When one pictures a conference, images of delegates with lanyards around their necks and sandwiches cut into small triangles normally spring to mind. Not so the Climate Pastoral Care Conference, which was 100% online with meals coming from the participants’ own kitchens (and eaten while chatting in front of a screen). Claire and I attended the conference and were able to do so between other commitments while working from home (I actually attended as part of my role with Uniting Neurological Support Services). The flexibility of these arrangements meant that there was a considerable increase on participants from last year.
The conference was sponsored jointly by Uniting NSW/ACT, Common Grace and the Five Leaf Eco-Awards and sought to bring together the climate crisis we are currently experiencing with a focus on Care, Communication and Action.
The conference started on Thursday night with a focus on pastoral care. Rev. Dr Stephen Robinson heads up a group of volunteer chaplains who travel to areas impacted by natural disasters. He shared about work done by chaplains during the recent bushfires and told some touching stories about how people are impacted. He also stated that dramatic weather events are increasing in frequency and severity and that this puts pressure on people and on those trying to pastorally care for them. His presentation was followed by ecological ethicist Dr Bryon Smith who laid out some of the statistics about climate change and what it means for us. Bryon also looked at the pastoral dimension and helped to understand that we cannot ignore climate change. He drew parallels between the need to take action during the current COVID-19 pandemic and the fact that we cannot ignore climate change. The first night of the conference left lots to think about.
The Friday program started with a lunch shared in small groups and discussion about why we were all there. There were people from all over the country and a few in my group from Perth and Sydney (as well as Melbourne). One participant was even dialling in from Massachusetts, USA and talked about the impact of climate change on the island she lives on.
This day was all about communication. A presentation from Rebecca Huntley discussed why is it so hard to talk about climate change. She suggested being better story tellers, and not writing people off because they have a different view. She also encouraged us to de-politicise climate change as a topic because it affects us all, and to encourage faith leaders to speak about this important issue.
Later in the afternoon there were three workshop sessions where participants could choose to hear different speakers. I went to a workshop by Sally Gillespie where she split us into groups of three and we spoke about what in nature is important to us, and why we’d like to preserve that. Victoria Walker’s workshop was entitled ‘Rethinking Personal Power’ and encouraged us not to be solely motivated by getting ‘results’ but to take a long view, and to keep doing what we think is right even if it is hard and discouraging. It is easy to feel overwhelmed, but things that are worthwhile are not usually achieved easily. My third workshop was with Kim Loo, a medical Doctor who spoke about some of the health effects that smoke in the atmosphere have brought. It was powerful to hear first-hand about an elderly man whose died prematurely due to respiratory problems from smoke inhalation and a mother whose baby was born underweight due to the smoke blanketing Sydney this past summer. These stories should motivate us to keep fighting for change.
In the main presentation, Merle Conyer spoke about how we can talk to children about climate change. She suggested that we should comfort them, but also encourage them to be active in seeking improvements in our climate. We should not avoid conversations and should face our own feelings so that we can offer a response to them. The second day ended with us thinking about how we can communicate to others about the importance of taking action on climate change.
The final day began focussing on taking action to prevent climate change. We met some university students and one high school student who have been striking and protesting, demanding action on climate change. These students were determined to make a difference, and some have decided to focus their careers on environmental causes or devote their spare time to seeking change. They encouraged everyone to get involved and stated that there are groups for all ages that are seeking action on climate change. Sue Hassler from Sustainable Schools spoke about how she has been getting primary school students excited about environmental projects and also about the ABC coming to her school for the program ‘War on Waste’. When she started there was no recycling at her school and 15 wheelie bins went weekly to landfill. Now there are 4 bins going to landfill and they recycle almost everything possible as well as separating organic waste. Some of these changes are now being adopted across the state of NSW. It’s amazing what can happen with a motivated group of people.
The main part of the conference concluded with a presentation by Brooke Prentis. Brooke is a Wakka Wakka woman and CEO of Common Grace. Brooke talked about the impact that European settlement has made on this country. From the beginning the stewardship of the land which Aboriginal people had always brought was interrupted with devastating consequences. Brooke read from Psalm 137 which is the Rivers of Babylon passage. She compared the Jewish people weeping over their city while in exile to the plight of indigenous people here who think about what has happened to the place they live. Brooke also said that Anglos tend to start with hope, and how to keep it, while indigenous people would start by acknowledging the issues and seeking solutions from there. This was a challenging presentation, but one which offered opportunities for reflection and possibilities for future action.
The conference focussed on care, communication and action. There were lots of ideas about how to engage with society, and how the church can participate in that action. The attendees that I met were really engaged with the important message of caring for our environment, and therefore caring for people. We need to keep being motivated and keep finding ways to have an influence in our community and with our decision makers. Thank you to the organisers for the conference and we look forward to seeing the results of what everyone has been thinking about.