NORTHAMPTON — The Rev. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas’ home office has a cross on the wall and titles such as “God’s Politics” and “The Water Will Come” — a book about sea level rise — lining her bookshelf.
Since 2014 she has been the missioner for creation care for the Episcopal Diocese of Western Massachusetts and the Massachusetts Conference of the United Church of Christ, a job that sends her preaching about the environment and theology in western Massachusetts and around the state.
She’s led retreats and preached in Massachusetts and beyond in Vancouver, San Francisco and British Columbia, and has a history of environmental activism — like being arrested in front of the Department of Energy in Washington, D.C. in 2001 when George W. Bush wanted to drill for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refugee.
Underneath a small table in her office, she has a stash of magazines with environmental cover stories, such New York Magazine’s “The Doomed Earth,” and the New York Times’ “The Insect Apocalypse Is Here.”
She stashes the overwhelming stuff here, she said.
Like those magazine headlines denote, climate change can be depressing. Bullitt-Jonas is interested in what gives people courage in the face of climate change. For the past few years she’s been co-editing a book “Rooted and Rising: Voices of Courage in a Time of Climate Crisis,” due out in November from Rowman & Littlefield.
Edited with the Rev. Leah Schade, who works in Lexington, Kentucky, the book asked writers questions about how they find hope and courage in the face of climate change.
The Gazette talked to Bullitt-Jonas about her upcoming book and her experiences as an environmentally-focused priest.
(Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)
Tell me about the book you’re co-editing.
We have 21 contributors from a wide range of social locations. They’re all people of faith, they all are committed to trying to build a more just and sustainable world and to address the climate crisis. And they have very different perspectives on it. We asked each of them to reflect on: What do you do with your despair? What do you do with your grief? What gives you hope? What gives you courage?
What did writers focus on?
One of the contributors is Reverend Lennox Yearwood, who is the head of the Hip Hop Caucus. The Hip Hop Caucus has inspired I don’t know whether it’s thousands or tens of thousands of young African-Americans to register to vote and get politically engaged.
Rev. Yearwood is eloquent about the climate crisis as being today’s civil rights issue, human rights issue. He spoke just so beautifully (saying) every activist needs to be anchored somewhere. If you are not anchored somewhere you’re going to get blown away because the forces against you are so big.
So find your anchor — whether it’s loving your children, or being committed to a better future or loving God, find your anchor.
What are some other topics people wrote about?
I talked in my own essay about being very interested in how do we keep our inner landscape vibrant and alive so that we don’t close down, go numb, space out?
One of the examples I gave is they’re building a co-housing community behind this house and co-housing is a wonderful concept and I know some really nice people who are going to be moving in there, but in order to build the co-housing, they had to take down a beautiful little stretch of woods. I grieved the trees.
I talk about going outside to sing to the trees, and sing out my sorrow and sing out my anger. I sing out my guilt because I’m complicit in a society that’s taking down life. But there was something about standing outside with my two feet planted on the ground, singing — making it up as I went along — to the trees that left me feeling more alive and more connected with the God of life. I’m very interested in what kind of prayer helps people stay alive.
I think many of us need rituals, we need collective practices, not just solitary practices but collective practices that help us move from despair to a sense of feeling empowered and strong.
Are there any pieces that made you change the way you think in some way?
There’s a powerful essay by a man named Tink Tinker, who is a Native American and writes very starkly about what it’s like to be part of a culture that was so torn apart by an incoming flood of white people. Having the voice of a Native American in the book is very powerful — realizing the land on which this house sits was originally Native American land.
There’s an essay by Tim DeChristopher who interrupted an auction of leasing rights of oil and gas in Utah. He bid as if it was a legitimate bid. And he won bids, and he was doing it to save the land from being drilled. He got arrested and spent two years in prison for what he did. He has a very strong essay about Easter Island and how that civilization collapsed and contrasting that with another civilization that did not collapse because the people were willing to bury their idols, their images of God.
They were willing to let go — metaphorically — of the things they were clinging to that no longer served life and then moved on and created a new civilization. It was a wonderful image inviting us to ponder what we need to let go: greed and treating our neighbor as less than.
How did you come to the intersection of climate and religion in your career and life?
It’s not what I would have expected. I had a food addiction for years as a young person. I got in recovery when I was 30 and with a lot of support made peace with my body and then I was so amazed by this God. I experienced that healing and that reconciliation of body, mind and spirit only through coming back to prayer. It was through the 12-step program, which is very much which is about turning your life over to a higher power, however you want to define higher power.
So, I finished up a Ph.D. in comparative literature and went straight to seminary, because I wanted to know: Who is this God that just saved my life?
I happened to be ordained in June of 1988, which was the month that James Hansen, the NASA climate scientist, was testifying to the U.S. Senate on what he was calling the greenhouse effect. I took that to heart and the question that emerged pretty soon in my mind was if God can heal one addict like me and help me live in the right relationship to my own body, is it not possible that God can help humanity learn to live in the right relationship with the body of the earth?
How do we access a higher power, a deeper power, a greater power, something beyond our little, ambitious, greedy, worried egos? We need a power beyond ourselves. Clearly, on our own, we are not doing a good job at all. We are destroying life on earth.
What does it mean to be missioner for creation care?
The main things I do, one is I preach. I’m trying to help people understand that placing care for God’s creation needs to be at the center of our moral and spiritual concerns. If we consider ourselves Christian, we care about the fate of the planet.
I remember the first sermon I ever preached about the earth was in 1989. It was right after the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska, all these millions of gallons of oil spilled onto the coast of Alaska. I was shocked. I preached the first sermon I had ever preached and the first sermon I had ever heard about why it’s a sin to destroy the earth and that God actually cares about the earth.
At the end of the sermon, a woman came up to me and said, “Thank you for preaching that but I really don’t understand. What does religion have to do with ecology? What does Christianity have to do with caring about the natural world?”
I realized we have a lot of educating to do. That’s been part of my work really since my ordination in 1988 is trying to help myself and help other people understand that caring for the earth is it’s not an extra — it’s not ancillary to being a Christian or a person of faith — it’s actually central.
There’s also an activist side, where I’m trying to mobilize action. I begin with Christians and then it enlarges to people of all faiths and people of no faiths but people of goodwill. I am trying to awaken a movement so that we can take concerted, effective action to address the crisis.
The IPCC, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, says we have just a very short window of time in which to take effective action. There’s so much that we have already lost and are losing, but there’s so much we can save if we take action now. Because the scope, the scale and the pace of the climate crisis is so vast, we also need systemic change. As I said in my sermon on Sunday, we need to make it politically possible to do what is scientifically necessary.
So what made you want to do a sermon about the environment in the first place if you hadn’t before?
The Exxon Valdez oil spill happened on Good Friday. It was on Good Friday. For a Christian, that is a powerful day, that’s a day when you’re looking at the suffering of God — the son of God is loving us so much he is willing to die showing us the nonviolence of God. I couldn’t help putting it together — we are looking at the crucifixion of the earth. The innocent earth is being crucified, and we’re doing it. So, I took it very personally as a spiritual meaning.
Greta Jochem can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org