Church in Our Times: Spirit and Security in the Face of Crisis
We’ve been hearing for years that mainline Protestant churches are on the wane in the United States, emptying out in an increasingly atomized society. In my personal life, my 10-year membership in a small Unitarian Universalist church here in Boston has deepened as I’ve realized the extent of the environmental and economic crisis we are living through.
I consider my church to be my community in a unique way: I rely on the congregation for my deepest sustenance—even on those who are not my “friends.” These are the people I can be real with, and the ones I will count on as times get harder. I often find myself recommending to friends that they find a religious community to join, reminding them that there are many places that accept non-believers and agnostics.
Many activists working to confront the economic crisis, peak oil and climate change think similarly. The threat to our growth-based economy, and the materialistic lifestyle it has afforded us, has brought strong moral questions to the fore. Can we, in good conscience, continue to live in a way that threatens the well being of our planet, our poorer neighbors, and the generations to come? This question, and its answer, falls squarely into the realm of religion.
We have found congregations, with their traditions of mutual support, to be particularly fertile ground for the formation of Common Security Clubs. Likewise, the clubs have been effective tools for strengthening congregations in this time of economic and ecological crisis.
The clubs help recreate the role that churches have always played in communities. The Rev. Cecilia Kingman piloted one of the earliest Common Security Clubs in her Washington state church, calling it “one of the best pastoral tools I’ve used in years.”
Cecilia says the church has a unique role to play in this moment of crisis: “All of the old stories are failing us, and we need new stories. Religion is the only institution that creates new stories, and a new theology.”
Cecilia has served several congregations in the past decade, and has observed a heightening amount of anxiety and depression in her congregations over that time. “People are overwhelmed by grief and anxiety ... part of my job is to put grief work before them on a regular basis. I try to be deft about it—one upcoming service is about “how to keep moving forward in times of despair” as we deal with climate change, the economy, and so on. Rather than provide the congregation with false assurances, I’m approaching the situation through the story of Jonah in the belly of the whale: we have to feel the loss and despair first. If we are clinging to trying not to feel bad, then there’s no possibility of real transformation.”
Jim Antal is the conference Minister and President of the United Church of Christ in Massachusetts. He’s using his sermons to call attention not only to climate change, but the corresponding need to “relocalize” ourselves and our communities. It makes perfect sense, he says, to lead this call from the pulpit.
“The unit of survival going forward is the local town—and guess what? There’s a church in every town!” he said. “The circumstances of the planet require that churches embrace a new vocation—for all faiths. We must ask, ‘Who is my neighbor?’ We must realize that our neighbor is all of creation, not just human beings, and we must think of unborn generations as our neighbors too.”
Andrée Zaleska works for the Institute for Policy Studies, where she coordinates the Common Security Club project. She is also a climate activist and the co-founder of the JP Green House, a zero-carbon demonstration home and garden in Boston.
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