Salt Lake Unitarians support Tim DeChristopher, who risks jail time for his environmental activism.
DeChristopher, 29, a member of Salt Lake City’s First Unitarian Church, walked into the oil and gas lease auction, picked up a bidding card, and bought 14 leases covering more than 22,000 acres, even though he had no money. He was motivated by the need for a stronger response to climate change, to show that the lease process was illegal, and to protect Utah’s landscape.
The federal government commonly allows energy companies to bid for leases on public lands that permit them to explore and drill for oil and gas. The Utah leases, covering nearly 150,000 acres in total, were controversial because they were on wilderness areas, including some areas next to national parks.
DeChristopher was charged with obstructing the leasing process. His trial date, originally set for last March, has been delayed several times and now is scheduled for February 28, 2011. His action led Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar to suspend the leases awarded at that auction.
DeChristopher is using the time before his trial to advocate for a more aggressive response to climate change. He said that over the year prior to attending the auction he came to the realization that the climate situation was grave. A month before the auction, he had seen a screening of a presentation by author and environmental activist Naomi Klein at First Unitarian. Klein made a provocative statement that reinforced DeChristopher's commitment to revolutionary change. In essence, she said that half measures and compromises on climate issues would never be enough to allow human life to survive on earth. “I came away from that evening believing you had to go to the edge and push, taking steps that some would consider unreasonable,” he said.
Being a part of First Unitarian—he began attending three years ago and joined a year ago—helped him make that decision, he said. “Knowing I was connected to this community had power for me and helped me stick my neck out.” Unitarian Universalists are well situated to be leaders in the climate change movement, he said. “First, we understand the science perhaps better than any other religious group because of our level of education. Second, we have congregations that are supportive of direct action.”
Religion is largely what’s missing on the left, he said. “Most liberals are not connected to spiritual communities that will support them in this kind of action.”
Taking direct action lets people know you’re serious, he said. “We’re in the greatest crisis that humanity has ever faced and we have to do more than ask people to sign petitions and change light bulbs. Our actions need to line up with our talk. Civil disobedience will let us tell our personal stories. When we say we’re willing to go to jail, that will motivate other people on a very deep level.” The online journal Emagazine.com quoted him as saying, “We have to throw ourselves into the gears of the machine that threatens our survival.”
Some members of First Unitarian are helping support DeChristopher by providing some of his living expenses while he awaits trial. Dozens of members show up for his court hearings.
The church has long had its own legacy of environmental action. Joan Gregory is chair of its environmental ministry team. “We’re supporting Tim in whatever ways we can,” she said. “Every day we have more and more people who are willing to help.” The congregation approved a resolution at its annual meeting in May to stand in unity with DeChristopher’s “extraordinarily bold and courageous act of civil disobedience.”
DeChristopher grew up unchurched in Pittsburgh, Pa. At 18 he became an evangelical Christian. “I appreciated parts of that, but it wasn’t quite right,” he said. He spent five years working with troubled youth in outdoor programs and then earned a degree in economics from the University of Utah while also attending First Unitarian.
“Working with the youth, I learned that the problem wasn’t with them, the problem was with the world they were being asked to live in,” he said. “Changing the world requires changing its economic structure.”
DeChristopher and his supporters have formed a group, Peaceful Uprising, to “defend a livable future through empowering nonviolent action.” Their focus is on “changing the institutional and social status quo that is at the root of the climate crisis.” Among their current efforts is their campaign in opposition to the proposed mining of tar sands in Utah. Tired of the delays in DeChristopher’s case, the group also organized its own “climate trial” in front of the federal courthouse in Salt Lake City on November 5. Standing on a coffin, DeChristopher and others used large puppet figures, representing the federal government and energy corporations, to make the case for responsible energy policies. DeChristopher told a crowd of people, “The policy of squeezing every drop of oil out of this planet is destabilizing our climate and condemning our children to an unlivable future.”
First Unitarian’s minister, the Rev. Tom Goldsmith, said civil disobedience, as practiced by DeChristopher, “is like a forgotten treasure. You just don’t encounter it much anymore, especially at that level. He single-handedly saved the wilderness. What he did has awakened the conscience of everyone in this congregation and community and convinced us we really can be a catalyst for change.”
He added, “The congregation is fully united behind him on an issue that could be divisive.” Goldsmith and DeChristopher have shared the pulpit for services on environmental and civil disobedience issues.
DeChristopher said older people sometimes apologize to him for their generation’s failure to solve the climate crisis. He appreciates their awareness, but hopes they will do more than express regret. “I find it frustrating that people can have a clear understanding of the climate issue and their role in it and yet not really change their lives,” he said.
“I’d like people to start pursuing revolutionary change in whatever way that might be for them. The left, during my lifetime, has been defined by a philosophy of baby steps and incrementalism. There is very little I can point to since I was born that has improved.”
He said that surveys show that an estimated 11 to 14 percent of Americans say they really understand climate change. “That may seem like a small number, but it means that more than 30 million people get that the path we are on is to a truly unlivable future. We don’t need to wait for more people to get it. This is a big enough group to create change.”
He said young people especially are interested in radical change. “But they say that all they’re ever asked to do is sign a petition. They don’t want a world that’s just slightly different. They’re ready for revolutionary change.”
Contributions to Tim DeChristopher's legal defense fund may be sent to: Tim DeChristopher, Legal Defense Fund, c/o Pat Shea, 252 S. 1300 E., Suite A, Salt Lake City UT 84102. see below for links to additional resources.
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Donald E. Skinner was the founding editor of the InterConnections newsletter for congregational leaders and a senior editor of UU World from 1998 until his retirement in 2014. He is a member of the Shawnee Mission Unitarian Universalist Church in Lenexa, Kansas.