An Interview with Fred Small

by Pat Rector

In association with UUSA’s Green Sanctuary Committee, I agreed in May to talk with the Rev. Fred Small, Minister for Climate Justice of Arlington Street Church UU Church of Boston. Small had preached a powerful sermon on climate issues early in the spring [at UUSA] and had led a workshop on the emotional and psychological aspects of climate threats to our world, its peoples and species. About 60 people attended from several UU congregations in the Valley.

The purpose of my inquiry was frankly two-fold.

First, I wanted to explore, as requested, several questions his visit had generated as “next steps.” What is one’s moral responsibility in the face of the desecration of the one and only planet we inhabit? More importantly, how can individual acts of personal responsibility (no plastic straws, celebrating Earth Day, and solarizing our dwellings) be transformed into collective and direct political action that responds urgently and radically to our planet’s unprecedented crisis as the clock ticks?

My other purpose was admittedly more personal. I had just read Wen Stephenson’s book What We’re Fighting for Now is Each Other, a book described as “fiercely urgent and profound spiritual journey into the climate- justice movement—in search of what climate justice, at this late hour, might yet mean.”

No other book that I’ve read so far better captured my own sentiments as a call to action different in character than the Big Green mainstream “climate environment” movement that has tried but failed to stop climate desecration.

Stephenson’s opening prologue is a shimmering meditation on Henry David Thoreau, one of Unitarian Universalism’s spiritual forefathers. The opener captured my attention but mostly my heart, since I had made a trip to Walden Pond early this spring. In truth, my little pilgrimage, I see in retrospect, was preparation for what I knew I was headed for: civil disobedience.

Fred and I talked for an hour and six minutes on both these matters, and the conversation was mutually nourishing. What follows is a summary of key points of our conversation:

  • Courage—I had mentioned to Fred that what really got me about his sermon and workshop was the courage he exhibited in tackling these issues. “I don’t feel particularly courageous,” he said, “so could you unpack for me more about what you mean?” I explained that many of my dearest, smartest, progressive friends had disclosed to me that climate predictions were just so scary that they didn’t want to hear anything more about them, it was just too uncomfortable and they just needed to pretend that life was normal. “Your sermon came along, Fred, and many of these good people sat in front of you,” I said. “Despite the discomfort your message carried, you ploughed ahead. You did not offer false assurances. You did, however, offer some pathways of witness and even a vision of what love requires in existential situations. That required courage.”
  • Privilege and the Generation Gap—“It is largely true that many people in our generation, even progressives, choose simply to walk away from uncomfortable topics like this, and it is even understandable,” Fred explained. He had a point. After all, who wants to trouble themselves with thoughts of mass extinction, rising oceans, desertification, wildfires, heatwaves and storms? “The generation now in their 60s or 70s can walk away or numb up because most of them are still insulated from the effects of these disasters,” he said. “That’s not true for people in their 20s through their 50s. Because the pace of these global catastrophes is accelerating,” he continued, “they understand that they will not be exempt. They have more skin in the game.” In short, in the next few decades or even sooner, no one on the planet will be insulated from these relentless calamities.
  • Mission—“You asked me about what might be next steps after the introductory workshop I offered. As a minister who is devoting myself full-time to climate issues, I think UUs need to get beyond the walls of their houses of worship and into the streets, and into the corridors of power.” Small said a lot of congregations, so far, have focused on the micro level; in other words, trying to shrink a personal or congregational carbon footprint. These are not bad things to do, he stressed, but if they distract or exhaust us from working at the macro level (that is, challenging the forces of greed and obliteration that are root causes), our efforts will continue to be (as they have already been so far) heartbreakingly ineffective.
  • Other possible next steps—Fred is willing and able to return for a Round Two sermon and/or workshop. He has vastly more workshop content and more sermons available. He is also open to speaking within the context of a much larger venue, say as a speaker at an interfaith gathering, or a major speaker series at any of the Five Colleges. He also urges that if making a connection with Johanna Macy’s Work That Reconnects may be useful in future moral/spiritual work on the emotional and psychological impacts. Such grounding helps provide the discipline, moral imagination, and nonviolent practice that will carry people forward as times get increasing difficult. Finally, he mentioned that addressing the climate crisis and sustaining work on it, sometimes triggers some “dark nights of the soul,” and we might consider what forms of solace we might offer.

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