It was a cold, dreary November morning as the small band of activists and faith leaders first made their way toward the Vance Monument near the center of downtown. But the dismal conditions did not deter Steve Norris, the group’s leader and a former Warren Wilson College professor of peace studies and environmental justice, as he prepared himself for a long stay beneath the granite obelisk.
From 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m., for 10 consecutive days before Thanksgiving, Norris and his companions led a public fast and prayer to bring awareness to the issue of climate change. The group was spurred to action by an October report from the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which issued dire warnings about the effects of rising temperatures and the urgent need to adopt renewable energy and reduce greenhouse emissions.
“That was a wake-up call,” Norris says. “I’ve known for a long time and even used the words ‘emergency’ and ‘crisis’, but that just kind of clarified something.”
Fasting marks a change of tactics for Norris, who has accumulated over 15 arrests for protests and demonstrations in his decades of political activism. While he doesn’t shy away from public showdowns with powerful corporations and government leaders, he explains that fasting provides a less confrontational way to promote important causes.
“When Gandhi couldn’t figure out a way to stop the violence, he fasted, and the violence stopped. Now, I’m not Gandhi,” Norris says with a laugh. “I don’t have his stature, his courage, his charisma. But it seemed like an appropriate step for me to take to do this in a public fashion and to just not eat for a couple of weeks.”
Avram Friedman, executive director of the Canary Coalition, a Sylva-based environmental activism group, joined Norris throughout the fast. He notes that the sacrifice inherent in fasting helps people understand the urgency of causes such as climate change in a way that other forms of protest do not.
“We have been shouting about climate change for a long time, but now, we feel like it’s going to take more messaging in a different way,” Friedman says. “We’re showing people that we’re so committed to this, it’s so important, that I’m willing to fast for 10 days to get this message across.”
And as a participant, Friedman adds, the physical act of fasting allows him to connect to the issues without distraction.
“If you’re taking your mind off food and washing dishes and cleaning, all that stuff, it really puts you — at least temporarily — in a plane above the physical when you’re not focused on your immediate sustenance,” Friedman says. “You’re focusing on the issue at hand.”
Say a little prayer
That spiritual dynamic informed the interfaith prayer ceremony held at noon each day of the fast. Members of the scientific community, activists and passers-by gathered alongside those fasting to hear prayers and blessings from faith leaders, including readings from Christian, Native American and other traditions.
Ordained pastor Scott Hardin-Nieri was among the speakers who offered prayer at the demonstration. Hardin-Nieri serves as the director for environmental nonprofit MountainTrue’s faith-based program, the Creation Care Alliance of Western North Carolina, which engages over 40 regional congregations to tackle issues such as converting to renewable energy and eliminating single-use plastics. Faith and prayer, he says, are oft-overlooked but essential elements of addressing climate change.
“Climate change is so massive, it’s unsolvable. Not even large groups of people can fix it right now. We need a global effort, and so when people are faced with that, they tend to go to despair, they go to fear,” Hardin-Nieri says. “My experience with communities of faith is that we try to be the antidote to fear and to despair with hope and with courage and with love and compassion.”
For Hardin-Nieri, climate-associated problems extend beyond the obvious environmental challenges and into many areas that faith communities have traditionally addressed, such as homelessness and poverty. A 2016 World Bank report estimates that more than 100 million people worldwide could be forced into poverty by 2030 due to climate change-related events.
“We know that the changes that are happening are impacting the most vulnerable among us, and so when we talk about homeless folks, people of color, when we talk about poverty, people that are food insecure, the effects of climate change impact them more,” Hardin-Nieri says. “It confluences so many different issues that people of faith have the opportunity to be right in the midst of it and to do better.”
Hang in there
As climate change continues to drive devastating events such as Hurricane Florence and the Camp Fire, many people find themselves feeling helpless, says Kat Houghton of Asheville-based environmental activism nonprofit Community Roots. While supporting the demonstration, she recalls, she was approached by one onlooker who summed up the national mood.
“He said, ‘I’m somewhere between terrified about what’s happening and can’t give a shit,’” Houghton explains. “And I guess neither of those places felt good, so he was just kind of avoiding it. And I think that’s what’s happening. [Climate change] feels so overwhelming that it’s just easier to completely ignore it.”
Viewing the issue of climate change through a faith-based lens, Houghton believes, may provide relief for the feelings of despair and hopelessness that many people feel when facing the problem. Spirituality, she says, can help restore a much-needed sense of connection to the planet and its needs.
“Anything we can do to help people kind of connect back to that, I have to believe, is going to help shift behavior and help people be more aware of what they’re consuming and where our energy comes from,” says Houghton.
Suzannah Tebbe Davis, another Community Roots member who participated in the demonstration, agrees that any solution to climate change will require a renewed appreciation of the Earth. Inspired by Buddhism, Incan teachings and other indigenous and Eastern traditions, she says modern culture becomes “spiritually homeless” when it doesn’t identify with the natural world.
“I think from the perspective of the native ones and the indigenous ones, there is no separation,” says Tebbe Davis. “Our mother is suffering, and we are suffering. We need to come home to each other and we can do that in so many different ways.”
Keep the faith
As the fast wrapped up on the eve of Thanksgiving, cars continued to honk in support, and the team stood tirelessly among banners and homemade signs. While Norris continued to hand out flyers, he reflected on his decision to bring faith into his practice of civil disobedience.
“I came at politics at the beginning with confrontation of corporate and government abuse of power and oppression,” Norris explains. “Finally, I realized that the work I do is spiritual.”
Although some people simply walked by the demonstration on the busy intersection, Norris says every smile, wave and utterance of ‘Thank you’ made the effort worth it.
“You know, if we inspire one person who really wants to take this seriously and who has imagination, genius, creativity, courage and some leadership skills, who knows where that can go?” Norris asked.