Multi-Faith Festival Echoes Pope’s Message on Climate Change

Multi-Faith Festival Echoes Pope’s Message on Climate Change

Pandemonium welcomed Pope Francis to New York. But while the masses braced themselves to join hordes of onlookers on city streets in the hopes of catching a glimpse of the pontiff, another crowd of people set out to Dag Hammarskjold Plaza on Thursday evening with a different goal. For this group, the primary objective was not to see the pope, but to echo his message on a crucial issue: climate change.

IMG_3850-2Hosted by Our Voices and GreenFaith, two faith-based environmental organizations, the Light the Way event was organized in an effort to bring people of all faiths together to spread Pope Francis’ environmental message on the eve of his UN address. Commencing with musical performances by groups like Nine is Mine, a children’s advocacy group from India, and speeches from leaders and representatives of various religious communities, the evening concluded with an overnight prayer and vigil.

The common thread in the diverse crowd, which contained everyone from devout Buddhist monks to atheists, was the belief that Pope Francis’ message on climate change must not be considered solely in the context of Catholicism, but rather that of humanity and morality. It is this interpretation that has allowed his message to resonate across religious divisions.

“The earth is neither religious nor political; it’s our home,” said Vitalah Simon, 64, a multi-religious yoga instructor and dance therapist. “Would you live in a waste dump in your home? Would you bring toxic chemicals into the water in your home? This is an organic, visceral, life/death choice. The pope is giving people the choice of life.”

For Judy Zinger, 69, the same mentality applies. “We need an earth where we can breathe the air, drink the water, not have floods, not have earthquakes, and not have droughts,” said Zinger, a retired programmer. “It should be everybody’s issue. You shouldn’t have to identify as an environmentalist or a Catholic, you just have to breathe.”

IMG_3758For others still, the pope’s message did resonate on a religious level, though not always one rooted in Catholicism.

Sahar Al-Sahlani, 46, sensed parallels between the pope’s encyclical, Laudato Si, and her own Muslim faith. “It’s actually done in a very Islamic way,” said the GreenFaith fellow. “It’s similar to what we read in the Quran about being inquisitive. The pope is very analytical and very scientific in his thinking, he’s just grounded in faith.”

The pope’s ability to galvanize people on the issue of climate change across religious lines has been a major source of respect for him in diverse communities, though hardly the only one. For many individuals present at Light the Way, respect for the pope as an advocate for climate change has stemmed from his history of tying environmental concerns to social issues on a broader scale, particularly poverty.

“The same kind of greed, disregard and pursuit of the bottom line that leads to climate change is also what makes people poor,” said Tess Ackerman, 57, who works as a climate activist. “One smaller group of entities like the one percent is holding onto all of the resources at others’ expense. Meanwhile, the planet isn’t considered, and doesn’t have a voice, in the equation.”

IMG_3852As evening approached, the crowd prepared to head to the Church of Our Savior for the final event of the night, the overnight vigil. As they waited, the same sense of unity that had been present throughout the event — a unity rooted in nothing more than shared humanity — maintained its firm hold on the atmosphere.

“I’m not personally religious,” said Jeremy Sawyer, 38, as he waited in the sea of people holding a sign that read: “The environment is one of those goods that cannot be adequately safeguarded or promoted by market forces” — a line taken from the pope’s encyclical.

“I think that whatever you think exists beyond the earth is cool, as long as we’re just all fighting for the best earth we can have together and making the world a better place while we’re here.”


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