Thursday, 17 December 2009

With Desmond Tutu in Copenhagen -- by Sara Walcott

This post originally appeared in the blog Quakers at COP.
Desmond Tutu says that God is happy that we are here today. Here, in Copenhagen, where, from what I can tell, the negotiators are not making much progress. Or so an African American woman, who works in DC with Katrina survivors, told me today, while we sat, waiting for the ecumenical ‘celebration’ attended by the Queen of Denmark and many top negotiators and, I am sure, many other ‘important’ people whom I did not recognize. God is happy, because this is a demonstration of the body of Christ coming together. God wants for His people to come together.

And today, I saw His people come together in the most beautiful church service that I have ever witnessed.

I knew it was going to be good. Knowing in that way I knew I had to come to Copenhagen, knowing in that way I knew, several years ago, I had to go to Africa, knowing, before that, that I had to worship, and pray, and praise, for a force and a God I still do not understand. These ‘knowings’ as a friend calls them, are too important to ignore.

We – three Quakers, mostly from the US – stood in a line of hundreds of others for nearly 90 minutes outside the massive classical church – classical because, one of the Danes told me, because it was bombed by the English during the War. I didn’t know if we would get in, and it was cold, and Leonard didn’t have an extra jacket to wear.

But we did get in – to the third tier balcony, near the front, where, if I leaned over the rail and the lights, I could see the front of the church, all white and stone, with small amounts of gold decorating the roses, and a massive statue of Jesus blessing the small figures of the Danish Reverends and Archbishops who spoke.

I started crying when I saw the two sets of choirs walking down the processional, one from Africa, the other from Greenland, both in their traditional clothes, walking up the aisle and then up the stairs. When would these two indigenous traditions, from the very north and the very south of the globe, have met, much less sung together, had it not been for the horrors of climate change? They would not, otherwise, have come together. And it was then that the enormity, and the terrible tragicness, of this moment in time and space crashed upon me, waves, like an ocean, and I wondered if the only witness, the only contribution I could possibly make would be my tears, in this church, at this time, when it felt the entire world was present (though of course they were not).

I cried as we sang the processional hymn, All creatures of our god and king’, as hundreds (thousands?) of voices said, ‘And all ye men of tender heart, forgiving others, take your part…ye who long pain and sorrow bear, praise god and on him cast your care’ – I could not escape the images I have seen, of desertification in northern Kenya and melting icebergs. I could not raise my voice to sing, ‘let all things their creator bless, and worship him in humbleness’, as images of negotiators and politicians huddled around texts and argued over details – and over long-standing political and economic divisions. Where was our humility, I wondered? Where was our compassion?

History is a strange thing. Those women singing Christian hymns in Zulu in ‘traditional’ costumes did so in a church that was part of the colonial heritage that destroyed much of their traditional culture while preaching of a universal god who died for their sins (including many now-lost traditions). The same religion that has heralded such destruction, and that went part and parcel with the ecological destruction that precipitated where we are today. And yet it was from this tarnished, blood-soaked tradition that could now bring them together, and give thanks and blessings and a call towards loving one another and loving creation.

I witnessed what might be the birth of a new kind of Christianity, one that integrations ecological and human social justice in the rituals, music and prayers.

After Desmund Tutu, in his slow, strong voice, gave thanks to God, the Reverend Falani from Tuvalu held a bleached coral from the Pacific Ocean, and asked that god forgive us of our sins, for the damage that we each have played a part, in causing this destruction of the oceans. His country is in imminent danger of going under water. But he did not speak of this – he held the bleached coral with great reverence, as if it was a sacred relic from a time past, and asked for forgiveness.

Rev Matale from Zambia held up dried maize from Africa, and spoke of the wonders of that abundant crop, the staple food for many Africans. Her voice was strong and deep, and she spoke of hunger, and justice, and the necessity of leaning, as always, upon God. I thought of the innumerable prayers that have been given around Africa, pleading for God’s help. I sent a prayer to join mine with them.

Bishop Peterson from the Lutheran Church in Greenland held up an uncovered glacier stone. She was a heavy set woman, with a kind voice, and spoke of the beauty of her country, covered with so much snow and ice much of the year, and then, in the summer, brief glorious green. She spoke of the sadness and the grief of the people there, whose lives and landscapes were being lost and destroyed. She prayed that we might come to love our neighbors as ourselves.

These three relics were stood in as the body of Christ. No bread was broken, no wine sipped. But spirit was there, thick as blood, coursing through our veins, reminding us of who we are to be. When the voices of the church rose to sing ‘here I am lord’, and amongst those voices were queens and bishops, citizens and negotiators, all singing ‘ I have heard my people cry…I have borne my people’s pain, I have wept for love of them, they turn away, I will break their hearts of stone, give them hearts for love alone, who shall I send? It is I lord… will hold your people in my heart….’ It felt as if that song was for me alone, and that song was for every person in that church, and the thousands outside of it.

Ron Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury, spoke of turning away from fear and turning towards love. It was as much of a Quaker sermon as I could have wished for, with calling for us to listen to what we know we need to do, and having courage, and acting from love. He too spoke to the negotiators – do not let the fears of economic failure or saving face keep you from making the right decisions. The fears may be rational. The fears may be practical. The fears may be real. But they are fears, nonetheless, and take us away from loving one another.

In that church, it felt as if we really were all together, all one body in Christ. I, who do not always believe in Christ and generally avoid answering questions such as, ‘Are you a Christian?’ Later, Leonard said he thought that ecumenical was too narrow – it needed to be interfaith. But I felt such power in the Christian message of life, death and rebirth - looking at these new relics for a new age, and the very real potential of realizing the truth of the gospel in this time and this place. Sometimes, it is nice to ‘just’ be ecumenical. There will be an abundance of interfaith gatherings – because the climate does not make discrimination along religious lines.

In the end, the Danish reverend lit a candle, and passed it around, while Rev Tutu said a prayer of blessing in his native language. As so often happens, the meaning goes beyond the words I did not understand, and, faster than I thought possible, a gentle tug at my elbow signaled that the light had arrived to me. On this Lucia Day, I walked out of the church in Copenhagen to the sound of the bells ringing 350 times - a ring joined by bells around the world. I dont know what effect all of this is happening on the negotiations. But I know it made me cry, standing in the blistering wind, with the tragic beauty and the real potential for a renewed world.

Walking away, I didn’t know what to feel. I have always known that working on climate change is working for the poor and vulnerable people in this world and the planet that we all depend upon to live, and doing such work is part of God’s work. I wondered if it would become common to see relics at church services, memories of a world before the ice melted and the corals bleeched and the maize dried, before the poles and the oceans and the lands lost their abundant use to man kind – and their inherent beauty. The message of the ‘celebration’ was one of thanksgiving, hope, and love. To not despair. To turn outwards towards one neighbor and to recognize ourselves there. To not be stopped by fear. These are old messages. Warnings, perhaps – for not doing so destroys everyone.
Ed.: See the latest Copenhagen news from tck tck and the leaked UN compromise draft in the Guardian 17 Dec 09, of which a CJN activist says, "The analysis shows that our leaders were prepared to sign a deal that condemned the world to a possible concentration of 550 ppm and a global temperature rise of 3 degrees. I don’t have the time to tell you how horrible it would be if the global warming we have now were allowed to almost quadruple. The deal would truly be a global suicide pact.But now the miracle has happened. Some gutsy U.N. bureaucrat broke the rules. Maybe he or she saw the tears in the many eyes of the international youth delegation that sat down in the middle of the convention center yesterday and read for hours from the millions of names on the petitions they had circulated around the world begging leaders not to leave them a ruined world. Maybe he or she has a child too."

The 550 ppm target (weakest of all Copenhagen plans) happens to match that of the WBCSD (the top 200 multinationals) which was allowed into the conference under "Global Compact" rules, while civil society groups were excluded. Pure coincidence?

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