Faith-Based Green Resistance


In 2015, the Adorers of the Blood of Christ, a congregation of nuns, learned that an energy company planned to build a pipeline on their land. So they started a resistance movement. Photograph by Dave Parry

Thanks to Eliza Griswold, who writes about religion (which does not feature often in our pages) and occasionally finds an overlap with environmental causes:

The Renegade Nuns Who Took On a Pipeline

On a crisp October morning in 2017, Sister Sara Dwyer, a sixty-eight-year-old nun wearing a red T-shirt that read “you will not spoil our land,” led three elderly nuns and seventy other protesters onto an industrial work site in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. Many carried red banners stencilled with wheat sheaves. They were there to protest Williams, an Oklahoma-based pipeline company that was trying to build the Atlantic Sunrise Pipeline, a two-hundred-mile natural gas pipeline that would carry shale gas from fields in northeastern Pennsylvania to the coast, where the fuel could be shipped abroad. The company was trying to lay the line under a cornfield belonging to the nuns, and the sisters had decided to fight back, hoping that they might draw attention to the issue of climate change. “Just being in resistance is not the goal,” Dwyer told me. “The goal is spiritual conversion.” As the protesters entered the work site, Malinda Clatterbuck, who had helped plan the event with the sisters, reminded the participants, “This is a nonviolent protest in all ways. We’re not going to yell or speak to the workers.” She walked around asking each person to nod in agreement. “If you’re angry today, go home and come back to an action once you’re in a better place,” she said.

One of the organizers passed a Sharpie around and wrote the phone number for a jail-support team on the protesters’ arms, in case they were arrested. Then they walked onto a bed of turned-up earth in the middle of the site, where construction had begun. The protesters had named the action “Bread and Nuns”; as they arrived, children fanned out, offering loaves of locally made wheat-and-oatmeal bread to the pipeline workers. The adults formed a circle and sang “Amazing Grace.” Then Dwyer led the group in a prayer from “Laudato Si’,” the Catholic Church’s statement on climate change, issued by Pope Francis in 2015, which revolutionized the Church’s public position regarding the environment, calling on Christians to take action to protect the earth. “All-powerful God, you are present in the whole universe and in the smallest of your creatures,” it begins.

Dwyer belongs to an international Catholic congregation of nuns called the Adorers of the Blood of Christ, which was founded in Italy, in 1834, by a woman who was later declared a saint. The Adorers now have twelve hundred members worldwide, who live in countries including Liberia, where, in 1992, five nuns were killed during a civil war, and Guatemala. Sixteen nuns live in Lancaster County, near a seventy-acre plot of land that they have owned for more than a century, where the pipeline was being laid. They once farmed tobacco and raised sheep.

The nuns see protecting the earth as part of their religious duty, which separates them from much historical Catholic teaching. Christians, drawing on wording from the Book of Genesis, have traditionally seen man as having “dominion” over the earth: all other living things were created for his use. The Adorers are calling for an end to the theology of human supremacy, and for a deeper understanding of creation’s interdependency. They were influenced by the work of Thomas Merton, a Trappist monk and poet who, in the early twentieth century, became known for locating religious belief in the natural world. “What Merton did, and in a big way, was invigorate Catholics’ sense of the natural world—pasture, knoll, woods, shore, desert, mountain fastness—as a locus for spirituality,” Paul Elie, a senior fellow at Georgetown and the author of “The Life You Save May Be Your Own,” told me. In the nineteen-seventies, as the secular environmental movement grew, the American theologian Thomas Berry called on Catholics to make a more active commitment to protecting the earth in the name of God. “This, then, is our challenge—,” Berry wrote, “to move from a purely human-oriented or personal-salvation focus in our religious concerns to one that embraces the universe in all its forms.” In 2005, the Adorers adopted a Land Ethic that affirmed their belief in the sacredness of creation. “As students of Earth, we listen intently to Earth’s wisdom; we respect our interconnectedness and oneness with creation and learn what Earth needs to support life,” it reads.

The Adorers learned in 2015 that Williams planned to claim eminent domain in order to build the pipeline on their land. The congregation soon met the Clatterbucks—Malinda, her husband Mark, and their teen-age children, Ashton and Hannah—who had recently started a resistance group called Lancaster Against Pipelines, and were going door to door along the pipeline route, alerting people. They sent Dwyer, who lives in Washington, D.C., and serves as the congregation’s liaison on “justice, peace, and integrity of creation,” to meet with the group, and she was impressed. “I think the Clatterbucks—Malinda, Mark, Ashton, and Hannah—are the religious leaders of our day,” Dwyer told me.

The sisters joined the protest and, in the summer of 2017, filed a lawsuit to block the company from laying the pipeline through their land, on the grounds that it went against their religious beliefs. That fall, a federal court ruled against the nuns, and, soon after, they lost on appeal. So, last September, they petitioned the Supreme Court to hear their case. The Adorers argued that their rights were protected under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, from 1993, which has recently been invoked in several high-profile cases. In 2014, the owners of Hobby Lobby won a Supreme Court case in which they argued that being forced to offer employees birth control violated their religious liberties; four years later, the Court also sided with a baker in Colorado who refused to make a cake for a gay wedding. Cases on religious liberty have tended to reinforce conservative values, but the Adorers hoped that their beliefs would also be protected. “The Adorers agree with Pope Francis’s teachings that the threat of climate change, caused in large part by the intensive use of fossil fuels, represents a principal challenge facing humanity,” they wrote, in a court filing.

While their case wended its way through the courts, they continued protesting. In July, 2017, they built an open-air chapel on their land, along the proposed route of the pipeline, to block construction. It consisted of an arbor, an altar made of a tree trunk, and a dozen wooden pews, and they named it the Cornfield Chapel. They held morning and evening services there, trudging up to the cornfield with their canes and walkers, sometimes in cold rain or by flashlight. They hoped that, through their services, they would help people understand the religious significance of the environment, and that this, as much as opposing abortion, was a pro-life issue. “People often see pro-life in terms of pro-birth,” Dwyer told me. “But all the elements that go into protecting life—clean water, clean air, good soil—go into protecting the earth.”…

Read the whole article here.

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