I have always made it my aim to think adventurously. I hate stale ideas. I get bored with conventional answers. The pursuit of knowledge, of wisdom, of new ways of thinking is something that excites me; something that I live for.
Yet I am not what most would call an adventurous person. I guess you could pretty accurately describe as an ‘armchair philosopher’. I love to think, but the transition from thinking to doing is something that I struggle with. I like my ideas to be groundbreaking and risky, but I would rather that my person is safe and warm.
Which is why the past weekend has been so special for me. I was asked a few weeks ago whether I would be interested in going to the UN Climate Summit in Copenhagen. Assuming that this would be an opportunity to brush shoulders with some big theological and political names, travelling by plane and staying in at best a hotel, at worst a hostel, the idea of it all appealed to my ego. I care about climate change; I try my best to recycle, I turn my TV off at the main switch at night, and I turn off the tap when I brush my teeth. But I didn’t really know enough about what the conference was about to care deeply about the real issues; this was something that would be quite cool to tell to the young people that I work with, or the students that I lecture.
When I got the itinerary of the project, I panicked. The plan was to leave London at 6am on Friday morning, travel for 13 hours by Eurostar, then coach, sleep on a gym floor, take part in protest rallies, and repeat the same trip back overnight on the Sunday. All this after a youth event on Thursday night at work. This wasn’t quite the comfort that I am used to. I’m not a big fan of crowds, and I get anxious when I don’t sleep well, so this was quite a big deal.
After chatting to a friend, and convincing him to come along with me, I made the decision to do it. What’s the worst that could happen, right?
Friday morning, I get up at 3:30, to be ready to be picked up at 5. As I got into the cab, I met Paul, the organiser of this little expedition, and Polly, one of the girls travelling with us for the first time. We then picked up Steve, one of my closest friends of 7 years. The cab trip to the station was filled with sleepy small talk about what we do, where we live, how we know each other, how did we hear about this all, etc etc.
At St Pancras, we met the other two people in our group; Lee and Rosa, and, alongside 50 other Christian Aid activists, we got on the train to begin our journey. We arrived in Brussels 2 hours later, and began the 14 hour (!) coach trip to Copenhagen. Once or twice on the trip, I wondered what on earth I was doing on this ridiculous expedition, when I could be at home, in bed, safe and warm, but for the most part, I chatted, laughed, played games, listened to music, watched videos and enjoyed the company of those around me. After travelling together for a grand total of 19 hours, you get to know each other pretty well! I did worry that I might not get on with my co-travellers, but the trip showed me, as the rest of the weekend confirmed, that I was in the midst of some fantastic, unique and beautiful people. My feelings of anxiety began to give way to a sense of privilege. This could actually be fun.
We arrived at Copenhagen at 12:30am local time, and went straight to bed. I shared classroom floor space with Steve and a lovely man called Andrew. I slept relatively badly – trying to get used to a new airbed, and ignoring the ceiling lights that came on whenever someone moved in bed.
The next morning, I got up for an ice cold shower, and once again began to wonder what on Earth I was doing here.
We left the school where we staying en masse (approximately 200 of us) to go to a square where we were going to meet the brave men and women who had cycled all the way from London to Copenhagen to raise awareness. The cyclists, unfortunately, were running late, so they didn’t get the grand welcome that they deserved. In this time, Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury addressed us, as did a women representing indigenous people all over the world. This was enough to fire us up, and we, joined by other church and faith groups from all over the world, joined the rest of the protesters (around 100,000 of us – the biggest climate protest on record!) for the planned march.
The atmosphere was fun. People were enjoying themselves, playing music, doing stunts, and genuinely wanting to change the world, not just to make the planet a nicer, more ‘green’ place, but to help those most affected by global warming; the poor. It felt like history.
As we marched, we (the faith groups) were followed by a communist group, chanting
Power to The People. The communists were soon drowned out by a wall of men and women dressed all in black - their faces covered. I initially thought that they were dressed as ninjas as some sort of stunt, but was later told that they were anarchists. Their chants grow louder and louder; ‘Copenhagen, Seattle, don’t stop the battle.’ We began to notice an increasing amount of riot police all around us. What was not long ago an atmosphere of fun and peace was beginning quite intimidating.
Like I said earlier, I’m not a fan of big crowds at the best of times, so told myself to stop being so silly and enjoy the march like everyone else, but I was quietly relieved when Paul suggested that we break away from the march to take a toilet break and warm up a bit – we could catch up with them later.
We found a little cafe in which we sat for half an hour or so, and discussed our plans for the rest of the day. We could rejoin the rest of the protesters, who were heading to the Bella Centre (where the politicians were meeting) for a candle-lit vigil, or we could go our separate way, wander through Copenhagen for a while, and go to the church service at which Rowan Williams was again preaching. We decided to amble towards the Bella Centre, to see how the march was going, but enjoying walking at our own pace.
As we walked, we saw in the distance blue flashing lights. The noise grew as we got closer, and it didn’t take us long to realise that something had obviously kicked off. Police riot vans, sniffer dogs, buses, and flashing lights were everywhere. It turned out that the police had redirected the bulk of the procession, including the faith groups, so as to trap the group of anarchists and arrest them. I’ve heard mixed accounts of how this all happened – some say the police were completely unjustified, nothing had happened, and nothing was going to happen. Others told me that the anarchists were smashing windows, carrying weapons, and vandalising bus stops. My modern mind wanted (and still wants) to know who the villains were in this story. But I’m beginning to wonder if maybe it’s not quite as simple as good guys and bad guys.
It was interesting to be challenged by this. I learned a lot about the philosophy and practice and anarchy from those around me. I also learned a lot about how hard it must be to police 100,000 people, no matter how peaceful they are. The policemen were friendly and polite to us when we asked questions, but one wonders how justified they were in cuffing 900 people, forcing them to sit outside in the freezing cold for 6 hours, allowing them to wet themselves through lack of toilets, and even faint through lack of medical attention. The anarchists hold a lot of views that make sense to me, but one wonders why they feel the need to express them through aggression and intimidation (whether they were violent or not, they were certainly intimidating).
My friends and I hung around for a while, watched people being carried off to jail, saw the rows of people sitting in between in each other’s legs, the images of which have been spread over the media. I felt, I will admit, excited! This was new to me! What an adventure! I also felt anxious – were we safe, so close to the action?
Eventually, we wandered back into the centre of town, where we added the candles we were carrying to a smaller-scale vigil at the side of the road, and eventually went to listen to the archbishop preach (very well), and found somewhere to eat. Dinner was lovely. You may have noticed I referred to my co-travellers as friends in the previous paragraph. By the end of the day, having eaten together, shared unique experiences together, and learned together, I certainly felt very close to those around me. Sitting in the school cafeteria before going to bed, chatting and playing cards, will be remembered as one of the highlights of the weekend for me.
That night, I slept much better. We hung a towel over the motion sensor in the room, solving the light problem, and I went to bed feeling contented after a good day. The next morning, I had a hot shower and breakfast, and felt ready for the (long) day ahead.
After packing our bags, we all headed back into town to hear Desmond Tutu’s address to the faith groups. We got there just in time, and my God, am I grateful that we did. The man carries an awesome presence with him. For the first time over the weekend, I felt impassioned about climate change. This is the world; this is God’s world – we are going to fight on the side of love, and justice, and by God we will not rest until we see it changed! ‘Yes we can’, the crowd began to chant. Ordinarily, I would have rolled my eyes at such a cheesy, American chant, but I found myself belting it out – this was, this is, our war cry – Yes, we can! Why can we? Because, damn it, we’re on the side of righteousness!
When Tutu finished speaking, we slowly wandered over to the cathedral, were an ecumenical service was to start. We didn’t make it into the church itself, but the university building across the road had opened its doors to people who wanted to watch the service projected onto screens.
Once again, I was blown away. Rowan Williams’ sermon was one of the best I’ve ever heard. One of our group said that it might be the most significant sermon since the reformation. This, said Williams, is first and foremost a question of choosing Love over fear. This is a crossroads. We (the churches) can continue to stumble around aimlessly as we have been for a few hundred years, or we can revolutionise the way we think about justice, peace and morality. Present at the service was the Ecumenical Patriarch of the Eastern Orthodox Church, Desmond Tutu, a group of Franciscans brothers and sisters, the queen and prime minister of Denmark, and doubtlessly other important people that I didn’t recognise. But more striking than any of these people were the presence of a dead coral plant, iceberg stones which should be buried under hundreds of feet of ice, and dried maize. These are the effects of global warming, and they are being felt first and foremost by the poor. It is time to change. It is time for the churches, as one body, to chant louder; ‘Yes, we can’, to put away our ridiculous prosperity gospels and focus on an invisible after life and to be the forerunners in the movements of social and climate justice.
I am not optimistic about the political result of Copenhagen. I would be surprised if our fearful leaders will reach an agreement, and if they do, I would be even more surprised if it was anywhere near adequate. But, I am filled with optimism about the church’s role in all of this. This is our call. We can heed it, or we can ignore it, but it seems to me that our faith leaders – as evidenced by their presence at the service – are keen to listen and act. Praise God.
We moved relatively swiftly from the service back to the school, and from the school onto the coach back home.
Another memory that will stick with me as a highlight of this weekend is the hour-long traffic jam in Germany, during which a good deal of people – including my friends and I – got out and stood on the motorway, talking, laughing and sharing. On paper, it was a nightmare situation. We would almost certainly be late back for the Eurostar train home. In practice, we are told that when 2 or 3 are gathered in God’s name, He is present, and his presence felt near-tangible on the motorway.
For the rest of the trip, I listened to music, discussed theology with those around me, played games on my mobile, and slept fitfully. We made the train with ample time for breakfast at the station and left for the final leg of our adventure. The atmosphere on the train was sleepy, but had a sense of accomplishment to it. We did it. We were there. It was a weekend like no other, and here we are, on the other end of it.
Finally, 19 hours after leaving Copenhagen, we said goodbye and returned home. This takes us to the present moment, in which I write this.
I still don’t really consider myself an adventurous person. But thank God for this adventure; fun, exciting, inspiring, scary, exhausting and holding memories that I hope will stick with me for the rest of my life.
Thank God for Paul, Steve, Polly, Rosa and Lee, my travelling companions, who made the weekend for me, and who I sincerely hope and pray that I will be able to keep in touch with.
Thank God for the work of Christian Aid, whose work and organisation means that our voices have been heard by the politicians in charge.
Thank God for the rallying cry of the churches; ‘Yes we can!’, and for the passion with which it was called out during Desmond Tutu’s address.
And now we pray, fervently and earnestly; God, let this be the beginning. Change the world, Lord, and use us as your hands. Help your church, and the leaders of the world, to unite with one voice for the poor, the indigenous and the suffering. Help Love to silently speak louder than fear can scream.
Here we are, Lord. Send us.