• Sara Jolena

Pilgrimages and homelessness in our common home

In this conversation, Berenice Tompkins talks with Sara Jolena about walking for climate change action, spiritual growth, and working in a woman's shelter as she prepares to join the next ReMembering for Life cohort for a pilgrimage through time and space to reMember sacred stories about place, race and belonging.

Sara Jolena and Berenice met at the UNFCC Conference of the Parties in Paris in 2015. Now Berenice is preparing to join the next ReMembering cohort - and to go on her next climate pilgrimage!

Sara Jolena: Tell us about your climate change work.

Climate Change has always been important to me. In 2014, when I was 18, I walked across the US in the Great March for Climate Action founded by former Iowa-Senator Ed Fallon. That march was from Los Angeles to Washington D.C. I joined in Arizona. That was an amazing experience where I fell in love with walking as a means of internal and external forms of transformation, and an amazing way of connecting with people. That is a big part of what inspired me to do the Pilgrimage in the Fall of 2015 from Rome to Paris for the Paris Conference of the Parties.

That pilgrimage was led by Yeb Sano, who used to be the Filipino Vice Minister on Climate Change. In 2014, while I was walking in America, he was at the COP when Typhoon Yolanda hit the Philippines, for the whole duration of the COP, he did not know if his younger brother was alive. He fasted the whole COP in solidarity back at home. His home country was in turmoil. I used to tell people he decided to stop talking and start walking, but really he just went from the UN space to the local organizing space. He organized a walk across the Philippines in 2014. He then felt a need to bring stories from the front line of climate change to Europe, where so much power resides but so little direct impact, about how climate change was effecting people on those front lines.

How was your understanding of climate change impacted by your experience of the Pilgrimage?

It was a huge honor to walk with people who lived on the front lines of climate change. Instead of thinking about Climate Change in an abstract way, I now think about all these people whom I love whose lives are now in danger. I have so much more admiration for how committed and resilient they are. I owe it to them to keep fighting, even though it can be overwhelming and discouraging. It was also an up close experience of climate injustice in a very practical, logistical way. Many people from the Philippines could not get visas to go to Europe, but it was so easy for me as an American to join. For those on the front lines it was the hardest to make their voice heard. And I was really inspired by the people there.

Climate Pilgrims march from Rome to Paris in 2015

What led you to work for the women’s shelter in NYC several years later?

I’ve been drawn to social work for a long time, as a way of helping people and offering them real resources. Mostly, though, I needed a job. Homelessness is always something that I’ve seen starkly in New York City and I wanted to be in a position to do more about it. I was excited about Project Renewal and working with women. If you end up homeless as a woman, you are probably really vulnerable and dealing with a lot of trauma. I find the job is really rewarding.

After meeting in Paris in 2015, we met again in New York City this past summer of 2018. You said you would like to bring more of your friends and network together to join the next cohort going on journey that is the ReMembering for Life course. How has that experience been for you?

Talking with people and engaging with what it means to take this class has been great because it has helped me think about how my work in the women’s shelter and climate change are connected. Before, they felt really disconnected, which was really frustrating given the emergency situation we are in on this planet.

I’ve been thinking about one client in particular, who lost her house in a fire in NYC. That contributed to her becoming homeless, that led to substance abuse and other problems. She had never taken drugs before becoming homeless. She used to be a real community person, very involved locally, but has now struggled and feels really isolated. She actually grew up on a reservation on Long Island, and she misses that space also. So she has been dislocated and displaced and wrenched of her community in many ways.

While she was not a climate refugee per se, it reminded me of the increased frequency with which people are becoming homeless due to the increase of natural disasters such as fires. There are so many ways in which vulnerable people become even more vulnerable in climate change. Having strong resilient communities is really important to surviving climate change. When people are ripped from their communities due to homelessness they don’t have the community they need to be resilient.

It makes me think of all of these ways that climate change, vulnerability and displacement are interconnected, especially for women and especially for women of color.

Part of what I hear you saying is that being connected to the climate change conversation while working at the women's shelter has helped you make these connections.

Right. It also helps me see the importance of focusing on specific vulnerable communities in creating climate change resilience. It is really easy for the voices of the people who are most on the front lines of climate change, which includes housing insecure women of color, to be not heard in conversations in climate change and in policy about climate change. When I do think about environmental justice, we don’t take leadership as much as we should from the people most seriously impacted. It makes me think about how I can do more of that, including doing more listening. I feel a need to advocate more for that kind of approach on a more systemic policy level.

It is great for me to hear you say this because when we first started talking about you taking this class you felt quite disconnected to climate change. But now you are making a lot more connections to how the work you are doing now is related.

Yeah, it is still hard because my organization doesn’t really engage with “environmental” issues at all. But talking with you and thinking about this class has been so great to be given opportunities to explore the connections more deeply.

And here’s another thing. My job is in a medical clinic. I work with women who are really debilitated and its chronic. There are just so many reasons, mental health and physical health, that make it really hard for them to do anything. Climate change magnifies those health problems, both mental and physical, in so many ways, especially exposure to toxins. They are already traumatized in so many ways, they are in such a vulnerable position health-wise.

Now you are going on another pilgrimage, also with Yeb Sano, The Climate Pilgrimage, which is being largely sponsored by the Global Catholic Climate movement, walking from Rome to Poland.

Yes. It is in recognition of the 3rd anniversary of the Encyclical, Laudato Si: On Care for Our Common Home. I’m really interested in this journey, which is more in Eastern Europe, and so the history of Catholicism is really important, and how people think of the Church is really important. It should be really interesting.

I’m curious to learn more from you how the faith communities are engaging in that part of the world, and how their history and traditional approaches to sustainable living are or are not part of their conversations around climate change adaptation.


Well I think having you in this next class on ReMembering for Life while you are part of this pilgrimage is going to be really amazing for all of us who are in the cohort! There will be multiple journeys we will be sharing together - and multiple histories!

Yes! The more I think about it, the more amazing I think that going through these different journeys is going to be!

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