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CPJ Days speaker brings growing connection to Creation

Cláudio Carvalhaes will speak all three days of the advocacy event focused on environmental justice

by Rich Copley | Presbyterian News Service

The Rev. Dr. Cláudio Carvalhaes will speak each day April 7-9 as part of Compassion, Peace & Justice Training Days. (Photo courtesy of Cláudio Carvalhaes )

LEXINGTON, Kentucky — The Rev. Dr. Cláudio Carvalhaes used to approach walks like many of us — a time to reflect on his day, his family, process things that were on his mind.

“Now, when I walk, I bow to the tree,” Carvalhaes says. “I stop and I touch, and it is almost like an awareness of myself and my surroundings in ways that are not only that I feel attached, but I learned to see them as myself. I went from this process of, for instance, listening to the birds — In every class that I teach, I always ask students to listen to the birds at the beginning — but I went from listening to the birds as a song that they have, and I listen now to the songs that they sing, and it is my song. They’re singing my songs. Their breath is my breath. And so, I’m listening while they’re singing about me.

“It is a different cognition. It is not in the brain; it is not in the mind. It is not as myself … that I only think about myself. But no, it’s more myself in relation to what’s around me. I can only understand myself if I listen to the birds, if I bow to the trees as my elders, and that is what has expanded enormously and helped me to go through this thing.”

“This thing” has been the COVID-19 pandemic which in many ways has taken away the ability to breathe the same air with other people, which Carvalhaes finds essential.

“For me, the very core of being is breathing together, right?” he says. “And that is what this virus is taking away from us, is this breathing together.”

But Carvalhaes prefers gathering with people, virtually or otherwise, than not. That is what he will be doing April 7-9 as the featured speaker at Compassion Peace & Justice Training Days, the virtual iteration of CPJ Day, which up until last year was an annual advocacy training event in Washington, D.C., presented by the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) Office of Public Witness on Capitol Hill.

Last year, on relatively short notice, the live event was canceled due to the pandemic, and an afternoon webinar with some of the originally planned speakers took its place. This year, the event needed to be virtual again, but with time organizers with the PC(USA)’s Compassion, Peace & Justice ministries have pulled together three days of panels, small-group discussions, worship, and daily theological reflections from Carvalhaes on the theme of Environmental Justice: Imagine God’s Earth & People Restored. Carvalhaes will talk about the topic of each day: How we got here, where we are, and imagining and building the future we want.

“It looks fantastic,” Carvalhaes says of the event. “I’m really enjoying everything, the way that is structured is really great.”

Click here to learn more about CPJ Days and register.

The theme of our connection to the natural world is obviously of great interest to Carvalhaes, a native of São Paulo, Brazil who is now an Associate Professor of Worship at Union Theological Seminary in New York City. His most recent books include last year’s “Liturgies from Below: Praying with People at the End of the World” and the forthcoming “Praying with Every Heart — Orienting Our Lives to the Wholeness of the World.” Carvalhaes is also a highly sought-after speaker and worship leader.

It was a speaker at Union who helped deepen Carvalhaes’ connection to the natural world around him.

Carvalhaes says he has always been interested in Creation and felt connected to the land, participating in environmental and justice movements in the United States and abroad. But it was a talk by botanist Robin Wall Kimmerer, author of “Braiding Sweetgrass” and a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, that took his connection to a deeper level.

“At some point she said, ‘Where are the rituals that can connect us with the Earth?’” Carvalhaes remembers. “And then I said, all the time I’ve been teaching as if I am above the Earth. And so even though I was connecting — my nucleus was all about making connections with  the table, with the ground, with immigration, with who harvests our food, and so on, so forth — it’s different now because it’s, to use my former theological language I grew up with, it’s more of a personal relationship with the Earth, now in ways that I am learning to listen, and to pause, and to be with.”

Carvalhaes found he needed to toss all his courses out the window with his re-oriented lens, along with his thinking, starting from the ground up.

“And with this pandemic, it put me way more into it,” Carvalhaes says. “It’s kind of intensified this relationship.”

This deeper connection brings Carvalhaes to a place of “retelling the story” of his connection, of humans’ connection to nature, which sometimes portrays the natural world as scary, filled with beasts and other threats. And in these retellings, he finds encouragement to retell the stories of the world.

“It is a work of storytelling to shift and don’t see the animals or any kind of animal as the other, as a threat, as an enemy,” Carvalhaes says. “Just like we see immigrants, like we see refugees, like the people of other faiths, so there’s a connection there.

“So, it is a retelling of the story, time and time again.”

And the retelling of the story extends to things spiritual and as elemental as practices such as Communion. While we tend to serve communion from the communion table, up high, Carvalhaes says maybe it is more appropriate on the ground, close to where the elements originated.

“So, the gift of God to the people of God changes,” he says. “It is not only the gift from heaven, but it’s the gift from the Earth. And so, a little piece of bread, is wheat that was in the field just a few months ago. And now it was offered to me.

“That’s the wonder.”

CPJ Days will be followed by Ecumenical Advocacy Days, 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.

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