By Rev. Susan Hendershot
What an honor it was to receive an invitation to participate in the Global Religious Leaders Summit in Abu Dhabi this week. The gathering, with about 90 participants, was hosted by the UN Environment Program’s Faith for Earth Initiative, the COP28 Presidency, the Muslim Council of Elders, and the Vatican. It was intended to bring together faith leaders from around the world in order to release a statement ahead of COP28 urging heads of governments to take strong moral action to save our planet. At the conclusion of the ceremony, the appeal was delivered to Dr. Sultan Al Jaber, the President-Designate of COP28.
High-level faith leaders representing the world’s religions spoke about the urgency of acting on behalf of our Sacred Earth and those who are already suffering due to climate impacts. There were common themes centered around greed and overconsumption as driving factors of climate change and how we must act with love and compassion in order to create lasting change.
Among the highlights were meeting and talking with Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople, the spiritual head of the Eastern Orthodox Church, who is known as the “Green Patriarch” for his long history of promoting ecology. In his remarks, he said, “Our planet is imperiled as never before by environmentally hazardous human activities. Our faith traditions share core teachings on the spiritual responsibility to care for God’s creation. We must bring the full weight of our moral authority to bear on igniting society’s environmental consciousness. All life is interconnected. Humanity depends on nature. We must restore Earth’s equilibrium.”
Speakers included Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican Secretary of State and representative of Pope Francis; The Most Venerable Dr. Kori Yoshihiko, Chief High Priest of Nenbutsushu; Bhai Mohinder Singh, Chairman of Guru Nanak Nishkam Sewak Jatha; Sister Maureen Goodman, Director of Brahma Kumaris in the U.K.; Bani Dugal, Principal Representative of the Baha’i International Community to the United Nations; Grandmother Mona Polacca, Indigenous Leader, The Colorado River Indian Tribe; and Rabbi David Rosen, International President of Religions for Peace, along with many others.
I was asked to give an intervention on behalf of women on the first day of the summit. I took my inspiration from the words of the statement itself, which spoke of Mother Earth as the “fragile ecosystem that cradles us.” Here is my speech in its entirety:
“Mother Earth. The fragile ecosystem that cradles us.
These are words used within the Confluence of Conscience statement that we are here to discuss and support in our time together in Abu Dhabi. They are beautiful words that bring to mind our spiritual values of love, compassion, and justice on behalf of all life on the planet.
I invite us to pay attention to the words that we chose to include in this statement, many words that could be interpreted as “feminine” language. Characteristics that we may associate with the women who cared for us as we grew to adulthood: nurturing, encouraging, embracing, charitable, and humble, among others.
These also could be described as characteristics of Mother Earth, literally the very ground of our being. Without her sustenance, we simply would not exist. We are interconnected with one another, and this web of life in ways that both enrich us and can imperil us if we do not take our responsibility to steward the Earth seriously.
Which leads us to the word “vulnerability.” The Earth herself is vulnerable in ways that women and girls are also vulnerable to climate injustices. There are multiple statistics on the gender-differentiated impacts of climate change that serve to remind us that women and girls suffer worse from climate impacts than men, and climate change exacerbates existing inequalities between men and women globally.
Importantly, though, women are not merely victims. Women are leading on climate action at all levels: local, national, and international, and in both faith and secular contexts. Women are in decision-making spaces in religious institutions, faith communities, academia, policymaking, business, agriculture, sustainability initiatives, and more.
Women are at the heart of Indigenous and earth-centered spirituality, sharing and passing down knowledge of local contexts, including growing seasons, weather patterns, medicinal herbs and plants, healing, and rituals. They interact in an intimate way with the natural environment, and yet their knowledge has many times been undervalued or marginalized, which limits the opportunities for climate solutions.
We need to encourage female leadership in all aspects of climate action by getting more women to the decision-making table, including within faith communities. This means that women need to be more than a token presence, but rather to be centered in the dialogue and have their voices heard. We need to do even more to engage women’s leadership in all aspects of environmental and climate solutions as we look to the future.
As a voice representing women here today, I express support for the Confluence of Conscience Interfaith Statement for COP28, and I look forward to building on its impact in the future. As people of faith and spirituality, we must continue to lead the way as we urge policymakers to act before it is too late.
In many spiritual traditions, “divine wisdom” is portrayed as feminine. This statement acknowledges the “profound convergence of wisdom across the world’s diverse faith, religious, cultural, and Indigenous traditions.” Wisdom that can guide us into a new paradigm, a harmonious coexistence with our Sacred Earth and all that inhabits it.
Blessings to you all; let us move into the future with a spirit of collaboration and hope.
The full statement can be found here: https://anglican.ink/wp-content/uploads/2023/11/Interfaith-Statement-Global-Faith-Leaders-Summit-for-COP28-.pdf
Looking ahead to COP28, this will be the first time there is a Faith Pavilion at any UN Climate Conference. The pavilion will draw attention to the role of faith communities and spiritual leaders in acting for climate solutions all over the world and will include more than 60 sessions representing over 100 organizations, including Interfaith Power & Light. Let us pray that it will reach the hearts of government leaders and policymakers whose efforts will decide the future of our Sacred Earth and all that inhabits it.
Rev. Susan Hendershot with the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew at Global Religious Leaders Summit in Abu Dhabi (Nov 2023)
Gender and Climate Change: An Introduction, edited by Irene Dankelman, Earthscan Press, 2010.