Eileen began her blog, Imperfect Serenity, while she was taking care of two young children and her dying mother, so the title referred to her struggles to stay spiritually grounded during a difficult time. The title still fits as the blog now includes her adventures in eco-justice activism and book publicity.

Wednesday
Jul312013

Southern Africa Trip: One Year Later

Exactly a year ago I jumped out of my rental car on a bridge in Francistown, Botswana and took this picture of the dry Shashe River bed, knowing that I’d use it in talks about climate change in Africa. It’s hard to believe it’s been a year since I landed in Botswana, and the anniversary is making me nostalgic for that trip and aware of all the stories and pictures I never shared on this blog.

I have a good friend, a white American, whose husband is West African. When she saw this picture of a Botswana supermarket, she exclaimed, “Oh, thank you for taking this picture!” Like me, she is aware that Americans get most of their images of Africa from The Lion King and The Nature Channel, though Africa has changed much more quickly than our stereotypes of it. In fact, it was amazing to see how much Botswana had changed technologically. Friends who didn’t have running water or electricity twenty-five years earlier, all have it now, though writing about climate change also made me aware of the costs of development. In my old village, everyone now has flush toilets, though the village runs out of water for days at a time.
 

One thing that felt the same was the African expression of ubuntu, the concept that our humanity is formed in relation to other people. I experienced wonderful hospitality in both South Africa and Botswana, from both old friends and new acquaintances. One effect of the trip was that I came home wanting to be a more generous person. That’s going so-so, though the picture to the lower right captures a moment when I pulled it off. My old friend Mmadithapelo (on right in the picture on the left) had mentioned on the phone that her son Mopati was a great musician but that his guitar had broken when it fell off a truck. That night, my husband Tom mentioned that he knew someone who was giving away a really good guitar and wanted it to go to someone who would appreciate it. The schlep through three airports was totally worth it for this moment of seeing Mopati with his new guitar, especially when some of his friends came up and starting singing along as he played.

I was struck by how ubuntu seemed to shape many policies of the Botswana government, which has used much of its diamond revenue on behalf of the people, whereas South Africa’s vast wealth has always stayed in a relatively few hands, a legacy of apartheid and the colonialism that led to it. The difference in housing seemed to capture the difference. The picture to the left is a typical but modest home in Botswana. The one to the right is a type of home I saw in every South African town I visited, and one of the images that has stayed with me most strongly.

Part of the reason I haven’t blogged more this year is that I came home inspired to work harder at both my activism and my writing. More about my trip and how it has affected me has been published in other places: Friends Journal, Science of Mind, Waging Nonviolence, and a soon to be published piece in Christian Century. Some of the stories are also part of a forthcoming book. Looking back a year later I feel tremendous gratitude for the experience and all it’s birthed.

Tuesday
May072013

Sacrilege

Dustin WhiteA little over a week ago, I attended a gathering in Kentucky organized by Read the Spirit, a wonderful interfaith publishing group that has been very supportive of my work. (You can read more about that gathering though the above link.) As soon as I started planning the trip, I knew that I should also use the opportunity to visit a mountaintop removal site in Appalachia. Despite all I’ve been learning about this devastating practice through my work with Earth Quaker Action Team, I had never actually seen it myself. My friend Dustin White of the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition agreed to take me to a site in West Virginia, so I stopped to see him on my way home from Kentucky.

Dustin has been though this many times, escorting wide-eyed outsiders as they snap photos of his decimated community. Only a few days earlier he had brought people from the UN to see what it looks like when a coal company blows up a mountain for profit. Like me, they had probably seen the pictures before. In fact, the aerial photos on the Internet are visually more dramatic than the pictures I was able to take, peaking through the trees from one mountain to the next. Still, being there in person was a moving experience, partly because it feels so eerie when life has been removed from a place.

As we drove closer to Hobet 21, the houses disappeared, though isolated driveways and telephone polls showed where families had once lived. We parked near a local cemetery, our cover for being there, and walked up the hill above it to where we could see the twenty-story crane known as “Big John” and the mountain they’ve covered with grass in a feeble attempt to make it green again.

Hobet 21, West VirginiaThe most striking thing to me was the quiet. Behind us we could hear birds and the rustle of wind through leaves. The mountains ahead of us were devoid of life—no birds, no composting leaves, and certainly no people. The people who remain in the wider area are being poisoned by polluted water, one of the reasons Dustin is willing to go through this over and over again with people like me. He’s hoping that if those of us outside of Appalachia know what is happening to his community, maybe we will care—and act.

Those who have been following this blog through the past year know that my commitment to activism around this issue has been growing. What I’ve been feeling lately (and this was increased by people I met at the Read the Spirit gathering) is the need to articulate how my activism and my spirituality relate. Visiting West Virginia reminded me of how many of my early spiritual experiences happened in nature, where I felt my deep interconnectedness with all of life and a force greater than myself, even if I didn’t know what to call it at the time.

Looking over the mountaintop removal pictures again today, I remember an interview I did a few years ago with the Catholic priest and activist Michael Doyle, who served in Camden for decades. He talked about the ideas of Teihard de Chardin, a priest and scientist, who was condemned by the church for his perspective. Michael Doyle said: “The very essence of our sacramental system is matter. Whether it is bread, or water, or oil. If you didn’t have the water, you couldn’t have a baptism. You could lead from there to the idea that matter is so sacred, if you really got that into your bones, how sacred matter is, then I couldn’t take a piece of matter and make it into a weapon that would kill you. I couldn’t do that.”

How would we treat the planet and its people differently if we really treated water (which makes up most of the human body) as sacred? It’s a question worth pondering. In the meantime, it’s clear to me that mountaintop removal is sacrilege. 

Thursday
Mar212013

Why I'm Fasting

Let me just say up front that I am not one of those people who feel all joyful and clearheaded when they’re fasting. The first time I fasted, a few months ago, I was looking at the gummy bear vitamins by 7am, wondering if eating a handful would be cheating. I had decided to fast one day a week before my civil disobedience in February because it felt like I was stepping into a deeper commitment to activism, one that would require sacrifice, and I needed some spiritual preparation. Still, I was nervous about giving up food entirely, so I allowed myself juice and fruit shakes. In fact I spent $5 a pop on the raw vegetable combos available at my local juice bar. I felt noble and healthy, but not very frugal and only moderately deprived. 

This time I’m doing two days with only water as part of Earth Quaker Action Team’s 40-day fast. Again spiritual preparation is part of the purpose. EQAT is planning to escalate our campaign to get PNC Bank to stop financing mountaintop removal coal mining, and we want to be grounded. Some of us have also articulated a desire to model sacrifice because transitioning to a society not dependant on fossil fuels is going to require sacrifice, something our culture doesn’t exactly promote. I understand this reasoning and am trying to live into it. For me, the way to do that is to remember that climate change is already causing hunger. 

Although it is always tricky to blame a particular weather event on climate change, the patterns are clear, and many scientists believe that climate change has already contributed to drought and resulting famine. There are many reports. Here’s just one quote summarizing a study by the International Food Policy Research Institute: “Most severely affected will be the wheat-growing regions of South Asia, Europe and Central Asia, and sub-Saharan Africa, where production is projected to decline by 46, 47, and 35 percent, respectively. Also under threat are Middle Eastern rice paddies, where production is expected to fall by 36 percent.” Another article I read a few months ago talked about the number of families in a few different African countries who can't afford food every day because of rising maize prices, so they were skipping food one day a week.

When I thought of such people yesterday as I was craving a snack, I told myself for a moment that it might be easier to go without food if you really didn’t have a choice, if there wasn’t food all around you all day long, like the delicious-looking guacamole my son made when he got home from school. I felt sorry for myself for a quick minute then remembered all the reasons skipping a day or two of food is much easier for me. For one thing, I don’t have to watch my children go hungry, which I’m sure is the most painful part of dire poverty. I also have plenty of stored fat from which to draw energy and a work life that I can adapt when I have less energy. I don’t need to go plow the fields on an empty stomach, hoping things will be better next year.

When I come back to EQAT’s reason for fasting as a group and wonder how our sacrifice relates to our allies in Appalachia, I think of the high cancer rates caused by mountaintop removal. I think of people who lose not just their appetites, but their lives and find this experience of deprivation a good reminder of all I take for granted. 

The previous times I’ve fasted, I had a hard time remembering that it was meant to be done prayerfully, but this time I’m trying to remember. My prayer is for transformation, for myself, my organization, and the people suffering most directly from environmental destruction. Knowing that there are people praying for me, as well as others fasting on the same day, is the main thing keeping me from sneaking a snack right now. Experiencing hunger, if only for two days, reminds me of my deep interconnectedness with other people and the earth, which sustains us all.

Thursday
Feb142013

Police Report

Well, it’s Valentines Day, and boy am I feeling the love! Thanks to everyone who prayed for me/held me in the Light during my recent civil disobedience action. I felt so well supported by everyone—especially my family, Chestnut Hill Meeting, and Earth Quaker Action Team. You can see the greeting I got on my release from Amy Ward Brimmer and Ingrid Lakey.

I’ll be writing an article about this leading for Friends Journal and another for Waging Nonviolence, so I won’t say too much here, except to answer the questions that friends have been asking about the experience. Basically it was very exciting to be making this stand with such an impressive group of people. I was particularly pleased to see civil rights leader Julian Bond there, though I didn’t get to talk to him. I did get to talk to a lot of interesting folks, though, and had a great time with a UCC leader from Massachusetts named Jim Antal, who was distributing ashes for Ash Wednesday and had a great sense of humor.

It was very meaningful to me to be standing in the footsteps of Alice Paul, Quaker activist for women’s suffrage who was arrested at the White House several times in actions that helped lead to the vote for women. People from home kept telling me that I was brave, but I was very aware that getting arrested by the DC Park Police in 2013 is much less risky than in other times and places. Alice Paul had it much tougher than I did. One of the guys with us yesterday who is from Texas—the Keystone XL pipeline goes through his family’s front yard—said he couldn’t get over how polite the Park Police were. Guess that’s not the way it works in Texas. Same with Maria Gunnoe, one of our allies from Appalachia, where the police are much, much rougher with activists. And then of course, there are my friends from South Africa who got arrested during apartheid. Although my thumb is still numb from the tight handcuffs, participating in this action felt like a privilege more than a risk. 

The most intimidating part was the media spotlight. There were tons of camera people jostling to get in position, though they were more interested in Darryl Hannah and Bob Kennedy than in me. Turns out I’m eating a cookie in all the pictures of Darryl’s arrest, which is my only real disappointment, and that's just vanity. On the bright side, I’ve done a few interviews in the past few days, which have gone well. Here is a piece from the Philadelphia Inquirer blog.

Thanks to everyone for your support! Hope to see many of you at the march on Sunday.

Thursday
Jan312013

I’m ready to risk arrest. Will you support me?

Dear Friends, 

Within the next month, I plan to commit civil disobedience, which may well lead to my arrest. It’s a big step for me—the first time in my life I’ve done this—but saving the climate for our children feels that important. Will you support me, not by getting arrested yourself, but by taking a bus to DC for a different and legal event? 

As many of you know, I’ve felt increasingly called to work to prevent catastrophic climate change. (If you think “catastrophic” is an exaggeration, please read Bill McKibben’s Rolling Stones article.). We all have an exciting opportunity to make a difference by joining 350.org and the Sierra Club in Washington, DC on February 17 for a march against the Keystone XL Pipeline, which is both an important issue and an important test of President Obama’s commitment to the encouraging words in his inauguration speech. The Earth Quaker Action Team (pronounced “equate”) is organizing buses from the Philadelphia area and beyond; please sign up here: http://get-on-the-bus-eqat.eventbrite.com

There will not be civil disobedience that day, no risk of arrest for the tens of thousands of people expected to attend, but a huge showing at the march should make my smaller act of civil disobedience even more effective. We know from history that we are best able to overcome powerful entrenched interests (like the fossil fuel industry) when the two are combined—mass numbers of people taking a stand (like the 1963 March on Washington) along with smaller numbers of trained nonviolent activists willing to demonstrate the seriousness of their cause by taking bigger risks (like those who sat down at segregated lunch counters in the South). The Sierra Club, which has never engaged in civil disobedience before, has recently come to the same conclusion.

It’s kind of scary taking this new step, but I’m mostly excited and grateful for all the support I’m getting. I hope you will join me in DC on 2/17 and spread the word to others. If you can't, please consider making a donation toward the buses or for any legal expenses we might incur at the other action. (You can use the donation option on the bus registration page or send a check to 4510 Kingsessing Ave. Philadelphia PA 19143. To be tax deductable, they must be over $50 and made to the Gandhian Foundation, which is EQAT's sponsoring organization.)

Prayers, of course, would also be welcome! If you want to receive an email or text the day of my action so you can hold me in the Light, please send a message through the contact page of this site or to me directly.

With gratitude,

Eileen