Religious Witness for the Earth

RWE: a Capsule History

by Marge Harvey

For newly-ordained minister Frederick Emerson Small, it seemed clear that faith organizations and religious groups have not been doing enough to respond to the environmental crisis. "I wanted to explore" says Small "how to apply the lessons of Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. to a challenge of comparable moral urgency."

Thus was born Religious Witness for the Earth, at the dawn of 2001. An environmental lawyer turned popular folk singer for 17 years before entering Harvard Divinity School, Small sought out another singer and old friend from musical circles who had since entered the United Church of Christ ministry. At Mt. Holyoke College, where she is Dean of Religious Studies, he found that Dr. Andrea Ayvazian was moving on a similar environmental and spiritual path and was glad to be Co-Chair of the new group. In the nation's capitol to plan for their first public witness, Small found a third Co-Chair for RWE in Rabbi Fred Scherlinder Dobb (also a singer!), leader of the Shalom Reconstructionist Congregation of Bethesda, MD and trustee of the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life (COEJL).

Religious Witness for the Earth in Washington DC, May 3, 2001

They issued a "Call to Witness for the Arctic Refuge" in Washington DC on May 1-3, 2001. Scores of volunteers spent the first day in workshops, run chiefly by speakers from the Sierra Club, on issues of the Refuge and techniques of lobbying. On the second day we fanned out to our congresspersons to speak against oil drilling in the Refuge. Those among us planning on non-violent civil disobedience, and our supporters, received special training. On May 3 some hundred people gathered for a service of song, prayer, and witness next to the Department of Energy. Speakers included Inuit Chief Jonathon Solomon of the Gwich'in people of Alaska, and Rev. Adora Iris Lee, Minister for Environmental Justice of the United Church of Christ. When 22 individuals, half of them in their clerical robes, took their places standing or kneeling and singing before the entrance to the DOE, we were arrested one by one, handcuffed, and led to waiting police vans.

There followed many hours waiting in the steel-lined, windowless vans, being led out to be fingerprinted, photographed, and imprisoned in two federal jail cells, then transferred to tiny, dingy DC cells. We were gradually released toward midnight and during the early morning hours.

Although the event did not hit the evening news (except in Alaska), Small believes "it has had a ripple effect in the media" and "has seemed a transformative experience for those arrested and for those who witnessed."

Subsequent events in Massachusetts have included:

  • Formation of the Pioneer Valley Chapter of RWE in Northampton and the Charles River Chapter in Cambridge, in addition to the original Merrimack Valley Chapter in Littleton & Carlisle.
  • Public witness events against gas-guzzling SUVs in both Lynn and Northampton.
  • An RWE Conference attended by 80 to 90 New Englanders to assess goals and plan next steps, with author Bill McKibben as keynote speaker.
  • An "Interfaith Service of Prayer and Witness for Climate Action" on June 11, 2002, held inside the Massachusets State House and in the capitols of all New England states. The goal was to call on the New England governors to implement their agreed-upon climate change action plan.
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Fred Small has been speaking on climate change, in churches and at workshops. He notes that while environmental appeals are often couched in economic terms, people are drawn to the moral and spiritual appeal. He meets with favorable and enthusiastic response: "I think people are hungry to make a difference."

Mission Statement:

Religious Witness for the Earth (RWE) is a national interfaith network dedicated to public witness in defense of Creation. Seeing climate change and environmental devastation as issues of justice, RWE invokes the loving spirit, selfless courage, and moral authority of the civil rights movement. Through prayer, education, and nonviolent action, we join hands to protect the Earth, our beloved home.

Religious Witness for the Earth is:

  • Interfaith We welcome people of all religions and spiritual paths without discrimination.
  • Independent We work closely with many religious organizations but are beholden to none.
  • Grassroots We are a membership-based network of both clergy and laity.
  • Activist Our primary strategy is public witness, from outdoor worship to nonviolent civil disobedience.
  • Nonviolent Believing that any form of violence is spiritually harmful and strategically counterproductive, we aspire to love in all our endeavors.

Since its founding in February, 2001, RWE has:

  • Circulated a Call to Religious Witness for the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge signed by over 170 clergy and hundreds of lay people.
  • Met with members of Congress urging protection of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and action to end global climate change.
  • Organized a Service of Prayer & Witness outside the US Department of Energy in Washington, DC, followed by nonviolent civil disobedience resulting in 22 arrests (including 10 clergy).
  • Organized a Prayer & Witness for Climate Action in every New England state capital.
  • Testified at state and federal hearings on energy conservation.
  • Co-sponsored a demonstration at SUV dealers near Boston.
  • Gained national media attention including the Wall Street Journal, Christian Science Monitor, Boston Globe, PBS, and Alaska Public Radio.

Current RWE projects include:

  • A New England Interfaith Call to support the Climate Change Action Plan approved by all New England governors and eastern Canadian premiers.
  • Active cooperation with other religious and secular environmental groups.
  • Encouraging RWE local chapters and initiatives nationwide.

Download and print the RWE flyer (requires Adobe Acrobat Reader).

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