The Climate Justice group at Trinity St. Paul’s (TSP) United Church has been very, very busy these last few years. Small but mighty (there are about fifteen active members), the congregation launched a five-year plan in 2009, to connect, educate and engage with the community, on climate change issues.
The congregation first looked at its 125 year-old heritage building and made some environmental changes affecting energy-efficiency and building practices. In 2011 they organized an eco-fest engaging numerous environmental groups and environmentally-focused businesses, and offering children and youth activities, as well as education sessions on climate change. During the summer of 2013, the congregation hired a contract person for 4 hours a week for a year to help re-invigorate the work on Climate Justice.
Jeanne Moffat is a leading member of that reinvigorated Climate Justice group. “After having already tried numerous approaches to address environmental concerns in our church and in our community, we decided very quickly to join the divestment movement,” Jeanne says.
Jeanne explains that at their February 2014 Annual General Meeting the congregation voted unanimously to divest their own funds from dirty energy: “We created a primer for congregation members to use, putting down clearly the theological and social justice rationales for divestment from fossil fuels, as well as a model of how to bring about change.”
The congregation also passed a second motion directed to the United Church of Canada to divest its funds.
Within four months of the decision, TSP had divested its funds. “We didn’t have to push our trustees on this,” Jeanne says. “They reported a year later, that after the divestment our financial returns were healthier.”
When asked what makes the group so successful, Jeanne reports that the group was encouraged through congregational energy and support. “There was strong congregational affirmation to get on with it—through all the church governance bodies of Presbytery, Conference, and the national United Church General Council,” Jeanne enthuses. Another success factor was that this group shared the leadership in all the work, learning together and mentoring one another to do a lot of intense work in a short period of time. There was no one leader, rather many leaders!
The congregation itself is a progressive mixed one of all ages and backgrounds. It has a long history of social justice work and mission-based giving. “These are rooted in our understanding of our faith,” Jeanne says. “This is the kind of thing that attracts new people to engage with us.”
Jeanne reports that when they made that divestment decision, they developed a media strategy to spread the news. Faith & the Common Good saw it: “They wrote to us, telling us that we were the first faith community in the country to take this step and thanking us for our leadership. Little had we known we were the first and what that might mean!”
Immediately, invitations to share their experience started pouring in from Anglican, Unitarian, United, Presbyterian, Catholic, and ecumenical groups. The group decided that they needed to develop a model of a “travelling road show”, and travelled to places like Kitchener-Waterloo and Ottawa, and others within and round Toronto. “There was a real hunger for information and we were trying to plug in anywhere we could,” Jeanne adds. In addition, they joined with others across Canada in starting www.fossilfreefaith.ca.
“People from our church have gone to all the large climate marches– New York City, Quebec City, and Toronto– and these have re-energized those participating.”
Another strategic approach was to seek out allies within the United Church of Canada in building a cross-country United Church network to support their motion through the church’s governance system. Several United Church Conferences debated climate justice responses to the climate crisis, and some adopted their appeal to divest and/or modified it according to what each conference deemed appropriate. TSP sent one of their team as an “advocate and educator” to the General Council. Many youth were involved. Fossil Free Faith Fellows like B.C.’s Christine Boyle was a voting member of the General Council and she was able to stand up and speak.
Next Steps for Trinity St. Paul: Celebrating!
“In terms of the climate justice work, our next steps will be to celebrate,” Jeanne concludes. “We will be telling the story in its entirety to the congregation, we’ll be learning from what we’ve done.” The group will also be identifying issues that will require focused work as well as monitoring the United Church’s progress with other congregations, in the lead up to the Paris Climate Change Conference this November.
Other Canadian faith institutions that have divested