Guest columnist The Rev. Dr. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas: How to close a bank 

  • Photo by René Theberge Photo by René Theberge

Published: 11/16/2022 10:05:13 PM

The first time it happened, we wondered if it was a coincidence.

Around 2:45 p.m. on a Friday afternoon, Rabbi Andrea Cohen-Kiener and I walked to a branch of Bank of America beside a highway in Springfield. Our plan was to hand deliver a letter to the bank manager. We wanted to explain what was about to happen: we were part of a group of Christian, Jewish, and Muslim faith leaders who at 3 p.m. would hold a multifaith prayer vigil for climate justice outside the bank, urging the bank to stop funding fossil fuel projects.

Our letter explained that we wouldn’t impede sidewalk traffic or interfere with access to the bank, but that we did intend to sing, pray, and speak about the moral call to address the climate emergency. We would urge customers to reconsider where they bank and to sign a pledge to move their money out of Bank of America if the bank continues to fund the destruction of our planet. If the fossil fuel industry can’t borrow money from large banks like Bank of America, new fossil fuel projects can’t move forward.

To our surprise, on this busy Friday afternoon, customers were waiting in line to enter the bank. Bank employees were examining each customer before allowing them inside and locking the door behind them. Just as the rabbi and I finally moved up the line and reached the front door, a staff member announced that the bank was closed. No one else could enter. He didn’t look at us; he didn’t glance at the rabbi or comment on my clergy collar and stole; he simply declared to the disgruntled customers behind us that the bank had closed.

Rabbi Andrea and I were left to wonder: Was it sheer coincidence that the bank had closed just then or was it because they’d gotten wind of our prayer vigil?

We got our answer one week later. Our group was gearing up for a second multifaith prayer vigil for climate justice at 3 p.m. on a Friday afternoon, this time held outside a Bank of America in downtown Northampton. One of our vigil’s faith leaders, Rev. Dr. Andrea Ayvazian, dressed in clergy collar and stole, arrived early. She went inside the bank to look around. “We’re closing,” a bank employee told her.

By 2 p.m. the bank had locked its doors and posted a sign out front: “Due to circumstances beyond our control, we are temporarily closed. We apologize for the inconvenience.”

We went ahead with our prayer vigil, as planned. In words and song, we expressed our moral outrage that Bank of America is one of the top four banks (along with Citibank, Wells Fargo, and JPMorgan Chase) that most heavily funds the fossil fuel projects which drive the climate crisis. Bank of America has financed such controversial new projects as the Line 3 and Mountain Valley pipelines. Despite giving lip-service to the Paris Agreement (adopted in late 2015), over the next five years Bank of America provided an eye-popping $232 billion in lending and underwriting to the fossil fuel industry.

“No religious tradition says that we should destroy the planet. Yet this is exactly what governments, financial institutions, and major corporations are either doing or allowing – after knowing for years that fossil fuels cause climate change,” said Rabbi Andrea Cohen-Kiener, who leads Temple Israel in Greenfield and who spoke, prayed, and blew the shofar at the vigil. “It’s flat-out wrong.”

TahirahAmatul-Wadud, a member of the Muslim community and Executive Director of the Massachusetts chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations said that as Muslims “we believe the Almighty Creator has appointed humans as the stewards of earth. Thus, we have a sacred obligation to preserve it, and, in that spirit, we call for responsible and just climate action.”

“Now is the time for bold and urgent action on climate change,” said the Rt. Rev. Dr. Douglas Fisher, Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Western Massachusetts, who gave the vigil’s closing prayer. “Last year, the International Energy Agency made it crystal clear that any new coal, oil, and gas projects are incompatible with avoiding catastrophic climate impacts. Bank of America must stop financing climate chaos.”

Right now, the world’s eyes are on COP27, the crucial round of U.N. climate negotiations that began in Egypt on Nov. 6. In the lead-up to COP27, under the banner of Faiths4Climate Justice, a project of GreenFaith, people around the world of many different religions held sit-ins and rallies, prayer circles and die-ins to call for bold, just action by corporate and political powers to address the climate crisis. Our two prayer vigils for climate justice were part of this growing worldwide movement of religious and spiritual communities to restore reverence for Earth and to protect humanity’s hope for a livable planet.

JPMorgan Chase Bank just bought a large, vacant building in downtown Northampton’s main intersection. It plans to open for business in the first half of 2023. We plan to tell them what we’re telling Bank of America: unless they take rapid steps to stop funding fossil fuels and to promote a swift, just transition to clean, renewable energies, we will make our voices heard. We will protest banks whose policies accelerate climate chaos and desecrate the world that God entrusted to our care. We want banks to stay open, serve the community, and do the right thing for the future of our planet.

The Rev. Dr. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas is an Episcopal priest who works to advance climate justice for the two Episcopal dioceses in Massachusetts and for Southern New England Conference, United Church of Christ. She lives with her husband in Northampton.
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