TEConversation calls on Episcopalians to care for creation

Gwich’in woman gives heart-wrenching testimony

By Lynette Wilson
Posted Jul 10, 2018

Bernadette Demientieff, Alaska Native Gwich’in from Fort Yukon, Alaska, offers an emotional witness to the destruction of sacred lands and waters of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge during the third and final TEConversation, Care of Creation, on July 10, at the 79th General Convention, Austin, Texas. Photo: Sharon Tillman/Episcopal News Service

[Episcopal News Service – Austin, Texas] When Native Alaskan Bernadette Demientieff took the stage in front of a joint session of the 79th General Convention assembled for the final TEConversation on July 10, she didn’t so much give a presentation, as scheduled. Instead, she testified in a trembling voice to the destruction of the Gwich’in way of life.

“We are not asking for jobs, not asking for schools. We are asking for the respect to live as we always have and keep our identity as Gwich’in,” Demientieff said.

The Gwich’in people’s existence has for centuries depended on the Porcupine caribou, whose calving ground lies within the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge’s coastal plain. To the Gwich’in, the refuge is sacred; to energy companies the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, particularly its 1.5-million acre coastal plain, is a potential oil and natural gas bonanza. This conflict has fueled for more than 30 years a contentious debate over whether this coastal plain should be opened to oil drilling or kept as unspoiled habitat.

In December 2017, the Trump administration and congressional Republicans opened the refuge to oil exploration. Earlier this year in April, it took its first step toward allowing drilling.

Even in times of food shortage and starvation, the Gwich’in haven’t gone into the coastal plain, which they consider “the sacred place where life begins,” said Demientieff, who after high school drifted away from her Gwich’in identity only to recover it later in life and use her voice to speak for future generations and the animals that cannot speak for themselves.

A highlight of General Convention, the TEConversations were part of the three joint sessions of General Convention, each focused on one of its three priorities: racial reconciliation, evangelism and care of creation.

Each 90-minute session included three speakers, videos and music and ended with deeper, small-group discussions. The speakers represented international leaders, well-known Episcopalians and rising voices in the church.

Archbishop of Cape Town and Metropolitan of the Anglican Church of Southern Africa, the Most Rev. Thabo Makgoba, speaks to his people’s challenges to survive climate change in sub-Saharan Africa during the Care of Creation TEConversation on July 10 at the 79th General Convention, Austin, Texas. Photo: Sharon Tillman/Episcopal News Service

Bishops and deputies also heard from Cape Town Archbishop Thabo Cecil Makgoba, who reminded them that in Genesis 2:15, “God takes a woman and a man and he puts them in trust … to see that creation is not exploited but that it flourishes.”

Unfortunately, that’s not what has happened, and the poor and the marginalized, especially those living in Latin America, Southeast Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, are paying the highest price.

In today’s world, where water is scarce or taken for granted as something that flows from the tap and is sold as a commodity, “900 million people do not have access to the lifesaving 20 liters of water a day because the needs of the poorest of the poor are not taken into consideration,” he said.

Water is mentioned 722 times in the Bible, said Makgoba. “The issue of water justice and climate care is real. We don’t have time to be quibbling about the science. We don’t need to be quibbling about the details. We need praxis.”

The final speaker, the Rev. Stephanie McDyre Johnson, talked about growing up in the Hudson River Valley, where in the 1970s rivers were catching fire and fish were dying.

As a fourth-grader, she went on folk singer and environmental activist Pete Seeger’s Clearwater Sloop, and her teacher said not to put her hands in the water because it was too polluted and too dirty.

That was before the federal government passed laws, including the Clean Water Act, to protect human health and the environment.

The Rev. Stephanie McDyre Johnson blends her passion for the environment with her ministry as a priest to serve as the co-chair of the Episcopal Church’s Advisory Council on the Care of Creation. Johnson speaks at the third and final TEConversation, Care of Creation, July 10, at the 79th General Convention, Austin, Texas. Photo: Sharon Tillman/Episcopal News Service

Years later, Johnson took her own family to the region’s annual Clearwater Festival, and fish had returned to the Hudson River.

“This is the symbol of hope that I need,” she said. “The symbol of resurrection that God calls us to.”

Johnson spent 20 years as an environmental consultant. Following seminary, she eventually combined her love of the environment with theology. She is rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Riverside, Connecticut, and co-chair of the Episcopal Church’s Advisory Council on the Care of Creation, which distributed $300,000 in small grants over 18 months for innovative environmental programs across the Episcopal Church.

The environmental laws enacted in the 1970s reversed a lot the damage caused by industry; however, today those laws are under attack. During this General Convention, the church is considering legislation to strengthen its stance on creation care and environmental stewardship.

— Lynette Wilson is a reporter and managing editor of Episcopal News Service.


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Comments (10)

  1. Scott Glidden says:

    The real wealth of the Nation lies in the resources of the earth — soil, water, forests, minerals, and wildlife. To utilize them for present needs while insuring their preservation for future generations requires a delicately balanced and continuing program, based on the most extensive research. Their administration is not properly, and cannot be, a matter of politics.

    By long tradition, the agencies responsible for these resources have been directed by men of professional stature and experience, who have understood, respected, and been guided by the findings of their scientists.

    […]

    For many years public-spirited citizens throughout the country have been working for the conservation of the natural resources, realizing their vital importance to the Nation. Apparently their hard-won progress is to be wiped out, as a politically minded Administration returns us to the dark ages of unrestrained exploitation and destruction.

    It is one of the ironies of our time that, while concentrating on the defense of our country against enemies from without, we should be so heedless of those who would destroy it from within.

    Rachel Carson
    1953

  2. Andrew Poland says:

    What has this to do with the business of the Episcopal Church? I understand and sympathize with these people, but the Church is not the venue for political action.

    1. John Brewster says:

      If the”business” of the Episcopal Church is to ignore the world around us and to simply kneel in prayer, we are turning our backs on the One we pledge to follow.

    2. Mary Lou Miller says:

      Taking care of the earth and the lands and waters within it is part of God’s call to us. Through our human frailty, sadly that trust has now become “political.” Shouldn’t we praise actions of responsible leaders who passed the Clean Air Act which resulted in the clean up of polluted waters and air throughout the country? Surely there can also be a God driven solution to the Arctic that does not result in despoiling it. We need to listen to those who are working to honor God’s trust in us.

    3. Wanda Arcos says:

      It is through political action that we can best answer our call to be caretakers of our world for it is through political action, in the greatest part, that our physical world is being attacked. The Episcopal Church uses political action to further our support of other justice issues. How is this issue different?

  3. cynthia seddon says:

    Surely we must take part in the care of creation. I have been appalled at the sight of oceans devastated by plastic garbage. I try to recycle as much as I can. It is easy to use cloth bags for shopping, perhaps we could begin by banning plastic bags. There must surely be a way to preserve the Arctic. However, reading about Mt Everest and the garbage dumped there,it is obvious that for some, the whole earth can be used as a dumping ground.

  4. Creation care isn’t limited to political action. As I understand it, creation care has to do with our individual actions, as well as our family and parish actions — as well as our local, state, and federal actions. I welcome the church’s guidance and inspiration for new possibilities.

  5. Rev. Dr. James Hargis says:

    As a part Native American, we must revere our earth; but we must also wisely use the resources with which we’ve been blessed. The key is balance and harmony. This ill-advised political action won’t make any difference. TEC needs to focus on Jesus, not on political caprice, like bashing Trump!

  6. cynthia seddon says:

    I agree with Dr Hargis, and as we love the Lord our actions become more aware of our need to love His creation. The EC is far too political in many areas…Trump bashing homosexual agenda
    etc which divert from the real reason the church exists.

    1. Dana Sawyer says:

      When government policy threatens the well-being of the Gwich’in, or inaction on climate change threatens the health and welfare of people around the world, those are not just “political” problems. Jesus tells us to love God with our whole being, and likewise to love our neighbor as ourselves. In this time when our actions affect people all over the world, our love of God and our neighbor must extend to the entirety of God’s Creation. And that requires the Church, and each of us, to speak out against injustice or policies which create needless harm.

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