First Congregational Church of Williamstown to divest $2.3M endowment from fossil fuels


WILLIAMSTOWN — The Church Council of the First Congregational Church has elected to divest its $2.3 million endowment from the fossil fuel industry.

Located in the center of the Williams College campus, the church's action comes two months after the college's board of trustees — in a much-debated decision among students, staff and alumni — elected not to divest its $2.3 billion endowment, but rather to invest $50 million in energy conservation and renewable energy sources.

"From the South African divestment movement to socially responsible shareholder activism, to the fossil fuel divestment movement, Christians of conscience have long used their finances to serve social justice ends," said the Rev. Mark Longhurst, pastor of the church. "Through this decision, our church joins a global line of spiritual communities that have married their faith and funds with action for a more just world."

The pastor invites anyone interested in learning more about divestment to an information session that will be held at 6 p.m. on Wednesday.

The idea came about when students in the Divest Williams movement came to the church about a year ago asking to hang a divest banner on the outside of the church building, Longhurst recalled. The Church Council decided they shouldn't hang such a banner without discussing the overall issue first.

After a year of discussion, consideration and input from guest speakers, the council decided to divest its own endowment in a Nov. 10 vote.

"It became apparent that our church really wanted to talk about it," Longhurst said. "We found that many people in our church felt that the climate crisis is a moral issue intrinsic to our faith and compels a faith-based reaction. Divestment is one of many actions we hope to take."

Other efforts are underway to reduce the amount of energy the church uses.

During the deliberation process, Jim Antal, conference minister and president of the Massachusetts Conference of the United Church of Christ, to which the FCC belongs, came to speak at the church. A climate change advocate and author, he laid out the case for divestment during a Sunday sermon. The United Church of Christ is the first U.S. denomination to divest from fossil fuels.

State Sen. Benjamin Downing, D-Pittsfield, also offered his thoughts on climate change and divestment, a topic he has been advocating in the state Legislature.

A church member and investment specialist, Steve Chick, also spoke to the congregation, noting that divestment would not make a big difference in the endowment's performance, and over time could enhance its value.

"He said it could actually make economic sense," Longhurst said.

The Church Council voted to ask its Investment Committee to put a plan in place to get a professional investment adviser to help with the divestment process.

First Church has a history of recognizing social issues and attempting to address them, the pastor noted, such as supporting Habitat for Humanity, becoming an open and affirming church for the LGBTQA community and in environmental awareness.

Longhurst said the deliberations had nothing to do with the debate occurring at Williams College during the same time frame, and the church's decision was not an effort to influence their discussions.

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In September, Williams College President Adam Falk announced the school's decision regarding divestment.

Noting that the school is not currently invested in any company in the fossil fuel industry, Falk said that such investments in the future will not be ruled out. Instead, the college has committed to investing up to $50 million over the next five years in reducing the campus carbon footprint.

"Climate change is a crisis of great urgency and a global scale, and all of us — institutionally and individually — have a moral responsibility to take meaningful, substantive action toward a solution," Falk said at the time.

A number of faith-based groups have already divested, including the World Council of Churches, the Church of England, the Lutheran World Federation and the Canadian Unitarian Council.

A number of colleges, including the University of California, Green Mountain College and Georgetown University have also divested.

And Oslo, Sweden, recently joined a growing list of 45 cities around the world that have committed to ban investments in coal, oil and gas companies.

A recent study found 450 institutions in 43 countries managing more than $2.6 trillion have pledged to pull money out of fossil fuels.

Brian Burke, a member of the Williams College Class of 2002 and of the Divest Williams movement, hopes the church's action spurs further contemplation among the school's leadership.

"I hope the church's moral fortitude is contagious, compelling the college's leaders to see that real responsibility extends beyond their campus carbon footprint to the whole suite of ecological devastation and social injustice they finance," Burke said.

Steve Kaagan, a member of the Williams College Class of 1965, agreed.

Kaagan has worked on an MIT-led initiative to model the impacts of various climate actions for policy makers. On Oct. 23, he walked into Falk's office to return an honorary degree for educational leadership he was previously awarded from Williams in protest of the college's decision not to divest from fossil fuel companies.

"Williams' mission is to develop civic leaders, safeguard the well-being of future generations and uphold intellectual integrity, but the president and trustees seem to have no problem using college funds in ways that directly contradict those goals: modeling civic timidity, supporting corporate attacks on science, and therefore undermining informed democracy," he said. "Maybe the trustees will heed this beacon in their midst."

In electing to divest, Longhurst said, the Church Council sent a message "that all individuals and institutions should invest their resources in ways that are compatible with their beliefs. Churches and other institutions that try to live in the manner of their beliefs may have an even greater imperative."

To signal its decision, church officials have authorized the production of their own divestment banner, created by Elizabeth Smith, that will soon hang on the outside wall of the iconic building standing in the heart of the Williams College campus.

Contact Scott Stafford at 413-496-6301.


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