Last Wednesday, as I rose early to join an 8 am protest at the West Roxbury Lateral Pipeline site, I wondered what my purpose was for attending. While I believe in the importance of turning back climate change, I have not been a climate activist. Several questions remained unanswered: If we don’t build a pipeline, how will people heat their homes? Isn’t gas cleaner than oil? Is this a NIMBY issue? How effective would this protest be?
From the very first reading that morning, I realized that this protest was much bigger than our neighborhood. It was, no surprise, a poem by Mary Oliver. But it wasn’t the kind of nature poem I’m used to, and it grabbed me by the heart:
We will be known as a culture that feared death
and adored power, that tried to vanquish insecurity
for the few and cared little for the penury of the
many. We will be known as a culture that taught
and rewarded the amassing of things, that spoke
little if at all about the quality of life for
people (other people), for dogs, for rivers. All
the world, in our eyes, they will say, was a
commodity. And they will say that this structure
was held together politically, which it was, and
they will say also that our politics was no more
than an apparatus to accommodate the feelings of
the heart, and that the heart, in those days ,
was small, and hard, and full of meanness.
Standing in a circle of clergy from the Jewish, Christian, Unitarian Universalist, Hindu and Buddhist traditions, surrounded by neighbors and activists who had come from all over Massachusetts, I opened my eyes to a much bigger vision than stopping one, admittedly dangerous, pipeline from passing through West Roxbury, under a soccer field, through densely inhabited neighborhoods, and in close proximity to the blasting of an active quarry. The fears of building this pipeline are not centered on our community alone. The symbolism of this action goes well beyond Boston or Massachusetts or the Northeast.
We began our morning vigil at the corner of Grove & Center Streets, right across from the West Roxbury Crushed Stone Quarry. Clergy wore garb of all types and colors, including tallitot. Roy Einhorn, cantor of Temple Israel Boston, carried a Torah scroll. Others carried signs. Passing cars, trucks and buses honked their horns in support. We stood at the entrance of the metering station construction site, a 4-acre plot quickly being leveled and fortified with rebar and concrete foundations. There, Rabbi Shoshana Meira Friedman, associate rabbi of Temple Sinai, Brookline, opened the Torah scroll and chanted the second passage from the Shema:
“If you truly listen to me, then I will give you rain upon your land in its appointed time, the early rain and later rain, so you may gather in your corn, your wine and oil. And I will give you grass upon your field to feed your animals, and you will eat and be content. Beware, then, lest your heart be led astray, and you go off and worship other gods and you submit to them (you think you are in control), so that the anger of the MIGHTY ONE should burn against you, and seal up the heavens so no rain would fall, so that the ground would not give forth her produce, and you be forced to leave the good land I am giving you.” (Deut. 11:13-21)
Fortified with faith, prayer, and song, about 75 people walked down Grove Street, clergy leading in front, to the pipeline trench bisecting the street. As we approached, the loud bulldozer shut down, and the workers in their hardhats and yellow vests stepped out of the trench. The work stopped. Sixteen clergy leaders stepped into the road, crossed the protective markers, and sat down, feet hanging over the trench. I stood among the protestors across the trench who were not risking arrest, in solidarity with those who were.
As a group, we began with a Prayer for the Spectra Workers, and a prayer for the police, affirming that our protest was not directed against them. Soon a police officer came over to warn the 16 that they were trespassing. He informed them politely that if they did not leave, they would be arrested. We watched as about ten to fifteen minutes later, a paddy wagon pulled up. Then another other. We watched West Roxbury police in blue uniforms step out and head, respectfully, toward the protesters.
Just before the police intervened, each of the 16 stated why they were there. One man spoke about people in his homeland of India where temperatures are a ghastly 124 degrees. Others spoke of their grandchildren. They were there out of love, out of conviction, out of humility, out of hope.
Then the police asked each one to stand, and one by one, they were handcuffed and escorted to the police vans. It was chilling to watch religious leaders locked behind bars in the police vehicles, and then closed in with heavy doors as if in refrigerator trucks, headed toward the West Roxbury Police Station.
The pipeline through West Roxbury is not bringing gas to heat our homes. Spectra is building this high-pressure (750 psi) pipeline for Algonquin Gas Transmission to transport fracked gas through our city. National Grid claims the pipe will help make National Grid's system more reliable. The builders claim the pipeline is safe, and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission agreed, arguably with minimal investigation.
Opponents claim that no one has demonstrated sufficient demand to justify a massive new gas pipeline into Boston. Residents don’t want a dangerous pipeline running yards away from their front doors. The City Council has voted unanimously to oppose it. The mayor is challenging the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, in court. Boston’s state and federal legislators are against the project. Senators Markey and Warren have requested further study before proceeding.
We are protesting, because none of these voices have been heeded by the federal authorities.
Researchers at Boston University have shown that current pipelines have over 3,000 documented leaks in the current distribution system. Though the industry claims they are not dangerous — not prone to explosions — they do emit dangerous levels of methane into the atmosphere, a major source of global warming, making LNG even more polluting than coal. As the protestors were taken away, we chanted “Stop the pipeline! Fix the leaks!”
What really moved me was the realization that this entire protest is a wake-up call for all of us who have quietly and helplessly stood by as the economic forces of the fossil fuel industry, urging us to use more and more energy, continue business as usual. It’s a wake-up call that we can make a difference. With the 16 very visible clergy being taken to the police station, that makes over 80 arrests along the construction route in Boston. This movement is growing, here and around the country, calling for change in the way we use energy and where our energy comes from.
See the letter I signed, “Interfaith Religious Leaders Call For Climate Justice” at ClergyClimateAction.org whose mission is to “invite clergy from all faith traditions to engage in soulful leadership by exemplifying the ‘task of re-centering society imbued with the hope, joy and serenity which only flow from living in the truth.’”
There are many small ways we can bring that hope, joy and serenity to our commitment to climate action. Drive by the construction site, honk your horn, join a vigil. Stop using plastic and paper grocery bags and bring your own reusable bags. Cut back on your energy use, whether turning down the a/c, turning off lights, reducing the temperature on your hot water boiler.
It’s time to change the conversation from political feasibility to moral imagination.
It’s time for us to get beyond our sense of helplessness and despair. It’s time for us to peacefully, joyfully, and persistently choose a different path, the moral path. For our future, for our grandchildren, for the life of all humanity, we can make a difference.