Editor’s Note:  Following is a reflection by Steve Blackmer ’12 M.A.R. about the December trip a YDS delegation made to a climate change gathering in the Dominican Republic.  Blackmer graduated in 1983 from the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies and before returning to Yale worked for 30 years in forest conservation and rural community development from his home in New Hampshire. An earlier version of this column ran online in the Episcopal News Service on Dec. 14. Click here to view a gallery of photos from the trip taken by David Barr ’12 M.A.R.

In the Darkness, Hope Awaits

By Steve Blackmer ’12 M.A.R., ’83 M.F.

In the first week of December, I travelled with Prof. Willis Jenkins and four other YDS students in his Environmental Theologies seminar to the Dominican Republic, where we joined 40 Episcopal Church leaders from ten countries in four days of discussion about the environmental justice impacts of climate change – and what we might together do in response.

Through the fall, our class had read hundreds of pages exploring ways to make theological sense of current environmental challenges. The trip was an unexpected and welcome chance to put some of our thinking into practice.  Joining in the trip were my classmates Stephanie Johnson, ’10 M.Div., ’12 S.T.M., Katie Salisbury ’10 M.A.R., David Barr ’12 M.A.R., and Scott Claassen ’11 M.Div.

Dominican December’s gathering of Anglicans from Latin American, the Caribbean and the United States – bishops, clergy, staff, seminarians and lay leaders – was a tangible reminder that climate change and environmental justice are matters of grave concern around the world. In the days of Advent leading up to Christmas, our discussions served as a further sign that a new world is waiting to be born and that we are called in Christ to serve as midwives of new life.

As participants from Panama, Brazil, Haiti, Guatemala, Ecuador, and the Dominican Republic told us, the effects of climate change are being felt right now. People are being hurt and killed. Other forms of life are being extinguished. The planet we will pass on to our children tomorrow is being impoverished today. Whether we are ready or not, whether we want to believe it or not, a changing climate is bringing social and ecological challenges to every person on this Earth.

While we were gathered, Bishop Julio of Panama gave us breaking news of devastating rainfall in Panama. Ten people, at least, died. So much water fell from the sky that the Panama Canal – that great manmade river linking the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans – had to be closed.
Such violent storms are becoming increasingly common all around the world, signs that a previously stable global climate is becoming volatile and increasingly dangerous. Even the wealthy of the world, including many of us who use money, education, and privilege to keep hardship at bay, will feel the effects. Others with less security will seek escape through migration. Too many will turn to drugs, alcohol, and violence. Many will suffer. For this, those of us who consume the vast amounts of oil, coal, and gas that are the primary cause of a changing climate bear responsibility.

Most merciful God, we confess that we have sinned against you…

Through our consumption and destruction of the riches of the world, through accumulating the benefits for ourselves and requiring people in other places and times to bear the costs, through ignorance and closing our eyes to the harm we cause, those of us in the United States and other wealthy countries are bringing great harm upon the world that God created for all life.

And yet, in this very loss, in this very sin, new life and a new way is starting to take form. As with all new life, this one is taking shape in darkness and will be born in pain. We are called not only to witness but also to participate in this pain. These are eternal truths we cannot change. There is no other way.

By virtue of our life in Christ, we know it is only by our passage through the darkness that we may find new life. Bishop Griselda of Cuba movingly told participants about the renewal of her church through not only restoring a lovely building but establishing gardens of abundance to feed hungry people. It is our task to share all this news—news of death, pain, and darkness as well as news of life, joy and new light. All of us in the church have a choice to help this birth or to hold it back.

Alone, God brought the world into being out of darkness. Since then, it is through human beings that God has brought new light into the world. Through Noah after the flood, through Moses seeking liberation from Egypt’s empire, through Jeremiah and the prophets, through Miriam, Ruth, and Esther, finally through the conceiving of Jesus Christ born in the darkness of the Virgin Mary. It is in human form and through human action—passing through the darkness of both womb and tomb—that Hope in human form comes again.

So it may be once more as, through climate change, we learn anew the lessons of the Flood and as we cry to be freed from our self-created slavery of consumption. In days ahead, those who gathered in the Dominican Republic bear a message for the church and the world to rejoice that Hope awaits in the darkest hour – and that our task is to bring new life into the world. What actions will we take?

Out of the Dominican Republic meeting we developed a plan for next steps, which includes five concrete commitments “to each other, to the Church, to the Earth and its peoples, and to God.”

Here on Sterling Divinity Quadrangle, we are taking some modest steps that we hope will have a positive impact.

Last year a team of students, staff and faculty prepared a Sustainability Action Plan for the entire Quad, a plan that Dean Attridge and his staff are seeking to implement.  Just a few years ago, YDS created a sustainable farm on the campus, and not far from the farm is a dormitory roof entirely covered with an array of solar panels, a “first” for the University.  In December, YDS, Berkeley Divinity School and the School of Forestry and Environmental Studies announced a pledge of $3 million from the Porter Foundation to establish a new joint faculty chair in religion and environmental stewardship – the first such position in the country.

YDS’s participation in the December gathering came about through Jenkins’s contacts with the Episcopal Diocese of California, which organized the meeting with its companion diocese in Curitiba, Brazil.  Freddie Helmiere ’10 M.A.R., 10 M.E.Sc. was a member of the organizing team.

Posted: 01/03/2011