05/16/2012 05:55 pm ET Updated Jul 16, 2012

Party Crasher at the Church

We expected a party.

My daughters and I had traded our jeans for skirts, covered our bare smiles with Burt's Bee lip gloss and loaded the car with enough PB&J sandwiches to feed every child at All Souls Episcopal Church.

Despite the torrential thunderstorms that evening, this promised to be a festive event -- catered not by a company or corporation, but by a faith community. (The local brewery had even donated Pisgah Pale Ale to toast the occasion.)

Arriving at the parish hall, we first glimpsed an elegant centerpiece of rhododendron blossoms on the long table, covered with plates of fruits, cheeses and brownies prepared by volunteers.
I felt a sense of wonder at the work of faith communities when asked to gather around food, in this case to celebrate an anthology I'd edited on churches and climate change.

This reverie was interrupted by the worried look of Rev. Thomas Murphy, the 30-something priest with two toddler-aged sons and a third child on the way. (Apparently, the older women in the church kept asking him: "You DO know how this happened, don't you?")

"What's going on?" I asked. "David had a stroke and died this morning," he said, his face troubled with fatigue and grief.

As the deacon of our church, David's many duties during worship included reading the Gospel and speaking the closing words of a service. He often reminded us of the corporal acts of mercy: "Remember to feed the hungry and give shelter to the homeless." In many ways, a deacon was charged with putting faith into action in the world.

His death raised the question of how we would integrate a sudden tragedy with a celebratory event that now seemed peripheral at best.

While my 6-year-old raced around the parish hall, I remembered my own confusion after the sudden death of my father, only two years after my mother's death. When my sister called with the news, all I could do was yell a string of obscenities at maximum volume.

I screamed the F-word for at least 10 minutes, filling the air that hung above the pasture in front of my house. I soon realized that the cars on the road were still driving. As if nothing had happened. Our world stops with death, but somehow our lives must continue, infused with dark sadness and loss.

Thomas promised to try and place the pain of David's death in some context for this celebration. He also poured us both a Pisgah Pale Ale.

When he greeted the group, Thomas reminded us that David would have wanted to be here, celebrating the work of churches to address the real-world challenge of climate change. "His work was in the world, and ours must continue as well," he said.

Thomas then told a story of meeting with some college students and asking them why they didn't attend church. "Churches only care about issues that matter to old people," they told him. Thomas challenged us: "This work of churches confronting climate change matters to all and can increase our relevance and impact in a broken world."

As I shared stories from my book of people planting gardens around churches, installing solar panels on sanctuaries and advocating for renewable energy policies, I saw parishioners nodding in affirmation, even as they grieved this tragic death.

In that room I felt the potential of religious communities to hold that tension between faith and anxiety, between our competing realities of joy and despair. Congregations have the power to acknowledge the brokenness of our world but act on a commitment to hope and justice, as evidenced by the involvement of churches in the civil rights movement in our country.

As global temperatures rise, we can't "stop" global warming through blind optimism, but we also can't afford to remain paralyzed by fear, denial or inaction. There is too much at stake. And ultimately, mobilization by fear alone is not a sustainable driver of individual behaviors or societal change.

In times of true despair, writer Anne Lamott urges us to shore up our hope through action, even when the dearth of political resolve leaves us feeling completely depressed. "We don't give up; we take care of each other; we act like grown-ups; we work with what we have; we get our game back," she writes.

Many faith communities are recognizing the anxiety of our climate crisis but acting on the moral imperative for justice, building strength through partnerships with groups that include non-profits and renewable energy companies. Much is being done, and grassroots momentum is slowly growing.

When I ended the reading that night at church, my younger daughter ran into the parish hall and showed me a piece of hail the size of a blowpop. "It's raining ice!" she cried, amazed at this transformation of water to ice from the sky.

Under the right conditions, conversion becomes possible, and change becomes inevitable, both in our natural and human communities. Now that indeed is cause for celebration.