The Youth Climate Strike: A Dispach From the Front
by Serena Worley
When the United Nations report came out last November saying that we only had 12 (now 11) years left to prevent the worst effects of climate change, I knew I had to act. I read about how the coming climate crisis would create millions of refugees and felt the need to help as many people as possible. Unfortunately, I had almost no experience in activism, so I was terrified emailing Anya Sastry, a former state lead, asking to join the Illinois team. I had a million fears going in. What if I messed up? I was a high school freshman. They probably all knew so much more and had so much more experience than I did. Nevertheless, when Anya responded, I dove head first into the climate movement. My need to look out for others and for the natural world outweighed my fear and I offered to take a leadership position as the head of outreach. Those decisions to stay involved and keep taking on more responsibility were all terrifying, but I knew that they were the right choices. I didn’t realize until recently just how many of the lessons I learned growing up in my church were being reflected in my actions.
I have to admit, when Michael Terrien asked me to write an article about how my faith and connection to the church has influenced my climate activism, I was a little worried. I’m not the most religious person, and I’m honestly not sure what I believe in theologically. I was worried that I would let him down and that I wasn’t the right person to do this. I’ve come to realize, though, that the values and lessons I learned from Sunday school and being involved in my local church, the First Presbyterian Church of Deerfield, are something I try to live by every day of my life.
From about age ten until recently, I really had no clue what I believed. I’ve always been a pretty science-oriented kid, not to mention gay, so some of the more literal aspects of the Bible didn’t really sit well with me. My church was always welcoming and accepting of me and everyone in our congregation, so I never felt like there was something wrong, but it still made me feel a little weird. I’ve since come to the conclusion that the Bible and the teachings of Jesus Christ provide a great framework through which to lead your life. Being kind, helping others, not killing each other--that’s the kind of thing I can get behind. I’ve also realized that the sense of awe and wonder I get from looking at the stars, seeing natural wonders, and thinking about things like time and space can probably be called God. I used to struggle to understand what people meant by seeing the Lord in the most beautiful things in life, but I think I get it now. It’s the feeling of being such a small part of something so massive and beautiful that’s simultaneously incredibly comforting but also terrifying. I’ve always considered myself a Presbyterian, though now more out of the sense of community and the values I gain from the church than any theological beliefs I hold.
Even while questioning my faith, mission and service has always been something I felt called to do. What I’ve come to realize in the last few years is that my relationship to a higher cause will always be much more about service than belief. I’ve decided that what truly matters to me and makes me feel connected to others is helping people. Volunteering has made up most of the most fulfilling experiences of my life. I’ve gone to Feed My Starving Children in Libertyville with my church and with my track team many times and made some great memories while feeling like I was really making a difference in the lives of others. My church runs a PADS homeless shelter on Sunday nights during the colder months, and I remember helping set up mattresses and room dividers during Sunday school in elementary school. Those were always some of my favorite days. No matter who I was helping, volunteer work has always made me feel connected to the world around me and brought me a sense of fulfillment.
Helping to organize the climate strikes in Chicago has brought me a similar feeling of being part of something larger than myself. Our team was originally a handful of kids from the city and suburbs, most of them with some experience being a part of movements like these. We didn’t know much about what we were doing, but from our May strike with about 500 people to our strike two weeks ago with several thousand, we got our message out. Standing at the front of the march from Grant Park to Federal Plaza on September 20th, being somewhat able to see and very much able to hear the countless people behind me and those on the sidewalks ahead rushing to join us, that moment was one of the most spiritual experiences of my life. The knowledge that we had done that, that these people were with us all the way, that scenes even larger than this were playing out across the planet that day, all of that made me feel closer to God than I ever have. Just thinking about it now still makes me tear up. It felt historic and monumental. This movement is going to bring change. We’re going to make a difference. Those in power can no longer ignore us, and if they do, those who put them in office will hold them accountable for their reckless actions.
My parents raised me from a young age to stand up and fight for what I believe in. As far back as I can remember, the majority of our dinner conversations have been about politics. This caused me to have a strange revelation at about age twelve that a debate over the merits of Brexit, which sounds like a lot of fun to me, is in fact most people’s idea of torture. This has, though, made me very good at having political discussions. For whatever reason, the older I get, the less my beliefs line up with my parents’. I honestly can’t tell if they’re more proud of me for coming to my own conclusions about the world or frustrated that I don’t agree with them on a lot of issues. Either way, they’ve been very supportive of my activism for the climate. They want me to be willing to loud and out there supporting whatever cause I think is a just one, even if it might conflict with their beliefs on occasion.
Climate activism is important to me because it’s something that does and will continue to affect the entire world for the rest of all of our lives and could potentially ruin the lives of billions in the future. We have a perfect moment right now to act and save our planet from destruction, but too many are too cowardly to do anything. We tell ourselves we have more time, that this isn’t that pressing of an issue. I cannot understand Christians who claim that we don’t need to take care of the environment because it’s a gift from God to us, so He will take care of it. Why would the Lord want us to trash the beauty and wonder of this world? It’s certainly not essential to our survival; it’s the opposite. We need to take responsibility for the fact that it is our actions that created this crisis, and through our actions we can solve it. Ever since I first heard the phrase “caring for creation,” I’ve liked it. We need to take care of this planet. It’s not ours to destroy. This sense of entitlement to exploit its resources has brought us to a breaking point. Without systemic change, our society will likely collapse in a few decades, as depressing as that sounds. Hope is always a good thing, but with that hope we need a sense of urgency.
It’s great to see organizations like Presbyterians for Earth Care recognizing this intersection of faith and activism. In my opinion, faith requires real action to back it up, and protecting the environment is a mission that helps quite literally every single person on the planet. I hope more Christians begin to understand that caring for God’s creation is one of the more important things we can do. Presbyterianism creates a sense of community like no other, one that fosters hard work and dedicated service to others. Participating in strikes, volunteering at things like beach clean-ups, and working with local communities to educate and promote more sustainable ways of living are just a few of the many ways churches can help in the fight to reduce the climate crisis. Presbyterians for Earth Care’s mission is exactly what we need to be pushing for in churches around the world to protect our planet.
Serena Worley is the director of outreach for the Illinois branch of the US Youth Climate Strikes. She’s a sophomore at Deerfield High School in Deerfield, Illinois, and a member of the First Presbyterian Church of Deerfield.