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Symposium Draws Many Faiths for Climate Change Action

  • Clockwise from top, Mark Kutolowski, of Post Mils, Mandy Ruest, of Canaan, Betsy Hardy, of Richmond, Vt., Theo Talcott, of Manchester, Vt., Dawn Hancy, of Vershire, and J. Angus Munro, of Montpelier, participate in a “Praying With Creation” workshop led by Kutolowski during the Our Children, Climate, Faith Symposium held in Strafford on Sunday. Valley News — Kristen Zeis

  • Maeve McBride of South Burlington, Vt., left, and Ester Topolarova of Colby College lead a chant while Tim Shannon of Haverford, Penn., and Chris Gish, of Sharon, watch during the Our Children, Climate, Faith Symposium in Strafford on Sunday. Valley News — Kristen Zeis



Valley News Staff Writer
Monday, August 10, 2015
Strafford — The co-founder of this past weekend’s third annual symposium on the intersection of climate change and spiritual faith — aptly titled the “Our Children, Climate, Faith Symposium” — said one of the biggest hurdles in drawing people to the weekend-long event in the village center is its name.

Jeff Wolfe, who lives in Strafford and also co-founded groSolar with spouse Dori Wolfe, said the challenge isn’t rallying people to talk about children or the climate.

It’s that third word — faith — that often scares people away, Wolfe said, especially in one of the “least churched” regions in the country.

“The idea that you’re going to sit around with people and talk about faith for two days, that intimidates people or scares people or doesn’t interest them,” Wolfe said. “People are scared off by that. They read the title of the book, not the book.”

If folks got past the cover, Wolfe said they would find the goal of the symposium — which drew more than 85 people on Saturday and about 65 people on Sunday — is not about converting participants to a particular religion, or even about organized religion in general, which Wolfe said he doesn’t currently subscribe to.

Instead, “we’re here talking about your faith,” he said, emphasizing “your,” which could be an organized religion or something more nebulous and personal, and how faith can motivate active response to climate change and provide an avenue for hopefulness or, alternatively, grief.

Participant Theo Talcott, of Manchester, Vt., called the event “a rare opportunity” to discuss the intersection of faith and environmental crisis.

“It’s like a little jewel of consciousness around faith and climate,” said Talcott, who said he identifies as interfaith. “People are drained when they try to do climate work on a secular level. ... I think it’s healing for people to speak truths.”

Wolfe, who has testified before the U.S. Senate on climate change and now heads up a self-named solar and renewable energy consulting firm, said that in three years of running the symposium, he’s found very few other people are talking about faith and climate in quite the same way.

“We’re kind of a weird group,” he said, smiling.

The event has drawn the likes of famous environmentalist Bill McKibben, who came the first year, and writer and climate activist Robert Jensen, Sunday’s keynote speaker. While most people came from Vermont, New Hampshire and Massachusetts, Wolfe said, only a relative few were from the Upper Valley, while some came from much farther, such as Florida, Mexico and Tokyo.

On Sunday, more than a dozen religions were represented among the panelist speakers, Wolfe said. A panel about connecting faith and the environment included a rabbi, a Sikh leader, a Cooperative Baptist, a Benedictine Oblate and a member of the Native American Crow Nation.

They spoke to the commonalities of their different faiths, saying each are reaching toward similar values, achieving them through different paths. JoRee LaFrance, a Dartmouth College student who was raised on the Crow reservation in Montana, spoke to how one finger poking at a problem only does so much, but bringing many fingers — like many faiths — together can make a formidable fist.

Others agreed.

“If each of us are true to our way, then we can cooperate without a problem,” said Rabbi Howard Cohen, of Shirat Hayam in Duxbury, Mass.

“We may carry different names, but we are all one,” added Manohar “Manny” Singh Grewal, a leader of the Sikh faith in the Twin States and New England.

During a youth panel, Colby College student and climate activist Ester Topolarova spoke to the frantic and never-ending rhythm that activists often find themselves in — organizing new actions, learning new statistics, finding new people to educate — and concluded that it would be helpful to take time for reflection now and then.

In an interview, Topolarova said she doesn’t identify as religious, so the symposium has been good in helping her to think about faith in climate “and how that can be something we can use in activism.”

As the panel wound down, Topolarova helped lead the people sitting in the Meeting House in a song often used in activism: “People gonna rise like the water / We’re gonna calm this crisis down / I hear the voice of my great granddaughter / Saying stop this crisis now.”

Wolfe said the next annual symposium is scheduled for Aug. 27-28, 2016. He said video of this past weekend’s symposium will be posted in the coming weeks on the symposium website, http://faithclimateconference.org.

Maggie Cassidy can be reached at mcassidy@vnews.com or 603-727-3220.

he doesn’t currently subscribe to.

Instead, “we’re here talking about your faith,” he said, emphasizing “your,” which could be an organized religion or something more nebulous and personal, and how faith can motivate active response to climate change and provide an avenue for hopefulness or, alternatively, grief.

Participant Theo Talcott, of Manchester, Vt., called the event “a rare opportunity” to discuss the intersection of faith and environmental crisis.

“It’s like a little jewel of consciousness around faith and climate,” said Talcott, who said he identifies as interfaith. “People are drained when they try to do climate work on a secular level. ... I think it’s healing for people to speak truths.”

Wolfe, who has testified before the U.S. Senate on climate change and now heads up a self-named solar and renewable energy consulting firm, said that in three years of running the symposium, he’s found very few other people are talking about faith and climate in quite the same way.

“We’re kind of a weird group,” he said, smiling.

The event has drawn the likes of famous environmentalist Bill McKibben, who came the first year, and writer and climate activist Robert Jensen, Sunday’s keynote speaker. While most people came from Vermont, New Hampshire and Massachusetts, Wolfe said, only a relative few were from the Upper Valley, while some came from much farther, such as Florida, Mexico and Tokyo.

On Sunday, more than a dozen religions were represented among the panelist speakers, Wolfe said. A panel about connecting faith and the environment included a rabbi, a Sikh leader, a Cooperative Baptist, a Benedictine Oblate and a member of the Native American Crow Nation.

They spoke to the commonalities of their different faiths, saying each are reaching toward similar values, achieving them through different paths. JoRee LaFrance, a Dartmouth College student who was raised on the Crow reservation in Montana, spoke to how one finger poking at a problem only does so much, but bringing many fingers — like many faiths — together can make a formidable fist.

Others agreed.

“If each of us are true to our way, then we can cooperate without a problem,” said Rabbi Howard Cohen, of Shirat Hayam in Duxbury, Mass.

“We may carry different names, but we are all one,” added Manohar “Manny” Singh Grewal, a leader of the Sikh faith in the Twin States and New England.

During a youth panel, Colby College student and climate activist Ester Topolarova spoke to the frantic and never-ending rhythm that activists often find themselves in — organizing new actions, learning new statistics, finding new people to educate — and concluded that it would be helpful to take time for reflection now and then.

In an interview, Topolarova said she doesn’t identify as religious, so the symposium has been good in helping her to think about faith in climate “and how that can be something we can use in activism.”

As the panel wound down, Topolarova helped lead the people sitting in the Meeting House in a song often used in activism: “People gonna rise like the water / We’re gonna calm this crisis down / I hear the voice of my great granddaughter / Saying stop this crisis now.”

Wolfe said the next annual symposium is scheduled for Aug. 27-28, 2016. He said video of this past weekend’s symposium will be posted in the coming weeks on the symposium website, http://faithclimateconference.org.

Maggie Cassidy can be reached at mcassidy@vnews.com or 603-727-3220.