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People's Climate March button on a SSL shirt

I couldn't not go

More than 1,500 Unitarian Universalists took part in the People's Climate March. I was one of them.
By Sonja L. Cohen
Winter 2014 11.1.14

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I finally got the yellow T-shirt. You know the one I mean: the very bright, very visible Standing on the Side of Love shirt that lets you pick a Unitarian Universalist out in a crowd of thousands. I had put off buying one for five years, but when I decided to take part in the People’s Climate March in New York City on Sunday, September 21—the largest climate march in history—I knew it was finally time to get my shirt. As a UU planning to march with the faith contingent, I wanted to make sure I’d be immediately recognizable to other UUs and hoped others would wear their yellow shirts so I could recognize them, too. I wasn’t disappointed.

A chance to center ourselves

I arrived in New York the day before the march, hoping to attend a Saturday evening panel discussion at the Unitarian Church of All Souls featuring Sen. Bernie Sanders, 350.org founder Bill McKibben, authors Naomi Klein and Chris Hedges, and socialist City Councilor Kshama Sawant of Seattle. A large group on the sidewalk outside the church told me the event was full. Disappointed but glad to hear the forum had such a strong turnout, I headed to my next destination early.

On the other side of Central Park, people were setting up for “Raucous but Reverent,” a 10:00 p.m. interfaith worship service at the Fourth Universalist Society. Despite being hours early, I was greeted warmly at the door and immediately encountered several exuberant young people carrying pillows—a few of the 150 people who stayed in the church basement for the weekend. Small groups chatted around a table of snacks while others drew on a large banner. It felt like being at a UU youth conference.

The service was billed as “raucous,” but it actually felt more soothing and centering, grounding us for the advocacy work to come. It managed to be both quintessentially UU and truly interfaith. We sang and clapped along to UU favorites “Blue Boat Home” and “Come, Come, Whoever You Are”; a Jewish couple led a Havdalah candle lighting; a United Methodist read from the book of Genesis; a Quaker led us in ritual silence; and a minister from the Holiness tradition shared a lesson from Exodus about how “sometimes we take more than we need.” Personal testimonies from climate change activists Tim DeChristopher, a UU, and Murtaza Nek, a Muslim, focused on commitment and civil disobedience.

I thought my four-hour train ride down from Boston had been a bit taxing due to some noisy fellow passengers, but the woman next to me—another Sonya!—spent four days traveling from California on the People’s Climate Train. Her attitude was one I saw echoed throughout the weekend: For something this important, how could I not come?

At one point we were instructed to take a safety pin from a bowl, pin it to the clothing of the person next to us, and say, “May you be blessed as you are a blessing to others.” The message of the pin was, “You’re not holding things together on your own.” I had my neighbor pin it to my Converse laces, figuring it would be a little spiritual boost to help me through Sunday’s march.

A sea of yellow shirts

I don’t care for crowds, hate them really, but there’s something about marching through the streets of New York City with more than 400,000 other people calling for climate change action that managed to override even my stringent need for personal space. It didn’t hurt that an estimated 1,500 of the marchers were fellow Unitarian Universalists.

Many of them had gathered at the faith contingent staging area, one street over from the main staging area. The interfaith crowd, ostensibly sectioned off by faith group, filled an entire block, but even my tall partner couldn’t see where it ended. We weren’t expected to start marching until 1:00 p.m., but we gathered at 10:30 a.m. to hear musicians and speakers, including UUA President Peter Morales, who addressed us from a small stage.

I won’t lie, by 1:30 p.m.—half an hour after our expected departure—the crowd was getting antsy. “Let us march!” yelled a UU behind me, repeatedly. Waiting is hard, especially when you’ve stood for three hours listening to people whose goal is to get you excited about walking. The high humidity didn’t help. Several people had to be removed from the crowd for medical reasons. But eventually we began to make our way, slowly at first, out to Columbus Circle where we joined the rest of the People’s Climate March.

The longer we marched, the more intermingled our groups became. One minute I was surrounded by a sea of UUs in yellow Standing on the Side of Love shirts, the next I realized I’d drifted into Buddhists, or Catholics, or concerned mothers. As we walked, people lining the streets waved, or stared in confusion, or took photos. Some cheered us on from boulders at the edge of Central Park or called to us from office windows along the route. Occasionally I’d see a familiar face, a fellow UUA employee or someone from the Saturday worship. I heard that there were celebrities in the march, that Al Gore was somewhere in the mix, but I didn’t see any of them.

When we turned onto 6th Avenue (the Avenue of the Americas), the march stretched out ahead of us as far as I could see—which on 6th Avenue is really far, even on a day as hazy as this. As we marched past a large screen displaying scenes from other climate marches, I thought of my UU World colleague Elaine McArdle, walking in a similar climate march in Portland, Ore., and of everyone else marching in solidarity with us around the world, and I felt deeply connected and hopeful for the future. At the same time, looking at the mass of people filling the street behind and in front of me, I couldn’t help thinking: In a city the size of New York, shouldn’t there be even more of us?

When we reached the end, about 2.5 miles later, I sat on a curb and told my partner he’d have to leave me there. “I am never walking again,” I declared. The proud but exhausted people sitting along the curb all around me seemed to agree. But a few minutes later I stood, groaning about being a million years old: I had a worship service to get to across town.

We are in this together

If Saturday night’s interfaith service felt familiarly UU, Sunday evening’s Religions for the Earth multifaith service at the Cathedral Church of Saint John the Divine was anything but. Much more formal in tone, there was no singing along, and the only clapping we did was to applaud the various government officials and activists from around the world who spoke. It started out mystically enough, as silent, costumed Earth-spirit sorts welcomed us into the beautiful, somber space by handing each of us a rock, which we later returned as a symbol of our commitment to climate action. It was a fascinating mix: half spiritual service, half forum.

The audience was tired but attentive as speaker after speaker emphasized the importance of coming together and called us to commit to action. I finally saw Al Gore, and, listening to him speak after a weekend focused on climate change, it was impossible not to wonder how things might be different if he had been declared the winner of the 2000 presidential election. Later, I had goose bumps as I listened to Angaangaq Angakkorsuaq, an Eskimo-Kalaallit elder, calling to his ancestors for help “melting the ice around the hearts of men,” his voice reverberating off of every surface in the cathedral.

Climate change is a problem for us all, and a problem that will take action from us all to solve. It’s time for people of faith to leave our side street and join the larger march for change.

Unitarian Universalists are sharing their resolve through a new initiative, Commit2Respond. A version of this article also appeared in the Winter 2014 issue of UU World (page 17-19). Photograph (above): A Standing on the Side of Love shirt at the People’s Climate March (© Larry Stritof). See sidebar for links to related resources.

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