The Renegade Nuns Who Took On a Pipeline
ACTIVISM, 22 Apr 2019
10 Apr 2019 – On a crisp October morning in 2017, Sister Sara Dwyer, a sixty-eight-year-old nun wearing a red T-shirt that read “YOU WILL NOT SPOIL OUR LAND,” led three elderly nuns and seventy other protesters onto an industrial work site in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. Many carried red banners stencilled with wheat sheaves. They were there to protest Williams, an Oklahoma-based pipeline company that was trying to build the Atlantic Sunrise Pipeline, a two-hundred-mile natural gas pipeline that would carry shale gas from fields in northeastern Pennsylvania to the coast, where the fuel could be shipped abroad. The company was trying to lay the line under a cornfield belonging to the nuns, and the sisters had decided to fight back, hoping that they might draw attention to the issue of climate change. “Just being in resistance is not the goal,” Dwyer told me. “The goal is spiritual conversion.” As the protesters entered the work site, Malinda Clatterbuck, who had helped plan the event with the sisters, reminded the participants, “This is a nonviolent protest in all ways. We’re not going to yell or speak to the workers.” She walked around asking each person to nod in agreement. “If you’re angry today, go home and come back to an action once you’re in a better place,” she said.
One of the organizers passed a Sharpie around and wrote the phone number for a jail-support team on the protesters’ arms, in case they were arrested. Then they walked onto a bed of turned-up earth in the middle of the site, where construction had begun. The protesters had named the action “Bread and Nuns”; as they arrived, children fanned out, offering loaves of locally made wheat-and-oatmeal bread to the pipeline workers. The adults formed a circle and sang “Amazing Grace.” Then Dwyer led the group in a prayer from “Laudato Si’,” the Catholic Church’s statement on climate change, issued by Pope Francis in 2015, which revolutionized the Church’s public position regarding the environment, calling on Christians to take action to protect the earth. “All-powerful God, you are present in the whole universe and in the smallest of your creatures,” it begins.
Dwyer belongs to an international Catholic congregation of nuns called the Adorers of the Blood of Christ, which was founded in Italy, in 1834, by a woman who was later declared a saint. The Adorers now have twelve hundred members worldwide, who live in countries including Liberia, where, in 1992, five nuns were killed during a civil war, and Guatemala. Sixteen nuns live in Lancaster County, near a seventy-acre plot of land that they have owned for more than a century, where the pipeline was being laid. They once farmed tobacco and raised sheep.
The nuns see protecting the earth as part of their religious duty, which separates them from much historical Catholic teaching. Christians, drawing on wording from the Book of Genesis, have traditionally seen man as having “dominion” over the earth: all other living things were created for his use. The Adorers are calling for an end to the theology of human supremacy, and for a deeper understanding of creation’s interdependency. They were influenced by the work of Thomas Merton, a Trappist monk and poet who, in the early twentieth century, became known for locating religious belief in the natural world. “What Merton did, and in a big way, was invigorate Catholics’ sense of the natural world—pasture, knoll, woods, shore, desert, mountain fastness—as a locus for spirituality,” Paul Elie, a senior fellow at Georgetown and the author of “The Life You Save May Be Your Own,” told me. In the nineteen-seventies, as the secular environmental movement grew, the American theologian Thomas Berry called on Catholics to make a more active commitment to protecting the earth in the name of God. “This, then, is our challenge—,” Berry wrote, “to move from a purely human-oriented or personal-salvation focus in our religious concerns to one that embraces the universe in all its forms.” In 2005, the Adorers adopted a Land Ethic that affirmed their belief in the sacredness of creation. “As students of Earth, we listen intently to Earth’s wisdom; we respect our interconnectedness and oneness with creation and learn what Earth needs to support life,” it reads.
The Adorers learned in 2015 that Williams planned to claim eminent domain in order to build the pipeline on their land. The congregation soon met the Clatterbucks—Malinda, her husband Mark, and their teen-age children, Ashton and Hannah—who had recently started a resistance group called Lancaster Against Pipelines, and were going door to door along the pipeline route, alerting people. They sent Dwyer, who lives in Washington, D.C., and serves as the congregation’s liaison on “justice, peace, and integrity of creation,” to meet with the group, and she was impressed. “I think the Clatterbucks—Malinda, Mark, Ashton, and Hannah—are the religious leaders of our day,” Dwyer told me.
The sisters joined the protest and, in the summer of 2017, filed a lawsuit to block the company from laying the pipeline through their land, on the grounds that it went against their religious beliefs. That fall, a federal court ruled against the nuns, and, soon after, they lost on appeal. So, last September, they petitioned the Supreme Court to hear their case. The Adorers argued that their rights were protected under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, from 1993, which has recently been invoked in several high-profile cases. In 2014, the owners of Hobby Lobby won a Supreme Court case in which they argued that being forced to offer employees birth control violated their religious liberties; four years later, the Court also sided with a baker in Colorado who refused to make a cake for a gay wedding. Cases on religious liberty have tended to reinforce conservative values, but the Adorers hoped that their beliefs would also be protected. “The Adorers agree with Pope Francis’s teachings that the threat of climate change, caused in large part by the intensive use of fossil fuels, represents a principal challenge facing humanity,” they wrote, in a court filing.
While their case wended its way through the courts, they continued protesting. In July, 2017, they built an open-air chapel on their land, along the proposed route of the pipeline, to block construction. It consisted of an arbor, an altar made of a tree trunk, and a dozen wooden pews, and they named it the Cornfield Chapel. They held morning and evening services there, trudging up to the cornfield with their canes and walkers, sometimes in cold rain or by flashlight. They hoped that, through their services, they would help people understand the religious significance of the environment, and that this, as much as opposing abortion, was a pro-life issue. “People often see pro-life in terms of pro-birth,” Dwyer told me. “But all the elements that go into protecting life—clean water, clean air, good soil—go into protecting the earth.”
One chilly evening, at their ranch house in the woods, Mark and Malinda Clatterbuck, the activists helping the nuns fight the pipeline, called a small meeting of four other members of Lancaster Against Pipelines. The Clatterbucks live in a remote part of the county, and many of their neighbors are Amish or conservative Mennonites. On my way to their home, I encountered a horse and buggy driven by a young Amish man, who smiled as I passed. When I arrived, Malinda was preparing for the visitors by pulling a vegan orange chocolate-chip Bundt cake out of the oven. Ashton, Hannah, and Mark, who is a forty-seven-year-old professor of religion, were clearing the table from dinner and putting dishes into the sink. A pocket copy of the U.S. Constitution sat on the dining-room table, near bundles of white sage. “We’re not organizers,” Malinda said. “We’re just people.”
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Malinda is a tenth-generation Mennonite in Lancaster County, and currently lives in the house where she grew up. She had a difficult childhood: her stepmother physically abused her between the ages of six and seventeen, forcing her at one point to eat spiders. “I had a bloody nose nearly every day,” she said. Left alone much of the time, she read her King James Bible and played in the forest. “We were so isolated in the woods that our only friends were trees and squirrels. The only place I had refuge and was safe was in the natural world.” Malinda was a seeker: at ten, she became a conservative evangelical during summer camp. In her twenties, she met Mark, a Pentecostal, and moved with him to lead a church on the Rocky Boy’s Reservation, in Montana, which is home to the Chippewa Cree community. But the Clatterbucks grew disillusioned with the Church’s oppressive history among Native peoples and left after two years. They joined a Catholic Church in Wichita, Kansas, and then, after questioning the Church’s position on women and L.G.B.T.Q. rights, moved to an Episcopal congregation. Finally, they returned to Lancaster County, and rejoined the Mennonite tradition of Malinda’s childhood, which is generally conservative on social issues, but more progressive on protecting the environment. (The Clatterbucks attend a local church that is socially progressive as well.) “The Mennonite Church has always been concerned about things like how soil is used, since it’s mostly made up of farmers,” she told me. On a national level, the Mennonite Church has begun emphasizing what it calls “creation care.”
The four other organizers arrived, stamping snow off their hiking shoes. The Clatterbucks had called the meeting to discuss an alarming new legal development. Scott Martin, a state senator who lives two miles down the road, had recently introduced legislation that would render protests, in which people trespassed near pipelines and other “critical infrastructure,” a felony. Of particular concern was the fact that a second new piece of legislation, which would hold protesters accountable for public fees incurred, specifically named “vigils and religious services” as targets, and the Clatterbucks were worried that it was directed at the Adorers. Other states, including Ohio and Wyoming, are considering similar legislation, some of which was written by the American Legislative Exchange Council, a conservative organization that often drafts local-legislation language to further corporate interests.
Later, when I spoke to Martin, he told me that he had not intended to single out the nuns. “I’m a good Catholic,” he said. He had drafted the legislation broadly, to avoid the kind of fees incurred in North Dakota, where protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline had cost the state millions of dollars in law enforcement and cleanup. “I always want to tread delicately—and rightfully so—when it might be something treading on First Amendment rights,” he told me. “But I’m encouraging people to think beyond pipelines, and to what we’ve had going on in this country.” He mentioned Baltimore and Ferguson, where protests against police shootings turned violent.
The organizers told me that the group had been trying to keep its protests positive. They held a dance party at a work site during a snowstorm, used kayaks to deliver pizza (which they had termed a “kayaction”), and offered workers homemade cookies while Christmas carolling (after which Mark and Hannah were charged with “trespassing and terrorizing workers”). The proposed legislation frightened them. “South Dakota just passed a law like this,” Mark said. “They’ve even included what they call ‘riot boosting,’ so anyone who supports or encourages or funds protests can be arrested.”
“That’s us right here,” Malinda said, looking around the living room.
The fear tactics didn’t scare the Clatterbucks off. A few weeks later, Ashton, a seventeen-year-old with duct tape holding his sneakers together and a buzz cut, brandished a drawing of the earth with the caption, “I’m with her.” Then he led a procession of fifty-five people from Community Mennonite Church, where his mother is a pastor, for three blocks, to Penn Square, Lancaster’s public gathering place. Ashton is the local high-school leader of the Sunrise Movement, a group of young activists committed to addressing climate change. He was directing a school walkout that was part of a larger movement, in which children refused to stay in school every Friday to protest climate change. In the square, he picked up a bullhorn and climbed onto a marble bench to address the protesters, the majority of whom were kids from five local high schools but also included children as young as two. “We’ve had decades and decades to come up with a solution and nothing’s happened, so we are here, today, demanding it,” Ashton said.
Ashton came to the climate movement at age twelve, when he began helping his parents in their battle over the pipeline. At five o’clock one morning, in October, 2017, Ashton and his parents, and some hundred other protesters, gathered at the nuns’ chapel. The appeals court had just ruled against the nuns, and construction was beginning while they scrambled to put together their next appeal. Ashton and dozens of others surrounded a bright yellow backhoe and sang “Which Side Are You On,” a coal miner’s protest song from the nineteen-thirties, to the tune of a Baptist hymn. He was arrested for trespassing, along with his mother and twenty-one people, and taken to a local police station, where he watched the rest of the protest via Facebook Live on an officer’s phone. The misdemeanor charges against him were dropped, although his mother’s are still pending. The group became known as the Chapel Twenty-Three, and a local symbol of the religious fight against the fossil-fuel industry.
Across almost every religion, there are those who believe that protecting nature is their religious duty. The activist Wen Stephenson told me that, in the U.S., temples, mosques, and churches have offered established networks to mobilize around the issue. In Union Hill, Virginia, Swami Dayananda, a Hindu monk, is helping a group of Baptists to lead a battle against a natural-gas compressor station. Many conservative Christians are hostile to the idea of global warming, believing that it’s hubristic to believe that humans—rather than God—could bring about the end of the world; the apocalypse is preordained, and will be marked by Jesus’ return. Matthew Sleeth, an evangelical activist, is trying to convince Christians of the importance of protecting the planet, by using terms that aren’t tied to liberal politics, like “stewardship”; his book, “Reforesting Faith,” emphasized the Biblical importance of trees. For some, religion has also been a way to cope with the despair of watching environmental degradation. “One of the primary functions faith communities has served is grieving, and that’s what we need to be doing now,” Tim DeChristopher, a founder of the climate-disobedience movement and a Unitarian, told me.
In the Global South, where the effects of climate change are already overwhelmingly palpable, religion plays an even more significant role. In 2010, on a trip to northern Nigeria, I met Amin al-Amin, an Islamic educator, who was attempting to counter the belief, held in many conservative communities, that extreme drought was caused by sin. He spread the message that humans were largely responsible for warming weather, which was frequently met with hostility. Once, after conservative clerics threw stones at him, Amin told me the story of the Prophet Muhammad’s visit to Taif, when he was stoned for preaching the truth to unwilling listeners.
Although Ashton grew up as a pastor’s kid, he doesn’t consider himself religious. “I’m not Christian in the traditional sense,” he told me. “I don’t believe that Jesus’ blood saved me from my sins.” But he still sees the fight for the climate as a spiritual struggle, a conviction he came to when he visited the Standing Rock protests, in 2016. “I see this fight as my duty as a human on this earth, and as being part of the interconnectedness of humanity,” he told me.
At the rally in Lancaster, Ashton emphasized the damage that climate change would bring. “We’ve already seen the disasters,” Ashton said. “The insane fires this year in California, Louisiana losing ground every minute, because of the sea level rising.” At the edge of the crowd, an apocalyptic street preacher who regularly rants in the square about the end times looked on with irritation at the sudden competition. “Climate change isn’t going to end the world,” the preacher shouted back. “God is!”
Mark, who was attending the rally, approached the man to try to calm him. “Why are you trying to drown them out? The kid who’s organizing this, his mom is also a pastor,” he said. “For many of these students here, this is an issue of faith.”
“God’s going to burn it all up anyway,” the preacher replied.
On a recent afternoon, I went to visit the Adorers at one of their residences in Lancaster County. Sister Bernice Klostermann, a bespectacled nun in her late seventies, and five other sisters gathered around a wooden table in a room that was once the farm’s stable, and offered me homemade gingersnaps and Diet Coke. Klostermann was the youngest nun there; the rest were well over eighty. “We’re about to pick up our wings and halos,” she said. The other sisters laughed. “We’re not just fighting for ourselves,” Klostermann told me. “We’re fighting for the future.”
Klostermann handed me a stack of black-and-white photographs of their foremothers working the land. In one, three nuns, clad in heavy habits, hoed a field of tobacco. In another, a sister drove a tractor, her wimple fluttering behind her. The nuns no longer wear habits. When I met them, most kept their snowy white hair sensibly short, and all of them wore silver-colored hearts around their neck, a symbol of the Adorers worldwide. “They used to be gold,” one sister told me, but the nuns decided that it was strange to minister to the poor while wearing such an expensive metal.
The sisters weren’t new to taking part in resistance movements. In Guatemala, some of their fellow Adorers had protested against gold mining, which damages indigenous communities and the land. Sister Helene Trueitt, who’d joined the Adorers in 1956, when she was twenty-four, had taken part in the civil-rights movement; as a young African-American woman, she had marched on the streets of Petersburg, Virginia, until the police set dogs on her and the other protesters. “This time is very much like that one,” she told me. “Again, the rights of the people are being violated, only this time it’s our religious rights in favor of the almighty dollar.”
In February, the Adorers learned that the Supreme Court was refusing to hear their case. The lower court’s decisions stood. When I visited, construction had already been completed, and gas was flowing beneath the outdoor chapel. Still, the nuns were proud of the stand they’d taken. “Even if we didn’t do anything else, we’ve made people aware,” Klostermann told me. “And possibly changed peoples’ minds that nuns don’t know anything, that we’re just in the church praying all the time.”
The Adorers are considering their next moves; maybe they’ll build a solar farm, they told me. In the meantime, for the season of Lent, they distributed some daily actions that people could take to live the teachings of “Laudato Si’.” “Pray for those most affected by climate change—those living in poverty,” they wrote. “Abstain from a spirit of defeatism that despairs of fighting climate change.” And, they suggested, “Make sure your Easter chocolates are fair trade.”
Eliza Griswold, a contributing writer covering religion, politics, and the environment, has been writing for The New Yorker since 2003. She won the Pulitzer Prize for general nonfiction for “Amity and Prosperity: One Family and the Fracturing of America,” in 2019. Read more »
Tags: Activism, Climate Change, Conflict, Development, Greenhouse Gasses, Human Rights, Nonviolence, Oil, USA, global warming, pipeline, pollution
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