A reflection on our walk with Fossil Free PC(USA)
By Ashley Bair & Aida Haddad
We walked over 200 miles in 15 days from the headquarters of the Presbyterian Church (USA) in Louisville, KY to the gathering of the 223rd General Assembly in St. Louis, MO, to ask the PC(USA) to divest from fossil fuels, learn more about climate change, and minimize our own carbon footprint. Each day went something like this: eat, worship, sunscreen, walk, sunscreen, talk, repeat, … and then we would collapse on our host church’s floor. Upon arrival at the end of each day, across Indiana and Illinois, we were welcomed to eat, fellowship, and worship with our host congregation. At a pace of about three miles each hour, we were walking every day from 7:30 in the morning to about 2:30 in the afternoon.
Early in the journey, we spent time at First Presbyterian Church of Paoli, IN, located in the second-poorest county in the state. The church generously gathered four local activists to share what was happening in their town: how these locals were some of the first in the United States to organize against deforestation, and how they create collaborative farmers markets to rebuild the local agricultural economy. One activist noted that Indiana, his home, is sometimes called a ‘fly-over state’—a place where community building is happening, but which is too soon forgotten by coastal communities.
We’re from similar parts of the country:
My name is Aida, and I’m from south-central Indiana…
…and my name is Ashley; I’m from central Michigan.
We lived on the same east coast seminary campus for two years, peripherally revolving around each other, but we didn’t take the time to know each other until this walk—and after much reflection, we believe it was meant to be this way. Here’s why:
A few days after our time in Paoli (though still in Indiana), we read a short piece written by Josh Heikkila, PC(USA) Regional Liaison for West Africa, who wrote about living in West Africa’s Sahel region, where the land is dry, the trees are few, and the water is far. People walk everywhere, and children are tasked with fetching water. Heikkila shares,
“I think of the late Asian theologian Kosuke Koyama, who wrote a book entitled ‘The Three Mile an Hour God.’ At a leisurely pace, humans can walk three miles each hour. And it’s while we are walking that relationships, and even faith, develop.”
He cites Luke 24:32, a scripture passage from the Emmaus Road where travelers remember how Jesus walked and talked with them. Jesus is a walking God; God is a ‘three mile an hour God.’
We couldn’t help but think about how God matched our steps, and those of the many who walk around the world, as we were walking and talking along the road, re-introducing ourselves to our home—to our ‘fly-over states.’ Like the travelers on Emmaus, our hearts burned within us as we shared our dreams for the Church, for each other, for our beloved ‘fly-over states,’ and for those frontline communities forced to migrate to sanctuary from the effects of climate change.
God matched our steps as 60-mile-per-hour semi-trucks zoomed past us unavoidably within a couple of arms reach, as the abnormally hot sun beat down on our brows, as our many foot blisters stung with pain, and as radically hospitable rural churches opened their doors to us.
God matched our steps as we realized we sin, mindlessly destroying the environment and the homes of our fellow walkers, Oluwatosin, José, and the people of Sahel, whose water wells, already miles away, are either drying up too early in the season or being destroyed by torrential rainfall instead of reserving water when it’s available.
God matched our steps when we saw ourselves in Pharaoh, with similarly hardened hearts because we are trying over and over again to love both God and money—a Biblical impossibility. And God matched our steps when folks along the way offered us water, lunch, kind words, questions, or local publicity, and when Abby Brockway led us in a song of gratitude.
Finally, God matched our steps as we walked up to the podium in committee 8 at General Assembly in a posture of repentance to testify for the PC(USA)’s divestment from fossil fuels, and as we walked away from Friday’s plenary to die-in with our fellow activists.
When you travel at three miles each hour, you can’t avoid the beauty—the God—in the details.
During our walk, a striking contrast emerged: it took members joining our team one hour to drive 45 miles—a distance that took walkers three days to complete.
So, what happens when a three-day journey turns into one hour? As the member of the Paoli community mentioned, at anywhere from 75 mph by car to 4500 mph by plane, their community is all too easily forgotten. At a walking pace, we were able to see their land, their homes, their crops, their streams & rivers, their storefronts, and each other.
When you travel at three miles each hour, you can’t avoid the beauty—the God—in the details. You embrace the shade of clouds, you respect the oozing blisters on your feet, you feel the asphalt heat bathing your face, you smell the scent of the wildflowers, and you get the name of the woman mowing her lawn at eight in the morning. We witnessed the details, and in doing so, we were reintroduced to the imago Dei (image of God) in ourselves, the imago Dei in each other, the imago Dei in southern Indiana, the imago Dei in southern Illinois, the imago Dei in East St. Louis, the imago Dei in MRTI, and the imago Dei in a fossil-free PC(USA).
And for us—the fact that our new-found friendship has its foundation in a ‘three mile an hour’ world makes this relationship, no matter if it feels late in the game, all the more meaningful.
May we take this seriously: that a group of Presbyterian strangers became friends over many miles, in a ‘three mile an hour’ world, to witness to the forced migration of climate change refugees and to discern the imago Dei in the PC(USA) on our dying planet Earth. May we stop and know that God is a ‘three mile an hour God,’ who sees it all—sees us all, and all of each of us. This is the Good News.
Aida Haddad is a Hoosier, a graduate of Princeton Theological Seminary (M.Div.), and will return home to pursue an M.D. at Indiana University School of Medicine this fall. She is also a recent addition to the Fossil Free PC(USA) steering committee, where she feels called to work at the intersection of medicine and environmental justice. You can contact Aida at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Ashley Bair is a recent graduate of Princeton Theological Seminary and a Candidate for Ministry with the Presbytery of Lake Michigan. She is pursuing a call to parish ministry. Ashley has worked in grassroots non-profit development, organizing, and community building, as well as crisis and trauma hospital intervention. She serves as an Activist Council member with the Presbyterian Peace Fellowship and continues to work on behalf of non-violent peace initiatives and cross-cultural and intersectional activism. You can contact Ashley at email@example.com.