In churches, temples and congregations across Florida, women have been called to speak about climate change.

Janice Booher was first called to climate change work when her daughter was in fifth grade. Her daughter had just learned about climate change and the enormity of of it affected her in a deeply emotional way.

“She was horrified in a way that I felt that as a mother I needed to be involved with,” Booher said.

That moment catalyzed into many years of organizing around climate change issues through Unitarian Universalist ministry. Booher now serves as the director of Unitarian Universalist Justice Florida’s Climate Resilience Ministry. She is also on the board of the Florida Interfaith Climate Actions Network.

Seeing her daughter’s reaction kickstarted Booher to make an impact, and she’s heard the same story from others who are called to climate action.

“You don’t want somebody to grow up thinking, not only do I have a possibility of having a very difficult life but also why didn’t my mom do anything?” she said.

In churches, temples and congregations across Florida, women have been called to speak about climate change. Some are motivated by their children, others are motivated by the teachings of their faiths and some just want to do what is right. We spoke to a few of these women, touching just the surface of a vast network that is committed to working across faiths to make change.

Janice Booher in tidal floodwaters with Bereatha Howard in Shorecrest, Miami, in 2017 taking a picture with a cell phone through a refractometer to upload salinity data.

Janice – Unitarian Universalist

“Earth is our home. We are part of this work and its destiny is our own. Life on this planet will be gravely affected unless we embrace new practices, ethics and values to guide our lives on a warming planet.” – Citizens’ Climate Lobby, Unitarian Universalist Association

In Booher’s experience, climate change has been one of the main issues prioritized by Unitarian Universalist Justice ministry for many years. Much of their efforts have revolved around low income communities that suffer most from environmental injustices.

“I view the whole thing as being about respecting the worth and dignity of all people,” she said, “and that’s what this is all about, especially the environmental justice.”

Respect for the worth and dignity of others is one of the seven principles of Unitarian Universalists, also called UUs. Another is to respect the interdependent web of existence of which we are all a part.

“That underlies a lot of our work that has to do with the environment,” Booher said.

Those principles have guided efforts like the UU Fund for Social Responsibility, which has funded many of Booher’s projects.

Booher worked to bring the HighWaterLine project to areas of South Florida, including Delray Beach. This project uses a visual marker to outline the places that will become flooded from accelerated climate change. With funds from the Environmental Protection Agency, she has also led a project called Rising Together, which aims to build resilience in low-income communities of color.

UU communities have also motivated congregations with an initiative called the Green Sanctuary Program. To become certified as Green Sanctuaries, churches are asked to organize projects with the goals of climate justice and sustainable living, as well as the more traditionally religious goals of worship and religious education.

“Churches want to get certified as Green Sanctuaries,” Booher said. “We have something like 27 different pieces of UU that are ministries that are dealing with climate change.”

Booher believes there is a unique value to having your faith tell you to recycle or to adopt other sustainable practices.

“The thing that faith-based organizations do well is to connect people’s theology to their actions,” she said.

But even faith doesn’t always win out. At the level of individual congregations, local politics can be a huge influence on the culture of a church, and that sometimes results in climate change denial.

“Denial is strong, especially among people who really are interested in their church as a place for that feeling you get in worship where you feel peace,” she said. “It’s your refuge, and don’t bring all the bad news in because we need this as a restorative sanctuary.”

Kirsten Becker, Beverly Ward, Antoinette Jackson and John Heimburg at the Quaker Earthcare Witness 2018 UN Side event in New York City.

Beverly – Quaker, Society of Friends

“As Quakers, we are called to work for the peaceable Kingdom of God on the whole Earth, in right sharing with all peoples. We recognize a moral duty to cherish Creation for future generations.

We call on our leaders to make the radical decisions needed to create a fair, sufficient and effective intentional climate change agreement.” – Citizens’ Climate Lobby, Quaker – Society of Friends

Dr. Beverly Ward is an anthropologist who first came to Florida nearly 30 years ago to work on a project at the University of South Florida focused on transportation issues. Ward is a member of the Society of Friends, and she serves as the field secretary for Earthcare for Southeastern Yearly Meeting, a community of 25 unprogrammed Quaker meetings and worship groups in Florida, southeast Georgia, coastal South Carolina and Managua, Nicaragua.

Like Booher, Ward also works across faiths as a representative to the Florida Council of Churches and a board member of the Interfaith Florida Climate Action Network.

In the Quaker faith, as well as in other spiritual and religious traditions, Ward has seen that many people have begun to emphasize climate change in their teachings, and their decisions to be vocal may be in an effort to provide guidance where state and federal governments have fallen short.

“People have been called to speak about it,” she said.

She sees faith-based activism around climate change as a factor that motivates a sustained commitment to the cause.

“I think that’s part of the importance of coming at it from a faith-based perspective is that you know you’re in it for the long haul,” she said. “And it’s not just something that you do one or two times and then it’s sort of solved. It’s like no, we may never see the results of what we’re doing, but you know, you stay at it.”

Though many churches of different faith traditions are finding solutions to environmental problems in their communities, they don’t always label it as environmental work, and Ward says that the reasons for this become clear when you look at the history of environmental movements in the U.S.

“There is a long and tortured history around the environmental movement and low-income communities and communities of color,” Ward said. “The early environmental movement was sort of seen as very white, very pristine, worried about the the loss of the animals and not really aware of the impacts that were happening in communities of color and low-income communities.”

Now, when communities of color tackle issues of climate degradation, they are often less concerned with identifying with the environmental movement and more concerned with finding solutions to problems that plague their communities on a day-to-day basis, Ward explained.

Ward has recently seen this dynamic occur in communities experiencing climate gentrification. As sea levels rise, housing costs are increasing in neighborhoods located away from the coasts. In many cases, these areas are historically home to communities of color and low-income communities. As prices increase, people are displaced for their own homes.

“We’re losing ground literally,” Ward said. “What had once been undesirable places to live are now becoming gentrified. So you know low-income communities are being displaced. And so where do those communities go?”

Neddy Astudillo (left) with a barn owl.

Neddy – Presbyterian

“Environmental concern is necessarily a whole-world and whole-church commitment as well as a personal commitment incumbent upon all Christians as a means of living faithfully in God’s shared creation.

The interrelatedness of elements of the biosphere demands a holistic attention to the environment that reaffirms the Presbyterian environmental policy commitment to ‘sustainability, sufficiency, participation and solidarity’ in addressing the ethics of ecology and justice.” – Citizens’ Climate Lobby, Presbyterian

The Rev. Dr. Neddy Astudillo is a Presbyterian pastor and the new Florida organizer for GreenFaith, an interfaith coalition that works to help people become better environmental stewards. Astudillo is a Venezuela-American and is also a GreenFaith organizer for Latin American communities.

Astudillo, who recently left a 20-year career at a nonprofit and organic farm school in Northern Illinois, speaks to congregations across the state about the importance of living a sustainable life.

“What do we need to support ourselves to be able to make the changes in our lives that we need to make? What needs to be in place so we do what is right? Because most people would say I want to do what is right. But if the system doesn’t help you, if you don’t have a community to support you, it is very difficult,” she said.

Many of the congregations that Astudillo visits have yet to tackle climate-change issues in an overt way, though she recognizes that climate change impacts many of the sustainability challenges that she does address.

“I am where they are,” she said “I can only be engaged in issues as they themselves can get there.”

Helping people embrace environmentally conscious behaviors and mindsets is a big part of GreenFaith’s mission. One way the organization works to achieve that goal is through a campaign called Living the Change. This initiative addresses climate change directly, suggesting that “everyone can be part of the solution to climate change.”

“We’re using this as a tool to have that particular conversation with people where we look at our issues of food, issues of energy use and transportation,” Astudillo said.

On their website, you can select your own religious tradition and then make a commitment to adopt sustainable habits that support and protect the Earth. Suggestions include: “Eliminate air travel (except for family emergencies)” and “Compost all my non-meat food scraps.”

Astudillo said it’s not necessary to bring faith into the conversation when you are talking about sustainability, but it definitely doesn’t hurt when you are working with religious groups.

“If something is written in a sacred text, you know in The Bible or The Torah, people listen more easily because they’re like I guess I can’t go against my own faith, my own tradition,” she said. “And all faiths have a call to care for life, care for others, care for the need to not to do unto others what you don’t want them to do to you.”

As someone who organizes across faiths, Astudillo has seen a trend in the number of people looking to collaborate for the common cause of climate action.

“I would say that increasingly more and more people are realizing that no faith alone can do the work that is needed to protect life, to protect the Earth,” she said.

Still, the urgency and seriousness of climate change is daunting. And Astudillo prays that she and other organizers are doing enough.

“I’m just hoping that we’re on time,” she said. “But even if we’re not, we know what is right, we know what we are called to do, and so you just keep going even if everything else seems to say otherwise.”

Photo credits: Neddy Astudillo, Janice Booher & Beverly Ward

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