The Move of the National UCC to Divest from Fossil Fuels--and Why our Universities Must Do the Same

This post is written by Rev. Natalie Shiras, Pastor of Church on the Hill, United Church of Christ in Lenox, MA

It was a powerful moment to witness the near unanimous decision of the Massachusetts Conference of the United Church of Christ (MAC-UCC) to urge divestment from fossil fuel companies on June 15, 2013 in Sturbridge, MA.  I was one pastor along with two delegates representing Church on the Hill, United Church of Christ, in Lenox, MA at the 214th Annual Meeting to vote with 386 other churches on this momentous decision—the first such decision by any religious body in the US.

The Massachusetts Conference along with ten other conferences then carried the resolution to the General Synod of the United Church of Christ held in Long Beach, CA where this denomination became the first national church body on July 2, 2013 to commit to divest in stages from fossil fuel companies over the next five years.

The church was catalyzed by a Rolling Stone article in August 2012 entitled, “Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math” by Bill McKibben of 350.org. But I had been following the movement on my own since March 2012 because students from my alma mater, Harvard, began organizing then for the responsible investment of our school’s over $30 billion endowment. Those Harvard students received crucial support for their organizing work from the Responsible Endowments Coalition. Recently, because of the decision by the UCC to divest, I have started to realize my own power as an alumna of Harvard—the school with the largest university endowment in the country.

The group at Harvard is one of the 380 colleges and universities campaigning for divestment. Already 12 cities—including San Francisco and Seattle—and six colleges have voted to divest.  President Obama even urged divestment from fossil fuel companies during his climate speech on June 25. The Rev. Jim Antal, the Conference Minister of the MAC-UCC, took initiative to write the national resolution for the UCC to divest. By the time of the vote at Synod, the United Church Fund, the main investment institution of the denomination, had been convinced of the efficacy of the movement.

To understand the impact of this move, the United Church Fund (UCF) has an endowment of $750 million, and represents the combined endowments of nearly 5,200 UCC churches around the country.  An important distinction with this decision is that the UCC Pension Board, with over $3 billion in its endowment, has not fully endorsed the Fund’s decision. The Pension board has acceded to cooperate with the UCF “within the limits of the law”—but whether that means divestment, we are not certain. I am certain, however, that the UCF is on the right side of history, and that within the decade, our pension fund will join us on the right side of history, as well.

I am proud to be part of a denomination that acts on behalf of the world to counter climate change. We recognize that our generation and future generations are neighbors. If we continue to extract fossil fuels from the earth, we will have no more neighbors.  Though there was recognition by the body that a tiny percentage of fossil fuel stock would be impacted, there was a felt moral and spiritual power to revoke the social license of these companies to profit at the expense of the health of the earth. This moral duty was far more important than any financial argument made.

My friend and colleague, Susie Phoenix, a delegate from the South Acton Congregational Church, said that delegates should vote for the resolution no matter what the impact on the UCC’s portfolio.  “Sometimes you do take a hit when you decide to divest from unethical businesses”, she said.  I believe this is how we change community, one step at a time. Margaret Mead stated, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has.”

There were 78% of delegates from 5200 congregations and 1.1 million members that accepted the resolution at the General Synod.  That is the power of a movement, started by a small group. It grows.

As an alumna of both Harvard University and Harvard Divinity School, I am hoping the efforts being made by students, faculty, administration, and alumni to divest from fossil fuel companies will succeed there, too. Harvard University is the university with the largest endowment in the country. If universities and faith based institutions alike were to divest, this would make a significant dent in the movement to transform our energy priorities.

Harvard could be a leader if it chose it be—it could move other schools to act similarly, and grow this movement from a small group of schools and institutions to a group of hundreds.

The work of the United Church of Christ inspired the Uniting Church in Australia to pass a similar divestment resolution in April. It is clear that the wider community is looking for leadership on this issue. That the church is taking this leadership is a prophetic message to the world that the work of a small group can make a difference. Jesus declared in his Sermon on the Mount, “that they may see your good works”.  We live out our faith in unity for the sake of our earth and its people.

Rev. Natalie Shiras, Pastor of Church on the Hill, United Church of Christ in Lenox, MA

August 15, 2013

 

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