Passion within one person can move hearts. Okay, this might not be as insightful as Jesus’ parable of faith the size of a mustard seed moving mountains, but with regards to Judy Benson, I think it is pretty spot on. I met Judy at a meeting I crashed in New London with the Rev. Rachel Thomas, Southeast Region Missionary. The topic of that meeting was St. James’, New London’s divestment from fossil fuels – a passion seed planted, watered, and tended to by Judy.
For 30 years, Judy was a newspaper reporter and editor – most recently at The Day of New London. She covered environmental policy and government topics, which led her to receive her Masters in Science with a concentration in Natural Resources from UCONN. “You can only watch from the outside for so long,” Judy said. “I had to learn more so I could do more.”
This desire to do more lead Judy to take a job at the Connecticut Sea Grant. “Climate change is the overarching problem that we face in our world and it effects everything: poverty, politics, food, etc.,” she said. Her decision to leave the world of reporting on climate change to actively working to combat it was a deeply spiritual one. “It is enlivening to know that you can do something,” she said.
Judy started the Caring for Creation Committee at St. James’ last year, which she also chairs. “See, majority of the wealth that built St. James’ came from whale oil,” Judy said. “Which lit the lamps on the street and built the churches in New London.” There was a time when St. James’ had to make a shift from using whale oil to using standard oil. The narrative of that shift has been a focal point in the push to divest from fossil fuels – that the community can shift and make a change, as well.
Judy and others in the committee reached out a consultant from the Interreligious Eco-Justice Network (IREJN), a faith-based non-profit organization in Connecticut dedicated to empowering communities to be faithful stewards of the earth. This consultant assisted Judy, the committee, and St. James’ Investment and Executive Committees in looking at the parish’s current investments and what it would look like to divest.
“Some folks [on the vestry] were clearly leaning one way and some just really didn’t know what to think about it,” she said, “it can be very overwhelming.” This raised questions about the hypocrisy of divesting but still using, opening the can-of-worms with regards to other investments and morality, and the relationship between the parish and the banks.
Judy utilized this opportunity to write a lengthy and personal letter to the vestry. “St. James’ and other faith communities can appeal to people’s hearts and consciences in a way that science has been unable to, used our ability to inspire the collective will needed to make change happen,” she wrote in her letter to the vestry. “Jesus calls us to be people of hope … divesting would be an expression of our hope and joy in our ability to act and believe we can make a difference.”
In January of this year, the vestry voted unanimously to divest from four fossil-fuel companies.
I asked at the end of our meeting how this work has influenced her relationship with God. “It is important to show people what you are passionate about and let others see that it is worth caring about,” she said. “I can’t not do this. The world is too beautiful to not try to save it.”