ON THE SCENE: KVCC designated a ‘creation justice church’

Members of the Keene Valley Congregational Church Creation Justice Committee, from left, are Shawn Lamarche, Monique Weston, Lorraine Duvall, Naj Wikoff, Pam Gothner, Rev. John Sampson and Katharine Preston. Missing is Merle Tanis. (Photo provided)

This past week, a delegation of youth and Wild Center staff wrapped their observation of COP26, and the United Church of Christ designated the Keene Valley Congregational Church as a creation justice church.

The timing was significant for our region. The Wild Center in Tupper Lake is one of only two museums in the world provided COP26 observation status, the ability to attend various panels, plenary presentations for participating delegates as non-voting members. And KVCC is only the third UCC church in New York state to achieve creation justice status.

The United Church of Christ has been a pioneer protestant faith in addressing climate change. Its actions include establishing the phrase “creation justice” back in the early 1980s as a means of educating, equipping and mobilizing individuals, congregations and denominations to protect, restore and rightly share God’s creation in particular with marginalized people and poorer nations, which are hit the hardest by climate change.

The Wild Center is also a pioneer. Its youth climate program has had a global impact by inspiring other communities to create similar programs.

“Creation justice grows out of previous generations of work,” said Brooks Berndt, the United Church of Christ’s minister for environmental justice. “It’s a way of transforming the life of the larger denomination and faith communities to hone in on and recognize the importance of caring for God’s creation as central to what we are about as people of faith. As Christians, this means recognizing and living out our calling in the first pages of Genesis to care for God’s creation. Doing so should be central to our DNA as Christians.”

While other protestant churches, like the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine in New York City, have been early advocates, the religious community has not been as vigorous in addressing the moral ramifications of climate change on the marginalized as it has been in taking on Civil Rights throughout the 20th century. A significant shift took place when Pope Francis released his Encyclical Letter Laudato si’ which established addressing climate justice as a priority of the Catholic church.

While many UCC churches have long been active, it’s only recently that the domination created a set of criteria for churches to be designated creation justice. For KVCC, that process began over a year ago when Lorraine Duvall, a member of its Mission and Social Action Committee, learned about the process and brought it to the attention of Pastor John Sampson and the committee.

“I always thought that there was a spiritual dimension to saving the environment,” said Duvall. “I wanted to capture that through what we were doing at KVCC. So I searched the web for models we could follow. I found the United Church of Christ such a program and researched what other churches were doing.”

Through its M&SA Committee, KVCC had already established an interfaith, intergenerational working group that organized presentations on climate change. They included presentations that included youth and educators working with the wild center, such as Lake Placid Middle-High School science teacher Tammy Morgan and Wild Center COP 26 delegate Gina Fiorile.

“We were very involved with getting connected with the younger generation and to other churches, faiths, mosque synagogues, or whatever,” said Katharine Preston. “Then COVID hit, and this work came to a screaming halt, but the downtime enabled us to shift to the creation justice initiative.”

First, the Congregation established a CJ Task Force led by Duvall, Preston and Pam Gothner. They worked with all church committees ranging from buildings and grounds to finance and worship. Together they reviewed all materials and methods used in cleaning the buildings and caring for the landscaping. They conducted an energy audit, shifted investments to ESG accounts and considered how to increase awareness of the moral responsibility of addressing climate through the various aspects of worship and the church’s ministry.

The process took a year and included submitting interim and final reports to the UCC. On Nov. 6, Pastor John received the good news that the church’s application was approved and it became designated as a creation justice church.

“On a deeper level, it means that we live into the idea believe that we and creation are not separate things,” said Sampson. “We are all one thing and that the creation has deep spiritual value in and of itself. By becoming a creation justice church, we affirm that. In the very title, creation justice, there’s this aspect of justice. It calls on us to respond in a moral and ethical way.

“Those impacted the most by the environmental crisis are most often the most marginalized community; communities of color. Right now, the poorer nations around the world are being impacted disproportionately. We humans, especially humans of the richest nation in the world, are most historically responsible for greenhouse gas being in the atmosphere. We need to acknowledge that. In the language of the church, that’s called repent, which is basically to look at where we are and choose a different way forward. That means we need to act in new and different ways.”

Immediately, KVCC is joining an interfaith effort coming out of Plattsburgh. In addition, church leaders look forward to talking with the Wild Center COP26 youth and hearing how youth feel the church can help. And what are the youth saying? Emma Venarde reported back that the island nations are already feeling the full destructive impact of climate change, and they are the ones at COP26 that spoke most forcefully for the importance of listening to the youth and making bold actions.

“It was very striking about the contrast between what they were talking about and how they were talking; they lacked the jargon and complications that a lot of countries that are more aligned with the U.S. utilize,” said Venarde. “The difference of people focusing on cost and damage, youth engagement and gender, and the American and European talking about organizing a COP27 to continue the conversation.”

A youth delegate from Scotland said it’s unlikely that any concrete action addressing climate change will result from COP26 because so many critical voices were left out. In short, the youth felt it’s up to the grassroots to make a difference, that everyone should do what they can and work collectively, especially with the youth.

Locally, Keene Valley Congregational Church’s leaders’ sleeves are already rolled up. They hope other faith groups will quickly join them. Working collectively to restore the vibrant health of God’s creation has never been more needed.

(Naj Wikoff lives in Keene Valley. He has been covering events for the News for more than 15 years.)

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