- From Amazing Grace, by John Newton, 1779
We finished the last twenty miles of our 350 mile walk in Salt Lake City. We walked from the “This Is the Place” Monument along the Chevron crude oil pipeline that rings Salt Lake City, past the State Capitol, past our house, through an industrial area that we call Refinery Row, and back up to the State Capitol. Four friends and our dog joined us for the last seven miles—an unsavory tour past a huge oil refinery, a strip club, a railroad transfer station, several storage facilities and metal recycling collection yards.
The weather was cold and grey. Inversion-trapped smog blanketed the valley with air so thick that visibility stretched only about 100 yards. Billboards would unexpectedly emerge from the heavy, polluted fog as we walked through the paved landscape designed for cars, trucks, and tractor trailers but not pedestrians. Passing the refinery, we heard an unlikely sound—music. We drew closer to the refinery, trying to identify the source of the music. Through the chain link fence, we stared over a sea of abandoned cars at the incomprehensible tangle of steel that eventually rose into several smokestacks belching smoke and steam. The music seemed to emerge from two small speakers mounted atop an old white milk truck. Next to the speakers, stood a pink plastic flamingo, one of the only spots of color in our line of sight. As we stared at this apocalyptic scene, the strains of music organized themselves into the familiar tune “Amazing Grace.”
The history of the song Amazing Grace is well-known. John Newton, a slave trader, called out to God for help during a harrowing storm, his experience of grace in that moment eventually led him to revoke the slave trade, become a minister, and eventually an abolitionist. Though John Newton gets credit for the words of the song, the origins of the tune are less familiar. Wintley Phipps, a minister, singer, and community activist attributes the tune to slaves. According to Phipps, Newton learned the tune (consciously or unconsciously) during the Atlantic passage because it was a West African sorrow chant that arose from the bowels of the slave ship. Phipps’ story creates a beautiful paradox: a song about moral awakening set to the soundtrack of a morally depraved practice.
Throughout American history, Amazing Grace has given strength to social movements and punctuated tragedy. In the mid 1800’s it strengthened abolitionists like Harriet Tubman, a hero of the underground railroad. During the Civil Rights marches it unified marchers who were determined to force the political system to rise above state-sponsored inequity. During the Vietnam War protests, singers like Judy Collins used it as a tool for peace. Amazing Grace also played at the memorial services after the Challenger explosion, the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the Virginia Tech Massacre, and most recently, the Arizona shootings.
In a country dominated by the rational, market-oriented paradigm that “there is no such thing as a free lunch,” it is somewhat surprising that the concept of grace has such a broad appeal. After all, grace is a free lunch. Perhaps that is why we sing Amazing Grace at poignant social moments: Grace trumps the principle of quid pro quo (this for that).
Our social history cannot be explained with a “this for that” paradigm. Slavery did not end because the cumulative measure of actions opposing slavery suddenly outweighed the sum of actions embracing slavery. The Civil Rights Act did not pass because there were more people marching for equality than against it. And, when courageous individuals overpowered Jared Loughner, stopping his shooting rampage in Arizona, they did not immediately kill him in retaliation. In each of these examples, the outcome is far greater than the sum of individual actions. These events mark moments of grace.
So, what does Amazing Grace have to do with climate change and a 350 mile pilgrimage across Utah that ended in front of a refinery on a dreary, smoggy day? When I left, I thought that our pilgrimage would symbolize the effectiveness of accomplishing a long and arduous journey one step at a time. I wanted to physically demonstrate the principle that small tasks (like writing a letter to our congressmen, calling our elected officials, attending political rallies, and getting involved with local advocacy groups) could string together in a series of coordinated events to accomplish a larger goal. More than anything, I needed to understand this concept myself. I often feel paralyzed by the insignificant scale of personal action and I justify my inaction with the mantra that “I can’t make a difference anyway.” I wanted to break out of this cynical eddy.
Small steps can string together to achieve a larger goal. But, as anyone who has ever tried to grow a garden will attest, hard work and determination are not enough to produce results. Just as soil, water, seeds, and effort do not automatically produce fruit, meetings, marches, and lobbying do not automatically produce social change. There must be something else. Some call it synergy; some call it timing; some call it magic; some call it God; some call it grace. As I re-shoulder the burdens and obligations of daily life, I find myself contributing to climate change more often than combating it. I question the effectiveness of the small actions that I have time to take. And I wonder if we will ever have the personal restraint to reduce our consumption of resources enough to effectively address climate change. During these moments of doubt, I remind myself that although I embarked on a pilgrimage for hope, I was welcomed home by grace.