"... On Awakening Your Faith Community's Vocation"
By the Rev. Dr. Jim Antal
Jim Antal serves as special advisor on climate justice to the general minister and president of the United Church of Christ. Antal’s 2018 book, “Climate Church, Climate World,” has been read by hundreds of churches, and a new, updated edition is being released in March. From 2006-2018, Antal led the 350 UCC churches in Massachusetts as their conference minister and president. He has preached on climate change since 1988 in over 300 settings and has engaged in nonviolent civil disobedience on numerous occasions.
I want to begin by inviting you to reflect on the biblical understanding of vocation.
Usually, we think of calling – or vocation – as personal. God may call this individual to pursue one path, while God may call another individual to champion a different passion. Often, the mission of a congregation is shaped by individuals who effectively recruit others to join them in their cause.
But this is not the only understanding of calling. When we examine scripture, it becomes obvious that God also calls communities, not just individuals. Nevertheless, in America, where our centuries-long celebration of rugged individualism persists,1 the idea that God might be calling a congregation, or an entire town, or our nation, to come together and embrace a particular mission – such an idea is routinely dismissed. It’s as if it never occurred to many people of faith that God might call “US” to join in common cause to fulfill God’s mission.
The call to address the climate crisis is a communal call; a universal call. You and I and everyone who are alive today have been given the opportunity to be part of what is the most consequential generation of human beings that has ever lived. The climate crisis places an inescapable moral claim on our generation and, therefore, on every one of us. It urges our generation to embrace a fresh understanding of human freedom, fulfillment, vocation and salvation.
Congregations committed to working on the climate crisis recognize that:
we are most free when we embrace our interdependence;
we are most fulfilled when we are grateful for having enough;
God’s call – our vocation – is to recognize that we’re all in this together;
God is offering us not just personal salvation, but collective salvation.
Those who were part of “the greatest generation” understood this. That generation realized that WWII placed an inescapable moral claim on them. That moral claim prompted that generation to accept a common, universal calling. More than 40 million individuals sacrificed their lives.2 Tens of thousands of churches converted their pristine lawns to victory gardens. Tens of millions of Americans became vegetarians so the troops would have more protein. Recognizing that both democracy and civilization were at risk, people came together, accepting the reality that “we don’t get to do what we might want to do. We have to do what needs to be done.” In these and other ways, “the greatest generation”3 understood the importance of “WE”!
The God of many names is calling everyone who is alive today to recognize that our generation – no matter what “generation” we may be part of – has a vocation, a common, universal calling.
As people of faith, it’s time for us to make God’s call to restore creation and advance climate justice an essential part of our identity so that we can leave a fair and stable planet for our kids and grandkids and all future generations.
Along with most of you, I have received the blessing of longevity. As elders, it’s time for each of us to accept that we often have more influence than we recognize. It’s time for us to call upon our gifts, our energy, our time, our skills, our networks and our assets as we join with others in doing what urgently needs to be done. It’s time for our generation to conjure the tireless resolve needed to reverse our current course so that we may restore our common home.
Another shift we need to embrace is that we need to make our houses of worship safe enough and relevant enough so that we can do four things quite explicitly:
First, clergy need to preach on the climate emergency – and on the intersectionality of racial justice, economic justice and climate justice. We need to preach as if life itself depends on it – because it does.
Second, congregations need to get involved in advocating for and supporting aggressive policies to restore God’s creation. We can address climate and create jobs, we can address climate and reduce racial injustice, and we can address both climate and economic inequality. It is right and good for houses of worship to advocate for the restoration of creation, the elimination of racial inequity and the transformation of economic inequality.
Third, we need to hear each other’s testimony by creating a monthly or even weekly opportunity during worship for a member of the congregation to bear witness by sharing an action they or their family are taking to address the climate crisis.
Fourth, we need to process our grief – grief over the degradation of the earth we love. Recently, the captain of Starship Enterprise, William Shatner, gave the world an example of what I mean when he allowed himself to feel the pain of the cry of creation. At 90 years of age, he became the oldest person to travel into space. As it turns out, the experience filled him “with overwhelming sadness.” Last October  he wrote, “Every day, we are confronted with the knowledge of further destruction of Earth at our hands: the extinction of animal species, of flora and fauna . . . things that took five billion years to evolve, and suddenly we will never see them again because of the interference of mankind. It filled me with dread.”4
Shatner exemplifies a brilliant insight from Greta Thunberg. Greta tells us: “Hope starts with honesty.” And as Shatner demonstrates, honesty involves talking about your sadness, your grief, your love of nature, your heartbreak that we’re destroying God’s creation. Evangelical Christian and climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe reminds us that talking about the climate crisis may be the most important thing an individual can do. And talking about our existential dread also serves as a precondition of hope. Thank God, as it turns out, houses of worship are well-experienced in helping people process their grief.
Another action people of faith can take is to join with others and resist the building of all new fossil fuel infrastructure. Chances are, your congregation is not very far from a proposed oil or gas pipeline. In 2017, the United Church of Christ passed a national resolution that included a commitment to resist the building of new fossil fuel infrastructure.
Of course, it takes money to build new fossil fuel infrastructure. In fact, as Bill McKibben says, “money is the oxygen on which the fire of global warming burns.” And thank God that Third Act, together with numerous partner organizations, is offering every individual, and every congregation, an opportunity to come together on March 21 for the 3.21.23 Day of Action demanding banks stop funding climate destruction.
Some of the material from this and the following paragraphs comes from my article, “Living Faithfully on the Hinge of History.” Generations Journal, vol. 46, no. 2, Summer 2022.
“William Shatner: My Trip to Space Filled Me With ‘Overwhelming Sadness.’” Variety, 6 Oct. 2022.