Organising for the Climate Strike
The foyer of Pitt St Uniting Church is fairly dim, until you open the front doors. Just before 8am on Friday 20 September, I padded across the tiles, and swung the door open to bright light and a small crowd of familiar faces; their excited hum split into cheers and with arms full of bags and placards they filed inside. Proudly, they wore their Christian Students Uniting t-shirts.
Three months earlier, these faces – among 25 had sat in a room at the annual School of Discipleship and made a decision. They agreed that, in between working part-time, studying and caring for loved ones, they wanted to contribute to the increasingly loud push for sensible climate change policy. The type of action the Earth is yearning for.
This commitment was made not just as individuals, not just as peers, but as part of the diverse community of the Uniting Church (and its Christian friends!). They wanted to bring others along with them. They wanted to exercise leadership.
The decision of Christian Students Uniting leaders to step up, resulted in a moment of incredible solidarity amongst the different agencies of the Church. On that day, 20 September, over 500 people from across our Uniting Church turned out to strike for climate action. 300 Uniting Church members packed into Pitt Street Uniting Church; young women from Pymble Ladies College joined us as well as congregations, Synod and Presbytery representatives. 30 members from Wayside, 60 staff from Uniting and 140 young men from Newington College joined us in the Domain.
Having shared in communion, with Rev. Alimoni Taumoepeau’s sermon giving us courage and Rev Jane Fry sending us with full hearts, we streamed out of Pitt St Uniting. We stretched along city streets, through the Domain and became part of the vast mass of people. We stood proud in our t-shirts telling the world we were Uniting for Climate Action. In euphoria, 80 000 people from across Sydney marched out of the Domain and down Macquarie Street, passing St Stephens Uniting Church to the sounds of a 20-person strong drumming corps with beaming youthful faces behind the drumsticks.
Weeks later, with memories of sore feet, proud banners and hearty chants, it’s time to talk about what we really achieved.
If you were there that Friday, treading the sandstone steps, shuffling through the foyer taking your place among hundreds of faces, you would have seen lots of leaders. People leading you this way and that, people at the microphone, people with fluro vests. That day, we were achieving leadership but not in any of the easy-to-see ways described above; we’re talking about achieving long term leadership development. The mark we’re looking for, of a person developing into a leader, is not someone standing alone at the microphone. A leader is someone who works among and through others. It’s someone who can make space for others to hold a vision with them, together – and build it.
This type of leadership can’t be seen in a day because it takes months if not years of work. It’s three months of phone calls, reaching out to congregations familiar and unfamiliar; planning and practicing speeches so that you can clearly communicate the vision to others as it grows; inviting people to place their names on a whiteboard so they can commit to joining in; lists and lists of the kind of outcomes we wanted to achieve, considering every step of the service so that people could make that faith connection so crucial for this campaign; sitting around a coffee table listening to each other’s imaginations and figuring out how to make them true.
All of the above was done primarily by Christian Students Uniting. If you were there on the day hopefully you could see the results of all the leadership work we’ve just outlined. If you sat in a pew and craned your neck around maybe you saw people you recognised, and so many more that you couldn’t. We hope you saw the diverse width and breadth of the Church packed in ready to worship together, walk, sign and share in communion together. We were uniting as one body; as a church, in the public sphere; as a group calling on a transformation for the sake of the Earth. A vision made real.
The right(ous) disruption
Several months ago, the plan for Friday 20 September was just another regular workday. What did we achieve by stopping that plan and committing to the climate strike? We helped to increase attention to the reality of the environmental emergency; both our own attention and that of decision makers.
If you were there that day, there’s a good chance you had to stop your personal world: work, study or caring for a loved one. Striking disrupts the economic, social and therefore political system that we’re all part of. That’s a big deal; which makes sense when you consider the scale of the crisis we are facing. Suffice it to say, climate change is putting our society and resources in a freefall as we speak. We have more than enough evidence to provoke a terrifying existential crisis for our entire world. It’s a wonder we’re not striking more often.
We already know that our national leader has rebuffed the 350, 000 people that participated in the strike on 20 September. This highlights that while striking is needed, and powerful, the climate crisis cannot be solved in one day.
For many, taking direct political action is uncomfortable, controversial or associated with negative connotations of power. This is exactly why we are called on to keep acting; to keep our heads down, to allow the status quo – is to erase the integrity of our values. We need to stay awake, in vigil. September 20 was only the first step.
Space for faith in the public sphere
As Christians participating in the strike – our values count for a lot. We understand the logos of the issue (the facts about climate change), and we understand the pathos of the issue (our Pacifica sisters and brothers, our regional and rural communities are feeling immense pain, for example), but we can’t forget our ethos.
We are the Uniting Church in Australia. When we stand together, we become parts of a body. We believe the resources we use to live and breathe are precious gifts from God. We believe Christ came to Earth as God and showed us an alternative way to live where there is enough for everybody and too much for nobody. Where love is abundant.
Because of our beliefs – our ethos, our voice is an essential part of this push towards transformative action for our planet. In fact, our voice is desperately needed because without Christians taking action for Climate, we cannot make God’s reign real in our day-to-day lives.
Friday 20 September was a culmination of three months of Christian Students Uniting exploring and practicing this ethos. From trainings on action and turnout to Sabbath Economics and bible studies on eco theology, we told our story over and over again, and looked at our congregations to see where we could invite others in. We came alive as a Church on Friday the 20th and told all of Sydney that we were there. From the drumming core, banners, shirts, even the service itself we practiced and celebrated our ethos as believers in God.
To be completely accurate, the above isn’t a list of what we achieved at all. Rather, it is a list of what we’re achieving; what we’re achieving every time we step up and make a commitment like our Christian Students Uniting leaders have. Not just a commitment to a healthier planet, nor just to holding our social decision makers accountable; it’s a commitment to following Christ. For Christ has laid out a vision of a world where we love our earth and each other as God loves us. That vision gets a little clearer, a little brighter every time we open the doors to let others in.
So, what now?
How do we continue to achieve this? Christian Students Uniting will be regrouping; forming a team that will discern how it wants to act over the next 12 months. We’ve already discovered many precious lessons. One of the lessons is that with only three months, from the inception to the Strike, we couldn’t get as many people around the table as we should have. We’re learning from this. Going forward we’re starting from the Church at its best; building relationships and community across all of its diverse parts.
Every step our Christian Students Uniting took from that first day in a classroom over three months ago, they took as leaders; learning to make space for others to hold their vision, to build it into action and to do so knowing exactly what they believe.
If you were there on 20 September, thank you. If not, we need you, you are needed. Everyone is.
Natalie Martignago and Andrew McCloud