Prayer and Protest

BiYlsVSIMAAy9l0a guest post by PA IPL member Eileen Flanagan (in the purple coat, left)  We invite members to share their stories of experience at the intersection of faith and climate change.

Two times now, I’ve publically prayed in the midst of a potentially scary protest, and both times have been powerful experiences, convincing me that rooting my work for climate justice in my faith is not only right, but more effective than the secular activism of my youth. Both experiences came through my work with Earth Quaker Action Team (EQAT, pronounced “equate”), but I think the lessons could apply to any faith-based activism.

Founded by Quakers with the mission of using nonviolent direct action to work for a just and sustainable world, EQAT had agreed to lead civil disobedience in Philadelphia to show the depth of public opposition to the Keystone XL Pipeline. Many of our members are not Quaker, even more so that day when we were joined by a wide variety of allies, including several members of the Philadelphia-area PA IPL. The forty of us willing to risk arrest were blocking the doors of the Philadelphia Federal Building, chosen because it houses the State Department, which had hired an oil industry firm to write the environmental impact statement on Keystone. As expected, the police began making arrests—starting with a father and his seventeen-year-old son, who was quickly released without charges—but with such a large group, the process was slow.

EQAT loves to sing, especially old spirituals from the Civil Rights Movement, but there are only so many times you can sing “Woke Up This Morning with My Mind Stayed on Freedom” before your voice starts to crack, which was starting to happen to me and the official song leader, Lina Blount, whom I was standing next to behind the police barricade. I remembered a previous EQAT action where someone called for Quaker-style silent worship in the midst of civil disobedience and the reports of how powerful it was. I whispered the suggestion to Lina, a recent Bryn Mawr grad, and she whispered back that I should lead it. So when our current song ended, I spoke loudly to all those around me, announcing that we would have a few minutes of silent prayer and reflection, trying to make it inviting for people of any faith, as well as those who might not identify with a faith tradition.

“As we pray and reflect over what we are doing to the earth,” I said, “we are not just here for our own children, but also for the children of the police and the children of the TransCanada executives, who are being so shortsighted in building a pipeline that is endangering the future for all our children.”

When I finished my explanation and the people around me fell silent, I could hear press cameras clicking wildly and not much else. Something was said over the police radio, and one policeman walked over to turn it off. Later someone tweeted a photo of a policeman standing with his head bowed. Someone else, who had been standing at the outskirts of the crowd (estimated at 200), said that the silence rolled over the group like a wave. I later learned that the Jewish group that was blocking a door further down the building—which included Arthur Waskow and Mordechai Liebling, two rabbis active with PA IPL—couldn’t hear my initial call to prayer, but they could feel it in the crowd and fell silent, too.

1962693_10102374740053744_1883298908_nThe silence lasted several minutes and was broken when Lina began singing another spiritual, “Guide My Feet,” and those of us within the police barricade joined hands and began walking in a circle. We began singing again with not just renewed voices, but also a renewed sense of connection and purpose. For me, part of that purpose is articulating our deep connection to all of creation, including all of humanity, as well as our connection to God.

That was the same experience the second time I prayed silently while protesting, a story told on my own blog.  It occurred during the recent Shareholder Meeting of PNC Bank and left me realizing that I am able to act more courageously as part of a faith-based group than I ever had in a secular group because of my sense of being supported by an invisible web of Love.

On July 3, Earth Quaker Action Team will continue our experiment of integrating prayer into our protest. We would love to include people of other faiths, so please check out our event announcement if it might be possible for you to join us in Pittsburgh that afternoon
. If not, please hold us in your prayers.

editor’s note: you really should click through to read Eileen’s story of the second time she actively prayed while protesting.  It’s powerful.