Inaugural Earth Day Summit will honor UCC climate leader Jim Antal
When the Rev. Jim Antal first interviewed for a position as Conference minister with the historic Massachusetts Conference of the United Church of Christ in 2006, he told the search committee that he would need to spend 10 percent of his work helping churches respond to the climate crisis because, he said, “it’s the moral issue of our generation.”
He got the job and kept climate change a priority, leading the Conference — and then the denomination’s General Synod — to become some of the first religious bodies to endorse divestment from fossil fuel companies, among other significant accomplishments.
It’s this unwavering commitment to climate change issues that guides the ongoing work of Antal, who now serves as special advisor on climate justice to the UCC General Minister and President the Rev. John Dorhauer.
He will be the keynote speaker for the virtual Earth Day Summit April 22. The summit, which will be inaugurated as an annual event, will honor Antal by naming the speech the “Jim Antal Keynote Lecture” for this year and the future.
‘Foremost public leader’
“In the UCC, Jim has been our foremost public leader on climate issues for a number of years,” said the Rev. Brooks Berndt, UCC minister for environmental justice.
Antal recalls celebrating the first Earth Day in 1970 while a student in college. In the years following, he grew increasingly interested in the newly emerging field of environmental ethics, teaching about and studying the topic as warnings of global warming became increasingly public.
He has since served as both a UCC pastor and Conference minister, engaging in too many climate change-related public actions to keep track, he said. This includes getting arrested for cuffing his hand to the White House gate to protest the Keystone XL pipeline in an effort to stop the project and “protect future generations.” He has also protested fossil fuel infrastructure by joining others to stage a sit-in in the Massachusetts governor’s office and working with interfaith clergy to protest a fracking pipeline in Boston by sitting on the edge of a trench being dug for the project.
Antal believes it is the responsibility of faith leaders to respond to the impacts caused by mass emission of fossil fuels, which include more frequent and intense weather events, growing species extinction and a future of unsustainable living conditions on earth if emissions do not decrease drastically.
“If you look over the past 50 years of history, every social justice movement has involved faith leadership,” he said. “If we and our predecessors got into a pattern of greed and exploiting the earth, it us up to us as people connected with God to change the pattern, which has issued a death warrant to those on earth.”
Building on a legacy
The Earth Day Summit intends to do just that by lifting up and furthering ministries dedicated to caring for God’s creation.
Events during the two-and-half-hour digital event will include Antal’s keynote, a panel discussion and celebrations of Creation Justice churches and climate justice fellows. The Dollie Burwell Prophetic Action Award will also be presented to a congregation or green team that has shown significant public commitment to environmental justice.
The summit grows out the UCC’s history. Its leaders hope to encourage future prophetic voices.
“The historic role that the UCC grassroots leaders played in launching the environmental justice movement gives members of our denomination an important sense of identity and commitment,” said Berndt. “To continue to build upon this legacy, however, we need to continually come together. We need to share knowledge and inspiration. We need to connect at all levels. That’s essential to maximizing our great potential.”
Churches are invited to organize book groups in the time leading up to the summit with Antal’s book, Climate Church, Climate World. First published in 2018, a new and revised second edition is available with updated science and an additional chapter that focuses on contemporary events.
Berndt believes the books offers a “unique clarion call to action” for congregations, who could benefit from reading it together.
“Our power is in connecting with others to take action, and I have seen action come out of church book groups. When you bring people together, incredible things happen — the Bible tells us that divine sparks begin to fly as soon as you get at least two or three people gathered,” he said.
Antal said he is “humbled and delighted” for the keynote to bear his name, and he is also excited for the UCC to make this gathering an annual event.
“I really celebrate the elevation of climate change to this level of having an annual summit on it,” he said. “If the denomination itself is taking a stand and speaking to it here in an annual summit, that provides some encouragement, some bolstering of that next echelon of churches and pastors who are needed to bring about the changes that science says is necessary.”
A dose of truth-telling
Berndt encourages everyone to join the summit and the cause for environmental justice.
“The care of God’s creation is our first calling as Christians, so I think everyone in the UCC has good reason to attend this event,” Berndt said. “I can see green team members and leaders attending to receive a good dose of inspiration. I can see pastors joining to hear stories of hope that they can steal for their sermons. I can see anyone looking to climb out of climate despair to climate hope wanting to attend. Who doesn’t want climate hope?”
As for as those facing climate grief or despair, Antal says that events like the summit can spark hope by facing the issue with honesty. This is an important foundation of this work, one that Antal describes with a quote from Greta Thunberg: “Hope is telling the truth.”
“We live in a world that has been riddled with lies — lies that allows corporations to continue making money off of fossil fuels that kill our children,” he said. “All of the theological wonderings about the meaning of hope to me has very little purchase unless the entire enterprise begins with truth-telling, with honesty.”
Calling on community
That hope, and the spreading of it, takes place in community.
Antal believes that the idea of vocation can be helpful in this respect. Though many sermons emphasize vocation as something for individuals to consider, he said a scriptural perspective on climate change offers encouragement for communities to respond.
“If you compare the number of times God is calling an individual versus the number of times God is calling a community, it turns out God is calling communities much more frequently,” Antal said. “So the idea of a community, church, town, region having a vocation — or an entire generation — is something that I think those of us who represent the religious world can help interpret for everybody else.
“And the vocation of our generation is to address climate change. That’s it.”
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