Jessie Dye is rarely at a loss for words. And that’s a good thing, because she’s part of a grassroots climate movement that has no time for silence. When she testifies at public hearings, lobbies at the capitol, or preaches in sanctuaries, she often shares one phrase reflecting her very reason for being: “My name is Jessie Dye, and I am here on behalf of my faith.”
As the program and outreach director of Earth Ministry in Seattle, Washington, she advocates for climate justice as a moral issue for people of faith. An Irish-Catholic with a hearty laugh, Dye could befriend almost anyone.
This inclusive nature translates into action to protect people and places in the Pacific Northwest. Dye, who is a former attorney and mediator, also holds the role of lead program staff for Washington Interfaith Power & Light (WAIPL), a project of Earth Ministry.
While climate legislation has repeatedly stalled at a federal level, Earth Ministry/WAIPL has succeeded regionally, lobbying to pass the Coal-Free Future for Washington Act in 2011. This legislation transitions the only coal-fired power plant in Washington off of coal. Since that success, Dye has turned her attention to a bill to make polluters reduce carbon emissions in the state and pay for what they emit.
Her effectiveness stems from connections she creates between individuals and institutions that don’t often gather at the same table. In the Pacific Northwest, Dye helped to forge partnerships between the native Lummi Nation, environmentalists, and faith communities, who share an interest in stopping the proposed construction of coal export terminals and the transport of coal across the region. Allies in this campaign recognize the need to protect sacred land, tribal treaties, and fishing rights, as well as the costs of coal to public health and the environment.
At public hearings across the state, staff from Earth Ministry/WAIPL asked people to dress in red to signify the color of the spirit and the need to stop coal exports. Dye describes the thousands of people who showed up in a sea of red as “faithful activists who have taken on the fossil fuel industry.” At a hearing in Olympia, she recalls that 200 speakers, from a Presbyterian minister to a Catholic layperson, testified about the risks surrounding the transport and export of fossil fuels. “People clad in red, one after another, spoke in protection of Earth’s air and water,” she says.
Drawing on faith
On a daily basis, Dye calls on her Catholic education from preschool to her time at a Jesuit university, as well as two decades of work for the Archdiocese of Seattle and her involvement in the local parish of St. Mary’s Church. Her commitment to climate justice resonates with the leadership of Pope Francis, whose encyclical on the environment, Laudato Si’ (On Care for Our Common Home), emphasizes the interconnected values of protecting creation and protecting the poor, who are most affected by climate change.
“In a deeply divided political climate, the encyclical has the potential to bring us together,” she says. Dye hopes that this papal mandate will propel united action to put a cap on carbon pollution.
These days, she feels a strong integration between her religious beliefs and the public presence of the church. In collaboration with the Lummi people last year, Dye encouraged 11 bishops and denominational executives to present a letter of solidarity to the Lummi Nation that promises to protect the lands, waters, and sacred sites of indigenous peoples threatened by the proposed coal exports.
Recognizing the historical injustices against tribal communities, this letter was one act of reconciliation along the Totem Pole Journey, which centered on a 20-foot-long totem pole carved from western red cedar by Lummi elder and master carver Jewell James.
The totem pole traveled 6,000 miles to raise awareness among communities that would be impacted by the transport and export of fossil fuels. “There was a powerful understanding of the shared spiritual nature of this work,” Dye says.
Sharing a sense of place
For the past decade, Dye has shared her home with international youth through the organization EarthCorps. As these young people learn about environmental restoration in the Pacific Northwest, she shares with them a sense of place away from their own countries. While living in her home, they celebrate birthdays, visit the state legislature, and befriend the four-legged members of the household: the golden retrievers she fosters. “Now that my two children are grown, these young people have become a part of my family,” she says. “And we are all working to protect places we love.”
Such an interconnected life—with international youth, faith communities, environmental organizations, and indigenous peoples—reflects the many voices necessary to transition from our dependence on fossil fuels. And Dye’s words reveal that we are all a part of this movement: “It turns out a shared love of place is indeed a shared spirituality.”
This article appeared in the December 2015 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 80, No. 12, page 44–45).
Image courtesy of Jessie Dye