Monday, March 18, 2019

EPA Testimony

I haven't posted anything here for a while, and, on top of that, I'm on a "social-media fast" for Lent. Which is to say, only a tiny handful of people will ever see this. That seems perfectly appropriate, actually, because it feels a lot like testifying at the EPA. I was there this morning testifying against a proposed roll-back of mercury pollution standards. Only a tiny handful of people there -- three staffers and a couple dozen concerned citizens, to be precise -- will ever hear these words.
Nevertheless, people of faith and conviction are called to speak out on behalf of those who cannot. In the case of mercury pollution, we were speaking out on behalf of infants, who are most vulnerable to mercury poison, and fish and wildlife who, if they could speak, would tell us that we're killing them.
In any, thanks for stopping by. If you'd prefer to watch this rather than read it, I used my weekly video blog over on the church's Youtube channel to share it there. Oh, and, just because I'm on a social-media fast doesn't mean you can't share this on your own social media accounts if you feel so called.
My name is David Ensign. I am pastor of Clarendon Presbyterian Church in Arlington, Virginia.
Congress advised the EPA to limit mercury emissions back in 1990. My wife was pregnant with our first child at the time. He was a legal adult by the time EPA finalized the mercury pollution standards that the current proposals would weaken.
Mercury pollution from coal-fired power plants has decreased by 80 percent since those rules were enacted in 2011.
I come before you now mindful of the children my son, and countless other sons and daughters across the country, will be raising in the coming years and ask merely, “why would we even consider going backward on this?”
Mercury poses its greatest threat to our youngest children, who are particularly vulnerable to this toxin. We have significantly improved the health prospects of the next generation of American children through the current rules; let’s not roll back the clock on our youngest citizens.
I grew up in east Tennessee. I’ve worked in eastern Kentucky. I’ve spent countless hours researching along the crooked roads of southwestern Virginia. I have literally seen purple mountains majestic against the golden light of sunset driving down I-81 through Montgomery County. I know the beauty of both the landscapes and the people of Appalachia.
Weakening mercury pollution standards is bad for both the landscapes and the people of Appalachia. Both the land and the people who live upon it are vulnerable and threatened by mercury pollution from dirty coal-fired power plants, among the many devastations resulting from an industry that extracts resources and leaves behind blighted countryside and impoverished communities.
The great texts of my tradition call us to protect the most vulnerable of our people, and to be good stewards of the earth and all its creatures.
As the Brief Statement of Faith of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) confesses, “we violate the image of God in others and ourselves, accept lies as truth, exploit neighbor and nature, and threaten death to the planet entrusted to our care. We deserve God’s condemnation.” 
But we pray that God will act with mercy to redeem creation.
I believe God does act – even in such places as a hearing room and in the midst of routine administrative matters such as this hearing.
Even here; even now.
If we listen for the still small voice of God, speaking through the laughter of a healthy child, through the yearning voice of a young mother, through the cry of a hawk soaring above an Appalachian river – if we listen for God calling us, we will know how to respond, we will know whom to protect, we will know better than to poison our waterways; we will know better than to poison our children; we will know better than to poison our future.
Psalm 27, which we read in worship yesterday morning, begins in desolation – as if the psalmist had visited a river clogged in mercury-laden coal ash. But it ends with hope – as if the psalmist trusted us – you and me – to care for those living downstream.
“I do believe that I shall see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living,” the psalm proclaims.
We, too, can see that goodness if we act with compassion for those who would be hurt by the proposed roll-back in mercury pollution standards and simply say, “no.” I urge you to reject the proposed loosening of the current standards.

Wednesday, February 06, 2019

What Pundits Know About the Future

What do political pundits know about the future? In a word, nothing.
The grand pronouncements that learned folks get paid to make about the meaning and implication of most any event – an election, a major speech, a scandal – are as ephemeral as the digits that spread the punditry across the internet. Two years out from the next presidential election – as pundits explain with this or that candidate cannot possibly win for this or that reason – is a fine time to remember that pundits know nothing about the future.
Among the countless examples one could cite, my personal favorite happened on the evening of April 7, 1987. That night Harold Washington was celebrating his re-election as mayor of the city of Chicago. Washington was the first African-American to serve in that office having been elected to his first term in the spring of 1983. He was a popular mayor, and beloved in the African-American community on the city’s south side whom he had served in the state legislature and in the United States Congress since the mid 1960s.
I was in my car listening to the news on the radio that evening as newscasters and pundits reacted to Washington’s resounding victory. At some point, having cut away from the victory party and the mayor singing “Sweet Home Chicago,” a pundit was asked what Washington’s victory meant for Chicago politics.
He responded, “it means we’ve seen the last white mayor of the city for maybe another hundred years.”
I recall thinking, “how could you possibly know?”
Indeed, within the year Harold Washington was dead, having suffered a massive heart attack in his office that November.
On April 4, 1989, Richard M. Daley was elected. His father, Richard J. Daley, served as mayor from 1955-1976. The younger Mayor Daley served a year longer than his father, before being succeeded by current the current mayor, Rahm Emmanuel.
It’s been 30 years since Eugene Sawyer, who succeeded Washington as acting mayor and served until the next city-wide election, lost a primary election to Daley. Sawyer was the most recent African-American mayor of the city.
Pundits know nothing about the future. (Oh, and neither do the rest of us.)

Tuesday, October 09, 2018

Neighbors: Remembering Mario

I dropped by Best Buns this morning. There's nothing unusual about that. It's pretty much my neighborhood coffee shop. I have spent more money on their muffins and mochas than I care to ponder. I've also spent a lot of time there that is worth pondering.

As Mr. Rogers said, "imagine what our real neighborhoods would be like if each of us offered, as a matter of course, just one kind word to another person."

For several months now I've walked into Best Buns once or twice a week hoping to see Mario, my favorite barista. He became my favorite barista because he paid attention to small details -- lining up the logo on the insulating cardboard ring with the logo on the cup with the sippy hole on the lid, for example -- and because he always, as a matter of course, offered a kind word.

I got to know him a little over the past few years after thanking him once for the care he took with his customers' drinks. I would hang out at the counter while he worked on the drinks of others, and we'd chat about the things that neighbors chat about -- the weather, our kids, work, soccer games. He was an immigrant, working two jobs, and raising his kids.

Early this summer he was absent from work for a while, and when he came back I asked what was up. He'd had some sinus infection problems. He was back for a few weeks, and then gone again long enough that I asked after him and learned he'd been hospitalized. He never returned to work.

This morning I stopped in with my daughter and ordered a couple of muffins and a couple of mochas. I noticed when the barista finished crafting our drinks and expected her to call my name and hand them across the counter. Instead, she walked around behind all of the baked goods cases and brought the drinks over to me. She handed them to me and then leaned in close and shared the news that Mario had died over the weekend. She gave me a hug and said, "I gave him the card you dropped by."

It was a sad, kind word. Of such are neighborhoods built and communities created.

The neighborhood feels diminished today, and no words will restore what has been lost. That is true with every death of a kind and generous soul. But with the small kindnesses of words each of us can build resilient communities that nurture kindness and generosity, such that though our absence diminishes what we leave behind the neighborhoods we leave are strong enough to continue nurturing new neighbors far beyond our own times.

Thank you, Mario, for countless delicious cups of coffee. The neighborhood you helped to build misses you.

Tuesday, October 02, 2018

Memory Well

The daily "memories" feature has become my favorite aspect of Facebook. It could be simple navel gazing, but looking back at snippets of life that seemed worth posting provides a mix of joy, gratitude, and sorrow that provides an opportunity for reflection that may be a short and simple as the original experience but that may also open onto something deeper.
To make of a life more than a series of unrelated experiences that change nothing requires reflection, and in recent months dipping into the memory has become the prompt for my morning prayers.
Today's memories included this note from nine years ago.
I am noticing, with curiosity and a bit of sadness, that none of my friends has Republican friends either ... it's no wonder American politics is so deeply divided -- we don't know each other (or we don't like each other).
I have no clue what kind of survey data this observation from nine years ago was based on but I don't doubt its general validity. I am also certain that the situation has only grown worse -- more stratified and contested -- since then. It still makes me sad.
It also makes me believe that our two-party system has outlived its usefulness. I don't know if it's true for most of us, but for many of us neither "Democrat" nor "Republican" comes close to representing the complex political, social, and economic views we hold, much less the spiritual ones.
Personally, I'm way off the left end of the spectrum somewhere with the democratic socialists, but I'm not going to capitalize that because the party that gathers under that name still doesn't come close to representing the web of my own convictions nor does it have any realistic chance to win elections I can vote in.
Whatever else I may be or believe in, I am a small "d" democrat. I believe that the best decisions for the most people get made when the most voices are heard. Our current system is designed to shut out the voices of people who do not already hold power within the system -- either by virtue of money (most of the time) or privilege (all of the time). That is not a bug. It's a feature. The dominant two parties are simply the ones who currently best exploit it.
If we, the people, don't figure out how to speak with one another with care, concern, and compassion we will never figure out a politics which honors our disparate voices, much less one that roughly crafts a social order that meets our disparate needs.
I really didn't anticipate this when I strolled down memory lane this morning!

Friday, June 22, 2018

Cold and Stiff

I am uncommonly cold for June in St. Louis and way more stiff than is usual even for 58. That’s what being on a concrete convention center floor for several hours will do to a body.
Twenty or so folks from Fossil Free PCUSA and the Presbyterian Peace Fellowship staged a die-in just outside the entrance to the plenary hall this afternoon following the assembly’s decision not to divest from fossil fuel companies. As I lay on the floor my mind was a jumble of thoughts and emotions: disappointment; anger; and, ultimately, hope.
I am disappointed that my church chose a path that does not seem promising to me. I am peevish that the powerful central parts of the institution used – I might even say abused – process to ignore the voices of the 40 presbyteries that endorsed divestment and the committee that held hearings and voted 35-20 to support divestment. That’s more such endorsements than any other single item before the assembly, and yet the plenary session heard supporters of a minority report speak for almost a half hour while supporters of the main motion were essentially shut out.
I do not question the motivations or convictions of those who voted for the minority report. Unlike at previous assemblies, I did not hear a single commissioner questioning the reality of climate change nor the centrality of burning fossil fuels in driving climate change.
Instead, commissioners supporting continued engagement with the fossil fuel industry focused their arguments on three main points:
1.     The fact that money in the retirement fund – the Board of Pensions – actually belongs to members of the plan and not to the denomination (and that some members of the plan are not even members of the denomination).
2.     The suggestion that divestment from fossil fuel companies might cost retirees money.
3.     The desire to maintain a “place at the table” by virtue of being a shareholder.
At one level, each of these points is true. But truth, when partial, misleads rather than sets free. Each of these points is a partial truth, or, at least, was presented in a partial manner.
Opponents of divestment used the fact that Board of Pension money belongs to plan members to, in effect, blame individual plan members for not electing a socially responsible retirement savings option. There are all kinds of problems with that argument, including unanswered questions about how what percentage of plan members have any retirement savings plan beyond the defined benefits pension plan. But more to the point, while individual actions are important we have a board of pensions so that we can act collectively.
I wrote this reflection in a hotel restaurant. I took a moment this evening to suggest to the waiter that she ask hotel management to adopt a “straws optional” policy and told her a bit about how much straws contribute to plastic waste (another fossil fuel related problem). When she brought me my salad a few minutes later she said, “I stopped putting straws in drinks.”
I said, “cool; thanks for doing that!” and I mean it.
Individual steps are all well and good, but collective action is so much more effective. A ban on unnecessary straws would be a major dent in a significant waste problem. Jessica’s personal “no straws” policy? Not so much.
“Not so much” may also be the answer to what retirees stand to lose from divestment. I don’t know. Neither did any of the commissioners who voted today because nobody offered a guess. Guess, of course, is the operative word. Nobody knows how a stock will perform. Past performance, as they say, is not guarantee of future success. We do know, however, that fossil fuel is a lousy long-term investment because in the not-so-long term the supply will run out.
While we wait for that to happen, though, this general assembly wants to maintain a place at the corporate table to try to influence corporate behavior through our Mission Responsibility Through Investment board.
If we’d been playing a drinking game that compelled a drink every time “place at the table” was mentioned we’d all have been under the table. Yet that strikes me as the weakest argument of them all.
For one thing, the amount of money we have to invest is barely a drop in the oil barrel. I keep imagining the dialogue when MRTI calls on Exxon Mobile.
MRTI: be nice to the earth.
Exxon: who the hell are you again?
MRTI argues that, as part of a larger coalition of investors, they do have a reasonably significant voice. That remains to be seen, but it still does not give me confidence.
After all, fossil fuel executives ought to have exactly as much credibility as tobacco company executives have. As much as the latter lied about the health effects of its products the former have lied about the environmental health effects of its. Burning tobacco is lousy for your lungs. Burning fossil fuels is lousy for your planet. But we wouldn’t know it from listening to the lies and propaganda of the corporate executives. Why do we want a seat at a table where our conversation partners lie to us?
As one commissioner suggested during debate today, Jesus didn’t seek a seat at the table of the money changers, he flipped the tables over.
As I walked out of the restaurant this evening, I ran into a man in a kilt. John, a Scots Presbyterian who enjoys hanging out with the colonists at general assemblies, had been moved by the young adults advocating with Fossil Free PCUSA and the Peace Fellowship. He loved the energy and joy with which they advocated throughout the week. He was also struck by the powerful witness of our former co-moderators and our stated clerk. (He also said “clerk” with a Scottish accent and I nearly swooned, but that is a different post.) He noted a completely different feeling about this assembly compared even with two years ago in Portland.
“It’s like you know who you are now and you’re walking with confidence into the future.”
I’ve seen the same thing this week, as we walked through the streets in threat to civic order. So, despite being down on the floor for a few hours this afternoon, I believe that, together, we are rising up to something new in the church. We will, inevitably, divest from fossil fuels, because we are learning who we are even as we become something new.
We are, slowly, decently and in order, becoming a people who value justice more even that the process that we prize, and who are beginning to trust the One who taught us that where our treasure is there are hearts will be as well.