starting points, according to Dennis Frado, are right from the Bible—Psalm 24:1: "The earth is the Lord's and all that is in it, the world, and those who live in it" and Genesis 1:27: "God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them."

What this means for Christians, explained Frado, Lutheran World Community Office director, is that in approaching development issues, "creation and humanity need to be in the proper balance." To achieve a "just and moral economy where the people are empowered to participate fully," he said, advocates must pay equal attention to economic, environmental and social concerns.

"Care of the earth and respect for the human dignity of all are essential for justice," concluded Frado. "We must learn to live in right relationship with all that God has created, including one another." Much of the meeting focused on how to work toward that "right relationship," as participants reported on what they were doing.

Making a difference

Participants provided some strong answers to the question: What can one person or one church do? Here are some examples:

Jorge Valles Jr. of the West Bronx, N.Y, a sophomore at Fordham University, described how UCC people got involved in closing down an incinerator that was polluting Hunts Point. More recently, he said, his church (Bronx Spanish Evangelical UCC) put in a computer lab and started by teaching immigrant children, who then got their parents interested.

A number of members of Judson Memorial Church in New York City reported that are active in opposing sweatshops in the city and overseas as well as working around the effects of national and local economic policies on people who are poor. Judson also hosts "Picture the Homeless," an advocacy organization made up mostly of people who are currently or formerly homeless.

The Rev. Daniel Wade of Yale Law School, a member of Dixwell Avenue UCC in New Haven, Conn., told how local advocates convinced Yale to buy and clean up a major asbestos contamination site where a laundry had been.

Nick Fox, a teenager from Congregational UCC in Peace Dale, R.I., observed that a lot of young people find environmental hazards "too scary" and "overwhelming to deal with." For him, he said, "faith and morals won't allow me to ignore the issues."

Justin Deegan, an intern in Justice and Witness Ministries' Washington office, talked about church life on a North Dakota Indian reservation, where "churches function on a day-to-day basis and people live from paycheck to paycheck" without computers and sometimes without access to phones. Among the issues reservation churches deal with are jobs, voting rights, infringement on treaty rights and proposals to dump waste there, he reported.

Wider church at work

Nationally and regionally, UCC campaigns have involved interchange with corporations and government officials, as well as support to communities, participants reported. Examples:

How to use power through our investment portfolio, particularly with multinationals. This is the task faced by the corporate social responsibility office of the UCC Pension Boards, director Amy O' Brien explained. Her office uses several tools to promote social responsibility, including social justice screens for companies in their portfolio, "shareholder activism," and filing shareholder resolutions.

UCC efforts around "environmental racism." These efforts are now 20 years old, and the expression the UCC coined is now used worldwide to describe the disproportionate burden borne by people of color and poor communities when it comes to pollution and toxic waste, reported the Rev. Adora Iris Lee, minister for environmental justice for the UCC's Justice and Witness Ministries.

Political Advocacy and Education. These are other ways the church can answer the call for God's people to be ethical stewards, advised Terry Yasuko-Ogawa, Charles E. Cobb environmental justice resident at JWM's Washington Office. Currently, she noted, that office is pushing the Senate to include in the energy bill some of the environmental considerations on global warming adopted by other nations at the Kyoto summit.

Local sustainability. Joseph Lombardi of the Vermont Conference reported that besides concerns about human rights and environmental degradation, the conference has undertaken an anti-tobacco campaign and encourages work around local sustainability.

Sponsored by the UCC United Nations Global Education Advocacy Office in cooperation with Justice and Witness Ministries' Public Life and Social Policy Office, the seminar brought together some 20 national executives, conference leaders and other UCC members active around development issues at church or home.

Martha Gotwals is an activist and writer based in New York City and a member of Judson Memorial Church (UCC/ABC).

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