Photo courtesy Stacy Craig.

Stacy Craig will serve as one of the chaplains at the upcoming Intergenerational Spring Seminar, co-hosted by the UU Office of the United Nations and UUMFE – (register here before March 18!). Craig arrives at the seminar, and to the broader UU faith community, grounded in a specific calling: to offer climate chaplaincy for young people. As she puts it, “I feel very called and very grounded in this call to bear witness and especially be in solidarity and support of the future generations and for those who question, how do we make a full life? How do we say yes to life in the age of climate catastrophes?”

Craig grew up in eastern South Dakota and now serves part-time as the minister at Chequamegon Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Ashland, WI. She holds a Masters of Divinity degree from United Theological Seminary in the Twin Cities, and her approach to ministry is largely influenced by ecofeminist public theology. Her path to climate chaplaincy came after years of working in environmental and outdoor education, and offering career counseling for students at Northland College in Wisconsin.

As a young person grappling with my own climate grief, I was curious to learn more about Craig and how she thinks about this work. Terms like climate or ecological grief, or climate or eco-anxiety have become more mainstream in recent years to help articulate the kind of complex feelings people go through as we anticipate or are already living through the many scales of loss due to the climate crisis, ecosystem collapse, biodiversity loss and so on.

Our Zoom conversations traced a variety of topics, foregrounded by a shared appreciation for place, and how faith communities can be an important container through which to explore this emergent need for climate grief. I hope sharing our conversation will nourish future exploration for the UUMFE community.

Here are some edited excerpts from our conversation, covering her own path to chaplaincy, personal experiences with grief and loss, and what practices ground her in this work. 

Amelia: What was your path to clarity on climate chaplaincy?

Craig: So much of my work with environmental and outdoor education had been about connecting people to these natural rhythms in the world around them and this interconnectedness. And it turns out that that interconnectedness was actually really scary, risky, unknown. We were telling the story that by 2050, the planet would be uninhabitable for our species, and so the amount of grief and despair and existential threat that that posed – I began to really see and hear that. 

I was working in the career center and I was just hearing so much despair and so much uncertainty about how to plan a future in the age of climate change. Another question for young people was not just career paths, but building a life: where should I live? Should I live somewhere else? And what about having children? My decision to focus on supporting young people’s grief is wanting to make sure that people have a space where they are seen and heard. 

Looking at climate change is also about the disruption of being human. And I think that that is really what religion and spirituality is always in conversation with: what does it mean to be. Not, what does it mean to do, not just what do I do with my career, but how do I be in this world, where everything I read about is telling me that it’s going to change.

When I did some soul searching to decide my career goals, I made a list of the values that I had. It included poetry and planting and saving seeds, a desire to be active in a democratic process. Everyone else’s leadership plans and articulation was more like, I want to be CEO in five years. And I was like, I want to promote poetry and write it. The fifth one that I wrote down was to help communities adapt to climate change, and help communities  be resilient with climate change. And I looked at this whole list, and I realized, whoa, this is ministry. This is leadership in religious community. I think that shapes everything I do in one way or another. It’s my reason for being here, I guess. 

That framing really resonates with me; when I think of my own future, I know it will be defined by living through climate chaos, but I don’t have to play into capitalism’s narrative of focusing on my own specific job or career. I’d rather think about the values I want to bring into the world, a greater purpose. Going off of those values, what are some practices that ground your approach to chaplaincy? 

As I learned about pastoral care and chaplaincy work, a big part of that work isn’t to fix it. But we can bear witness, we can stand in solidarity, we can enter wholeheartedly, we can share our woundedness and that which makes us human with one another. 

One of the teachers that has been incredibly influential for me on this is Roshi Joan Halifax, the Abbot at the Upaya Zen Center in New Mexico. Roshi Joan has done all this work in neuroscience and psychology to look at how we sustain compassionate engagement with the world when we are being present with suffering.

I’m really grateful for those teachings that are part of the contemplative practice and listening to what is happening, at the somatic level, in the body, at the brain level, in the thoughts, and in the heart, with our feelings, and being aware of all three of those levels. 

So when I think about words like “climate chaos,” all the bells and whistles go off on all those levels. If I live in that bells and whistles area all the time, I can’t engage with the world on that kind of level of fear. I continue to ground myself in connecting to love and relationship – so if I want to invest in solar panels it’s not because I’m fearing that the energy grid is going to collapse. I ground in love: I want to put up solar panels because the power of harnessing the sun’s energy to meet my day to day needs is so much like being a tree. I do it not out of fear for losing something, but wanting to perpetuate a different future. 

Another really important element to my approach to this work is a sense of place. When I moved to northern Wisconsin, for college, I found this community who shared so many of my values, and so much of that was inspired by the natural world. It’s almost impossible not to be awed and healed and challenged by Lake Superior, the largest freshwater lake in the world. 

When I graduated from college, I realized that of all the places I could go in the world, I had just received all of this nurturing, and all of this beauty in this place, and in this community. I decided to put a taproot into this area, and wanted to serve this region, as it had nurtured and cared for me.

When we are connected to and aware of what we are living with and around, we are much more likely to receive the abundant gifts. Everything we need to live is provided for us. You know, it’s just this radical realization that we have co-evolved with the earth. And when we can actually name that connection — whether that’s being outdoors, maple syruping, hiking with friends, canoeing, playing sports, gardening, whatever it is — we can consider how it’s changing right now. That whole science of climate change, that’s way more than we can comprehend — but we can understand how it’s affecting a relationship we have. And in that, we can find motivation to act, to change our own behaviors.

The UU fellowship that I got introduced to had more of an identity of place than a connection to UU identity and UU theology. One of the UU values that speak the loudest to me is the Seventh Principle, “respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part”. That was something that was instilled in me as a child, and it didn’t really show up in my religious teachings and understanding until I found Unitarian Universalism.

I really appreciate the way you articulated that: how noticing climate change is about noticing your own relationship or a connection shifting. Science is an important way to understand it, too, but it’s just one way of knowing. Your framing helps us recognize the connections we already have with the Earth, and how we might register change in our bodies, too. I want to shift a little bit and dive into grief itself. How have you come to understand grief? What’s at stake in grief work, and climate grief especially?

My dad died when I was nine, and we were really close. He was a big part of helping me to build this interconnected relationship with the world around me. For many years, I was stuck in that grief and defined my life by that loss and couldn’t move on. As I began to grow and get older and had some really great mentors, I began to re-open, to define my life not by loss but by gratitude, and being grateful for the gifts that I’d received and that I could continue to perpetuate. 

The unexpected gift of feeling grief all the way through is that it can open us to deeper connections and deeper meanings. I refuse the idea that suffering is redemptive: we do not have to be hurt in order to be whole, and we do not have to suffer in order to learn or to have some kind of wisdom bestowed upon us. AND through my own experiences, and those of so many of I’ve journeyed with, I fully, fully accept that grief can lead to a kind of beauty that we never could have experienced without the brokenness. 

A teacher of mine reframed the stages of grief, and taught us that the stages of grief [as articulated by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross] was actually a study that was done on people who were dying, not people who were grieving someone who had died. So my teacher used the phrase “field of grief” – and we walk through these fields of grief, and we might have to circle back and walk through them again. And there is no prescription for how one journeys through those fields of grief.

The grief work of climate change and climate catastrophe is this opportunity to truly feel that which is going on, to validate it, to hurt, to walk through the fields. I take a real ecological approach to grief. The root of the word “ecology” is the Greek word for home (“eco”). So literally an ecological grief is our search for home. And maybe part of that home that we’re finding is the radical realization that security isn’t built on material things and that when we surrender to a greater cause, a cause that’s greater than what just serves me, that that is where we find security. 

And that what we think actually will keep us safe in a time of climate change, like having possessions, I think really gets turned on its head. What really sustains us are things like kindness and generosity, solidarity and compassion, innovation, and a willingness to share and to heal. 

My hope is that the grief work of climate change allows us to, number one, survive the changing climate. And especially, especially to ensure the survival of those who are most vulnerable, especially the poor, especially the marginalized, especially those whose voices are not heard in leadership roles very often. And that that will open us up to a new way of being.

What do you want UU communities to know about your work moving forward? How do you hope to relate to the work UUs are already doing on climate? 

My hope is that, in speaking this, in putting it out there, that I’ll be able to find a greater network of others who are interested in this work, maybe even doing this work, whether formally or informally, to plant the seed for those who hadn’t used these words before but maybe are having the same intuition that I am that this is a way to birth hope in to the world. And I really hope that climate chaplains become a resource that communities can turn to, that intergenerational groups can work with, to begin working together.

Another role climate chaplaincy plays is to increase the amount of support that we give to developing leaders. This work can help sustain organizers, refill the cups of those who are in service and in compassionate work, and help them to lead and grow. I see UU communities as a space of supporting and caring for these groups. It’s not about being another organization that does climate change work, but maybe we can be an organization that cares for those doing climate change work, and helps them sustain that work and grow that work.