By Catherine Woodiwiss
Eighteen months after the first major protests in DC against the Keystone XL pipeline made headlines for weeks and saw hundreds of protestors arrested, Sunday’s ”Forward on Climate” rally gathered the “NO XL” faithful for what organizers called the “biggest climate rally by far in history.”
And as with anti-Keystone protests past, faith groups lent visible support; their banners, prayers, and chants joining the estimated 40,000 peaceful protestors calling on President Obama to show climate leadership in his new term by vetoing the Keystone XL pipeline.
Kevin Mason, a young man with The Catholic Worker hospitality house in DC, saw protesting the pipeline as a matter of justice and solidarity. “One person is hurt, we all are hurt,” he said over chants of “That’s not kosher!” from the assembled crowd. “Charity and resistance go hand in hand. There’s a huge need to get back to the Genesis idea of stewardship and beloved community.”
Faith groups have grown bolder in their pro-environment positions, and are gaining some momentum in joining and helping shape protests against fracking and tar sands removal. The shift hasn’t been easy — climate change is still a challenging conversation in many faithful communities, and remains completely off the radar in others.
Yet in the last year alone, several new groups and initiatives like Young Evangelicals for Climate Action and the Interfaith Moral Action on Climate have sprung up, major faith mobilizers like Sojourners have more publicly stepped in, and longstanding interfaith climate organizing networks like Interfaith Power and Light have redoubled their efforts.
“It’s great to see this interfaith energy,” said George Hoguet, a former Catholic now part of The Stillworkers, an engaged Buddhist community in Pittsburgh. “It’s great — there needs to be more.”
Tim Kumfer, representing Interfaith Power & Light at the rally, expressed hope for the direction of faith involvement. “I’ve seen, even today – there are more and more young people here who are publicly identifying with faith, connecting it to this issue,” he said, noting a common disparity between young climate organizers and older interfaith activists. Increasingly at climate actions, Kumfer noted, “there’s all ages and denominations joining in.”
In 2011, Keystone XL protests helped prompt a delay from the Administration on pipeline construction. This time, protestors want a full stop, and took their message directly to the man they see as the ultimate decider: the newly re-elected President.
Bill McKibben, founder of 350.org, issued a challenge to thunderous applause from the crowd. If the President were to veto the pipeline, he would, in McKibben’s words, “become the first leader in history to veto legislation because it was bad for the climate. And he can put an end to that with a single stroke of his pen.”
Van Jones, President of Rebuild the Dream, echoed McKibben’s charge. “Today, I direct my message to [the President]: all the good you’ve done, everything you’ve fought for…will be wiped out if you fail to act now. The decision is in your hands.”
He added, “If the pipeline is built, the first thing it runs over… will be your credibility.”
This stern charge came just days after 48 XL protestors were arrested in front of the White House, and President Obama’s State of the Union speech featured climate change as a pressing issue for his second term.
That the rally occurred over President’s Day weekend was no coincidence. “We’re showing [the President] visible support for his efforts,” said one woman in the faith march, identifying as Unitarian. “He needs it more than Congress. We need to show him we agree and want him to keep going.”
Reverend Lennox Yearwood, President of the Hip Hop Caucus and a host for the Forward on Climate rally, urged the crowd to remember the values that unite the climate movement.
Citing the influence of money and power in Washington, Lennox said, “We have other currencies to work with: passion, spirit, creativity. A love for the future is what brought us here today.”
On Sunday, protestors made it clear they are looking to the President to demonstrate his share in these values and veto the pipeline.
Catherine Woodiwiss is a special assistant on the Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative at the Center for American Progress.