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CPJ Days finale takes participants to the river

The Rev. Dr. Cláudio Carvalhaes and Harry Pickens call for participants to dig deep in the fight for justice

by Rich Copley | Presbyterian News Service

The Rev. Dr. Cláudio Carvalhaes often uses fun props to enhance even his most serious presentations. (Screenshot)

LEXINGTON, Kentucky — After two days bringing a lot of new ideas to Compassion, Peace & Justice Training Days, the Rev. Dr. Cláudio Carvalhaes invoked an old hymn to start his third and final day of theological reflections.

“As I went down in the river to pray, studying about the good old way, oh, brothers and sisters, let’s go down, go down to the river to pray,” Carvalhaes said. “Get your church. Go to the river next to your church. See if it is clean. Go down to the river and pray. Pray with the river. Pray in the river. Pray around the river.”

He recalled a student who got water from a river next to a church she was serving for a baptism. But the river was contaminated, so when she said she was going to sprinkle the water, “everybody was scared.” But the striking thing, Carvalhaes said, was no one was concerned for the river.

“Go down to the river to pray, my brothers and sisters,” said Carvalhaes, associate professor of Worship at Union Theological Seminary in New York City. “Go to the river and establish this collectivity, this connection with the river. Take action. See what is needed for the river to be regenerated. … In the regeneration of the river, you are going to work in the regeneration of your own body, of the body of the future generations that live nearby that river.”

The first two days of CPJ Days looked at the past and current state of environmental justice and the church. The final day, led by Carvalhaes and musician, speaker, and worship leader Harry Pickens, was designed to send people out looking to the future with renewed energy to tackle what can seem like insurmountable challenges, like helping regenerate a dying river.

Click here to contribute to the CPJ Days offering, benefitting three partner organizations

“The thing that we cannot do about this hymn my friends, is to go study about ‘the old way,’” Carvalhaes said. “No, no more, my friends. The good old way must be left behind, my friends. … The good old ways, we get stuck in the past and we cannot move. We freeze.

“The good old way — it goes against the core of what to be Reformed is about. To be Reformed is to be continuously reformed time and again. The good old way is this disconnection from the Earth — and from that we need to move away.”

During the final of three Compassion, Peace & Justice Training Days, Harry Pickens employed both poetry and his extraordinary jazz piano skills. (Screenshot)

Harry Pickens, a jazz musician, opened his segment of the day playing a few verses of “Down to the River and Pray.”

Then he talked about overcoming some of the challenges that face people who want to tackle environmental justice and all of the intertwined issues it raises in climate change, poverty, racism and other concerns.

“I invite you as we explore, how do we live from the vision that God would have us live?” Pickens said. “I invite you to allow your heart to be broken. To not stay in your head, to not get caught in thinking this intellectual analysis. But for God’s sake, for life’s sake, to let yourself be quite open with feeling, to have the courage to bear witness to all of the horror and at the same time to have the discipline and the willingness and the spiritual fortitude to ground yourself so deeply and completely and totally in the radical love, unbounded joy, and the unstoppable good that is what God is.”

Pickens invoked numerous images in his talk, including the caterpillar building its chrysalis and his own experience caring for his mother in the last years of her life as she suffered from dementia, which he said forced him to reach well beyond the reserves of grace he thought he had. It prompted him to invoke poet and playwright Christopher Fry and a passage from “A Sleep of Prisoners.”

“Thank God our time is now, when wrong comes up to face us everywhere, never to leave us till we take the longest stride of soul we ever took,” Pickens recited.

“Take that in,” Pickens said. “What a strange and even perverse notion the poet has to say, ‘Thank God our time is now.’ Now. COVID pandemic. Rise of authoritarian governments. ‘Thank God our time is now.’ Existential crises. ‘Thank God our time is now.’ Capitalistic excess. ‘Thank God our time is now.’ Climate change. ‘Thank God our time is now.’ How can anybody possibly do that?

“What is this time calling forth in you? What qualities are being called forth and you? ‘When wrong comes up to face us everywhere, never to leave us …’ What is the wrong that you are facing and confronting? What are the qualities of being … that could be awakened?”

Carvalhaes talked about it taking a conversion experience like he had in understanding the divine in the Earth and feeling a greater connection to and concern for the Earth.

“I feel like like Job,” he said. “You know Job at the end of the book when he says to God, ‘Before I had just heard about you. But now I know.’ That’s how I feel about the Earth. It’s going back to God and saying, ‘You know before I just heard about, but now my heart started to feel regenerated in order to know you.’”

CPJ Training Days will be followed by Ecumenical Advocacy Days, which will take place April 18-21. Click here to learn more.

The Office of Public Witness is one of the PC(USA) Advocacy Offices, which are part of the Compassion, Peace & Justice ministries of the Presbyterian Mission Agency.

Previous CPJ Days coverage:

Day 2 of CPJ Days is a rough one for capitalism

PC(USA) leaders discuss the church and environmental justice

CPJ Training Days tackles environmental and climate justice


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