if you walk to people with love: an interview with Emily Neumann

“A lot of Quakers today, like many people in religion, kind of struggle with compartmentalization: you do your activism work, and you do it with other Quakers, but how do you bring the spirituality piece into it?”
–      Emily Neumann

The Pipeline Pilgrimage was built around this question. The twelve-day, 150-mile walk incorporated 120 people throughout its course, with a small group of young adult Friends (Quakers) at the core. The group followed the route of the proposed Kinder-Morgan natural gas pipeline through New Hampshire and Massachusetts in order to connect with the communities that would be affected. Though the motivating factor was initially a concern about climate change and the United States’ use of resources, the goal of the pilgrimage was primarily to listen, not to protest.

At a time in my life when Emily’s question was heavy on my mind, I stumbled upon a news article about the pilgrimage and in my excitement sent a fangirl sort of message when I found out one of the organizers lived in my area of Boston. We met on a summer evening to chat about the walk, ending up on a friend’s porch steps.

Going back over these words, I am struck in particular by the Quaker-ness of Emily’s very grammar. She talks about “working against” the pipeline, but never about “fighting” it; she insists that the best work we can do is always the work we are led into. This is activism that isn’t just faith-based, but faith-suffused – a bizarre and beautiful thing. Here is our conversation.

LG: How would you describe, in a few sentences, what you were doing?

EN: One of the things we were trying to do with the Pipeline Pilgrimage was trying to be really intentionally spiritual, and Quaker, and seeking about it – less about opposing the pipeline and more about doing something that’s really inherently Quaker, which is just seeking; not seeking answers, but just seeking. Rather than in a way that’s gonna strategically problem-solve something – we oppose the pipeline, so we’re going to stop the pipeline with this walk – it was more about building community, being very intentional about the spirituality piece, very intentional about the way we walked together.

Our walk was very much – we want to walk all together; we want to walk in silence, oftentimes for an hour in the morning. We want to be very much together in our struggle with what to do about climate, what do we do about this pipeline, what do we do about climate in general, about this thing that’s full of fear and terror.

One of the side benefits was that we walked into communities – not very wealthy communities, very rural communities, they’ve got their own politics going. And there was a lot of struggle to unify them on this. They felt very isolated from the other small-town communities that were working on this; and one of the things that we did by walking through was to help them realize that, no, they’re coming from another town that is fighting this. These are people who are coming from outside of this community to show solidarity, and they’re doing this thing that is giving up so much time of their life, and so it really helped bolster their feeling of not being alone, giving them energy to keep working against this pipeline.

And it also brought attention to climate change. Where a lot of them are sort of Not In My Back Yard – it’s dangerous, it’s not something I want to see or think about –they were much more easily able to catch on to the climate work, too, because we weren’t yelling. We were just walking in, saying we were against this pipeline, and we’re against this pipeline because it’s climate related. But we’re also here as  a very religious community. We stayed with churches for the most part, so they understood who we were and what we were doing – that we were doing it from a religious perspective, that was very empowering, I think.

LG: I think it was that listening aspect that really captivated me just in reading about it, because I feel a lot of distress about the polarization of politics and… everything else in America.

EN: One of the interesting things was that we got honked at, and oftentimes it was a positive – like, hey, we see you’re there, we’re really happy you’re there. And that was really gratifying. But we got this guy, when we were walking along this very busy road, this oil truck honking at us. And oil trucks are so loud, we couldn’t tell if it was friendly or not; but it turns out he showed up at one of our community dinners that we had at various churches along the way. This die-hard Republican, very NIMBY about it because it was going through his property, but really passionate about it – he had showed up at this potluck dinner at this Unitarian Universalist church. We did not expect to meet any of the people who were honking at us, and it was the oil truck guy; we just happened to be sharing the story, and he was like, “That was me. It was friendly.” It was just an affirmation – if you walk to people with love, they will return it towards you – like tenfold.

pilgrims at the MA-NH border

Climate Change: An Invitation to New Life? pipelinepilgrimage.org

LG: Was there anything else unexpected that happened, or that you learned, on the pilgrimage?

EN: One of the things that came out of it for me was it felt renewing in terms of climate change for me, but more than that I felt really reconnected to my spirituality, to Christianity.

I think this ties back to, like, what is spiritual activism and what is secular activism? Because secular activism, you work out a strategy in terms of power plays – how do you exert the most pressure on particular people in power, how do you target decision-makers in companies. Lots of strategies, rallies, things like that. And those are all great tactics, but how do you access the power of the light within – of God? How do you access that kind of power, where do you access it from? And the pipeline pilgrimage was kind of trying to explore some of those questions. I wasn’t able to be like, I know what the next Quaker action should look like if it’s not just going to be a walk with a lot of meditation, how it will be “effective” – but it did feel very renewing in my own faith, in the leading that I’m working on, in my faith that I can be a spiritual leader within climate work. That I can bring that perspective. I don’t know what that way is, but [I have faith] that there is a way, and if I stay true to that, it will happen.

LG: I’ve been thinking a lot about how people of faith  can lose that perspective that we’re going to be the weirdos, we’re going to be the people that have hope when there is no hope left – or that we need to be; that that’s how we came into this –

EN: Yeah.

LG: But we get caught up in the strategies and the concrete. And the thing for me is believing that it is those small actions and the seeds you plant that you never see, that do actually change the world.

EN: Yeah. And then, I feel like people do actually forget that Jesus was a radical activist, and that he inspired his followers, his disciples – instead of just going back to their own thing after he died because the Roman empire decided that he needed to be killed – his disciples created a new religion.

Like, they could’ve just gone back to doing what they were doing, but they had been transformed by the faith that they had, by Jesus coming to them. I feel like that’s forgotten. It’s really important to remember that by being faithful to what you believe, by being faithful to what transforms you, that’s where those seeds start – that’s how spirituality and religion can transform the world.

There was this woman who walked with us, she said she kind of felt like she was grieving the land by walking through it. And that felt really honest to where she was, and it felt honest to the enormity of what we’re facing, and it felt really true to the kind of work that we’re doing.

LG: Yeah. And that [grieving] is important work.

EN: Yeah.

LG: I think the slowness of it, too, is something that we lose. That it’s hard to face, and it takes time to face it. I think people who have gone through some of the grief and the fear are impatient with other people who have not done that work.

EN:  I’ve worked through some of the fear, I’ve done some of that work, so I’m not frozen by fear –and I have faith that I can help other people get there. It’s meeting people where they are and getting them past that hump of frozen fear. Getting them to the point of having faith that they can take action, and even if they can’t solve the problems of the universe, it’s still really important to have faith that you can be moved to do the work and you can do your part. Maybe together you’ll help move other people and slowly we’ll have a giant movement of people and it’ll be great, I don’t know – but I do have faith that I’m where I need to be.

EN: Did you have any other questions?

LG: You know, I really just wanted to hear you say that it was good.

EN: (laughing) It was good.

LG: And that it worked, in the sense that you connected with people.

EN: Yeah. If you open yourself up to the transformation, and open yourself up to the faith of doing the right thing, I feel like it comes through. And I think we affected the communities that we walked into, but they really affected us at the same time. Which really felt wonderful and powerful.

You can find the New England Young Adult Friends at their website or Facebook page, or visit the YAF climate working group for resources.

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1 Comment

  1. meldenius

     /  September 11, 2015

    Glad I finally got a chance to read this. Once again, the Friends approach things in a way that is so ridiculously, transparently Christian that it almost gets by us. Love the concept of “spiritual activism.” Terrific interview.


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