Laurel Dykstra. (Photo: Sandra Vander Schaaf)

Topics: Ethical Living | Environment

For Laurel Dykstra, faith fuels a fight for the climate

The Anglican priest was arrested and sentenced to a week in jail for protesting a pipeline

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On the morning of May 25, 2018, a pair of Anglicans secured bicycle U-locks around their necks and crossed a temporary metal fence surrounding a crude oil terminal at the end of the Trans Mountain pipeline on Burnaby Mountain in British Columbia. They wrapped a chain around the furrowed trunk of a century-­old Douglas fir, threaded the chain through the U-locks and secured it with a padlock.

Laurel Dykstra, a priest with tattooed forearms and a clerical collar, and Lini Hutchings, one of Dykstra’s parish­ioners, were protesting the proposed expansion of the pipeline, which would carry diluted bitumen from the Alberta tar sands to the B.C. coast. The pair spent the next few hours singing, reading poet­ry and psalms, and watching flickers nesting in a nearby tree. A small group of supporters gathered outside the fence and tossed them doughnut holes while they waited for the police to arrive.

Dykstra serves an unusual church. Salal + Cedar belongs to the Anglican Diocese of New Westminster, but has no building or fixed meeting place. Most Saturdays, rain or shine, its members gather outdoors. Sometimes they share the bread and wine of eucharist under pristine cedars. At other times, they lament at places of ecological devastation. For the past few years, they have gathered on the Saturday before Easter to contemplate the suffering of Christ alongside the suffering of the natural world, meeting near a salmon spawning stream choked by run-off from logging, or a site where test boreholes have been drilled in Burnaby Mountain. Dykstra describes the work of Salal + Cedar as a spiritual response to ecological grief: “How do we live honestly, ethically, faithfully at a time of climate crisis and mass extinction?”

Five years ago, Dykstra applied for a grant to study the needs and concerns of young Anglicans in B.C. More than 90 percent said they were stressed out by the climate crisis and species extinction. They didn’t see churches doing anything about it. Most experienced their deepest spiritual connections outside in nature. So Dykstra started Salal + Cedar.

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The church also runs a summer camp where teens and young adults study the biology of their region, learn about local climate justice issues, and cultivate practical skills and spiritual practices to respond.

Last spring, as the Tsleil-Waututh and other B.C. First Nations organized mass protests against the expansion of the Trans Mountain pipeline on their traditional territory, members of Salal + Cedar supported blockades and helped stage demonstrations. When Dykstra and Hutchings chained themselves to a tree in front of a tank farm on May 25, they were arrested. The judge dropped their charges, but Trans Mountain pursued civil charges against them, seeking jail time and payment for unspecified legal fees, potentially in the tens of thousand of dollars.

Just before the sentencing, Dykstra briefly addressed the court: “At our hearings we did not call witnesses, but I would call them now: saints and ancestors, endangered, locally eradicated and extinct species, victims of climate catastrophe.”

The judge sentenced the pair to a week in jail and fine of $1,000 each.

“I think we are well past the point where lifestyle changes matter much,” Dykstra says. “We need structural, institutional and economic change. I am compelled to act for change because of my faith, and in order to keep at it I need spiritual practice and a community that encourages and challenges me.”

This piece first appeared in the October 2019 issue of Broadview with the title “Laurel Dykstra on living honestly, ethically and faithfully at a time of climate crisis.” For more of Broadview’s award-winning content, subscribe to the magazine today. 

Josiah Neufeld is a dad and writer in Winnipeg.

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  • says:

    such an honor to have this type of vision and courage in Vancouver
    so many of us consider Laurel a friend, mentor and incredible support to so many families and youth.