Never underestimate the power of a single Facebook message.
The Rev. John Floberg of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Fort Yates, North Dakota, sent out a call to clergy Sunday, October 23, via the social media channel, asking them to gather at Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in solidarity with the Dakota pipeline water action.
On Thursday, November 3, more than 500 ministers from twenty faith communities from all over the United States had gathered to bear witness.
Among the largest contingents were about fifty Unitarian Universalist ministers, seminarians, and other religious leaders, including Unitarian Universalist Association President Peter Morales.
“I was gratified by the number of UUs who showed up on such short notice,” Morales said. “Our numbers were disproportionate to the size of our denomination.”
While UUs have been a part of the Sioux-led demonstrations on the banks of the Cannonball River in North Dakota since it began last spring, events reached a critical mass October 28 when police and private security forces intensified their efforts to break up camps near the site of the Dakota Access pipeline construction.
That day, police arrested 142 people as authorities drove water action participants from one of two camps, using tear gas grenades, police batons, and plastic bullets. Pipeline construction has since recommenced on the site of the camp that authorities swept through. Water action participants, sometimes numbering in the thousands, have now gathered in Oceti Sakowin Camp.
Floberg’s call to clergy was joined by one directed to UU clergy by the Rev. Karen Van Fossan, minister of the Bismarck-Mandan UU Congregation, and amplified by Morales.
“Our intention was not only to bear witness and express our solidarity,” Van Fossan said, “but to demonstrate the prayerful nature of the movement.”
The interfaith solidarity event began with a visible repudiation of the Doctrine of Discovery, a principle of law dating back to the fifteenth century that gave theological justification for the conquest of indigenous people.
The 2012 UUA General Assembly passed a resolution condemning the doctrine, but, as Morales said, “You can pretend to care, but you can’t pretend to show up.”
During a ritual in which representatives of seven denominations read their own repudiations, a copy of the original document, written in Latin, was burned in an abalone shell. At the center of the camp, a sacred fire burns 24 hours a day, but camp elders decided a separate fire would be used to burn the Doctrine of Discovery.
“This document is ours to clean up, ours to burn,” said Samantha Gupta, a UU community chaplain from Los Angeles. “We have to acknowledge the cultural patterns that created this moment.”
Then the 500 clergy members, joined by members of the 100 nations represented at the camp, marched down the road to the bridge, where several clergy members—including Morales and other UUs—continued to the fortification behind which law enforcement officials have positioned themselves.
“I was so impressed by the extremely broad support across different faith groups and the broad repudiation of the Doctrine of Discovery,” Morales said.
While authorities did not interfere with the clergy action, the Rev. Kelli Clement, social justice minister at First Unitarian Society of Minneapolis, said, “It was, in some ways, deeply spiritual, but it also put your teeth on edge.”
The Rev. Wendy Bartel, co-minister of Sierra Foothills Unitarian Universalists in Auburn, California, said, “The courage and tenacity of those who are there is heartwarming, heartbreaking, and incredibly inspiring.”
On Thursday evening the UUs who had traveled to Standing Rock joined members of the Bismarck-Mandan congregation for a dinner at their church.
“We wanted to express our support for the extraordinary efforts of that congregation in Bismarck,” Morales said. “Events like this help some of our more isolated congregations to feel like they’re part of something bigger.”
UUs have been involved for months in the action to stop construction on the 1,172-mile pipeline that would carry 400,000 barrels of oil a day. Carlo Voli, a UU from Edmonds, Washington, was one of the first to be arrested, when he and two others chained themselves to heavy equipment September 14.
Van Fossan, whose 63-member congregation has been the epicenter of UU involvement, said, “Everything is much more intense now, but my sense of urgency increases every day.”
She suggests ways UUs elsewhere can help:
- They can sign a petition initiated by the congregation’s Social Action Working Group asking President Barack Obama to instruct the Army Corps of Engineers to conduct a full environmental impact statement.
- They can take part in actions in other cities or make a financial contribution to the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe’s donation fund.
Jo VonRue, an intern minister at the UU Congregation of Binghamton, New York, said a special collection at her church raised $1,000, more than enough for her to make the trip to Standing Rock.
The Bismarck-Mandan UU Congregation plans to construct its own yurt at Oceti Sakowin to establish a permanent UU presence.
“Our hope is we can have a place at the camp where UUs can keep vigil,” Van Fossan said.