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"Pop Up" Worship in Public Spaces at COP21

During our time at COP21, we participated in the “Climate Generations” area, or “civil society” space. Civil society basically means everyone who is not an official negotiator, so it was a mix of scientists, businesspeople, activists, and community leaders. It is an exciting space in which people come together to share ideas, best practices, latest research, and climate impact stories from home.

This year, there were more religious leaders from the U.S. participating in the Civil Society space than at any previous COP. It’s hard to say exactly why that was the case—probably some combination of factors, including the religious community’s increasing engagement on climate concerns over time and the fact that this year’s negotiations were known to be especially important. Whatever the reasons, there we were—and thanks to some pre-Paris planning, many of us were connected with each other even before we landed on the ground.

Beginning early in the week, two different religious leaders organized separate but complementary daily “pop-up” worship services. The first was an initiative of Rt. Rev. Marc Andrus, Bishop, Episcopal Diocese of California, who led a 10-minute service at around noon every day. Watch our video interview with Bishop Marc, and see this twitter feed for photos and video from these worship services.

The second was a 10-minute interfaith service organized by Liya Rechtman, Manager of the Coalition on Environment and Jewish Life (COEJL), to be led by a small handful of women leaders from different traditions every day at around 5:00pm. Why women leaders and interfaith? Here, in Liya’s words:

Our interfaith worship brought to the conference a celebration of human life and a belief in the capacity for change in the face of daunting obstacles to maintaining a climate with below 2-degrees Celsius increase in temperature.

For these reasons we also stood as women leaders. If you’ve been watching footage of the conference, you may have noticed a lack of women leadership at the table and in the negotiating rooms. The Conference of Parties has vastly disproportionate male representation. As people of faith, we aim to work towards justice and equity, giving voice to marginalized peoples both in international policy, and in our own communities. We chose to hold a space run by women, who in the context of the negotiations are not heard.

We hope that together, marginalized communities, women, people of faith, and justice seekers, can pray, sing, and speak loudly enough that we will be heard and ambitious targets for emissions will be set this Hanukkah.

Bee and I had the opportunity to participate in Bishop Marc’s service and to help lead the interfaith women-led service. As we shared prayers and sang in the middle of a bustling, public hall, our words and song moved out into the space like ripples from a pebble in a pond; some people stopped and observed; some paused just for a moment to take a photo or short video; some approached us after to ask what we were doing, and why. For me, helping to lead the interfaith women-led service was especially powerful, and gifted me with an unexpected sense of hope and joy.

Will our prayer—either here at home or in the Climate Generations area of COP21—help move global leaders toward stronger commitments to climate action? I don’t know. But as Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel taught: “The primary purpose of prayer is not to make requests. The primary purpose is to praise, to sing, to chant. Because the essence of prayer is a song, and man cannot live without a song. Prayer may not save us. But prayer may make us worthy of being saved.”

May it be so.

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