Day two of the U.N. COP25 climate conference in Madrid was off to a good start when I sat around the breakfast table with the other members of the Christian Observers program for our morning devotion and our leader Lowell Bliss asked us “Do you think God has read the Paris Agreement?”
He spread out a copy on the table before us as an example of how we can pray for God to be with us in the trenches as we face the enormous and complex issue of climate change. We reflected on being a faithful presence of God and that sometimes the best we can do is to position ourselves where there is work to be done and to be a Christian Observer, just as our program is named. Perhaps today at COP25 our largest contribution could be to bring that faithful presence of God into the halls and meeting rooms and be a witness to the pain and suffering the climate crisis is is causing people all over the world in the forms of droughts, floods, super storms, and sea level rise. As we packed up to leave, the idea that we could bring God’s love with us wherever we went made me feel hopeful for the day to come.
After the thirty minute metro ride we arrived at the convention center site called IFEMA, and I headed to the press room to catch the morning briefing from Climate Action Network (CAN). A panel was reviewing what happened the day before at the conference, and I learned that the topic of Loss and Damage seemed to be hitting a sticking point because there was a critical lack of actual financial resources moving from wealthy, developed countries to those poor countries experiencing irreparable climate harms. I listened to a few more updates and then headed out to find the faith leaders meeting with the U.S. delegation that Rep. Kathy Castor had invited me to the day before.
I popped over to the U.S. delegation office and a friendly embassy worker walked me over to where the meeting was about to take place. I recognized some of my faith leader friends who were talking together in a waiting room where they gathered for the meeting. One of the organizers came to welcome me, checked my credentials and said that although I wasn’t on the list, they had an extra seat that I was welcome use to observe the meeting. I was happy just to be a part of it so I thanked him as we entered a bright room with a large oval table set with food and drinks for the meeting. Shortly after, the rest of the faith group came in, and were followed by the Representatives and Senators that made up the U.S. delegation. Then Speaker Nancy Pelosi joined the group and gave a warm welcome, expressed her appreciation and gave her thanks for all the work that the faith leaders were doing, and a positive conversation about creation care ensued. Time went by very quickly and soon the meeting wrapped up and everyone joined in for a group photo. It was empowering to feel the mutual appreciation in the room and I was glad I was able to witness it.
As I made my way back to the convention hall, I saw a mother-daughter duo that I met the day before and we greeted each other warmly. Valholly Frank, a teenager of the Seminole Tribe of Florida who lives in the Big Cypress Reservation in the Everglades explained to me when we talked the day before that she joined Our Children’s Trust lawsuit when she was 15 years old to hold the state of Florida accountable for causing climate change by not having a plan to reduce green house gas emissions. The suit says that the state has violated the youngest generation’s constitutional rights to life, liberty, property, and the pursuit of happiness. Valholly was excited about the court date set for January 2020 after waiting for two years to be heard, and was hopeful the suit will force Florida to implement a sustainable climate plan that will protect her home in the Everglades and the culture of her tribe. I thanked her for her bravery and told her I will be at the hearing in Tallahassee to cheer her on.
I walked around the convention center, stopping at booths to learn more about topics that caught my eye, and felt a growing sense of hope from being surrounded by 20,000 professionals dedicated to solving the climate crisis. The halls were filled with bright colors from the outfits of people dressed in traditional garb of their native countries, and as they walked past me speaking languages I didn’t recognize, the magnitude of this event overwhelmed me and I was so grateful to the United Nations for bringing us all together.
Later, I joined some of my Christian Observer friends at a side event called “Inspiring Courage to Act and Adapt in a Climate Emergency.” There was an impressive panel of speakers from all over the world, but the one who really impacted me was Rev. Chebon Kernell, a Native American climate activist of the Seminole tribe and the Executive Director of the Native American Comprehensive Plan of the United Methodist Church. He gave a moving speech where he reminded us that indigenous people lived on the land now called the United States for over 16,000 years without doing it any harm. The Seminole people’s respect for their place in the whole cycle of creation brought them to understand that we are not stewards of the Earth Mother, but the Earth Mother is the steward of us. He said that if we redefine what development and progress looks like to the indigenous idea of well-being, we can return to ways that protect the land and provide us a healthy Earth Mother. I learned that the rights of indigenous people must be respected as countries look for ways to solve the climate crisis, and their wisdom is valuable as they teach us to make decisions based on the world we are giving the generations not yet born.
As a Floridian, I feel a deep connection to the Seminole tribe because I grew up learning about their culture and history as the indigenous people inhabiting the state since the 1700’s. It was a great honor to meet two Seminole climate activists at COP25 who have dedicated their lives in different ways to share the values of the Seminole people as it relates to solving the climate crisis. After the event was over, I was happy to get the chance to meet Rev. Kernell and he shared that he would rather be home with his family but needed to be able to tell his grandchildren that he did everything he could to try to solve the problem of climate change that threatens their future. His words rang true for me because I felt the same, and although I was starting to really miss my family, I knew that I owed it to them to learn everything I could here at COP25 and use it to further my climate advocacy so they can have a chance of a safe future.