As I strolled along the park’s concrete path, I glanced over to find—gliding alongside me—an orca, a chinook salmon, monarch butterflies, and planet Earth itself. Held overhead by poles, the giant models had been crafted by attendees of the annual Unitarian Universalist Association General Assembly (GA) in late June, 2019 in Spokane, Washington. Now, in the midst of competing programming, eighty Unitarian Universalists (UUs) had come together for “The Procession of the Species,” a celebration of the denizens of the natural world.
As we gathered before the march, speakers shared words written at GA by young adults: “The interconnected web of life is broken … We must make space to grieve, mourn and rage—this is our time to bear witness. We cannot back down now. We must open ourselves to pain and only then can we feel hope … We have lost the way, but still know how to get back … The silence to come will be deafening. We must protect Mother Earth and all the beings who live in it.”
It was our own UU take on a tradition begun in 1995 in Olympia, Washington. The first Procession of the Species celebrated the 25th anniversary of Earth Day and supported Congressional renewal of the Endangered Species Act. The Procession’s goals now include raising “the collective consciousness … thereby inciting a hunger for personally protecting the natural world.”
The community-based parade of costumes, non-motorized floats, and giant puppets now annually draws over 2,000-3,000 participants and over 30,000 spectators to Olympia alone; the event has spread to over thirty communities in the United States and several other countries. And for the first time this year, thanks to the UU Ministry for Earth, it came to GA.
As President of the UU Animal Ministry, I was delighted to attend. My seven-year-old son hadn’t wanted to participate, but when he saw the 22-foot orca he was immediately entranced. As I walked beneath an orange butterfly’s gigantic shadow, my own heart thrilled, not because of the enormous animal models, but because I had never seen UUs turn out to celebrate our connection with other beings like this before. Here we were—at our denomination’s most official event—publicly exalting the grandeur of all the beings in the interdependent web of life, and our inherent connection to each of them.
At the march’s end, a drone rose into the air to film us from above as we held aloft unfolded umbrellas, grouped together to form the shape of an orca. In so doing we honored Tahlequah, the grieving orca mother who in 2018 swam holding the body of her dead calf up to the surface of the water for over 1,000 miles over 17 days. The chinook salmon that orcas rely on had been depopulated, and after a 17-month gestation, Talequah’s calf had been born emaciated, without enough blubber to survive the frigid ocean waters. In her grief, Tahlequah did all that she could to honor the life of her child, and some say, to cry out to us to help her species.1 With the drone hovering overhead, our black umbrellas forming a symbolic orca were our own cry for humanity to honor all beings.
After the drone finished its video, we gathered on park benches for pizza and cupcakes. I had heard that there would be vegan options, so I scanned the words scrawled in black permanent marker on the pizza boxes. Mushroom pizza, no, macaroni pizza(!), no … when I saw pepperoni pizza, my heart sank. How could we go from celebrating the worthiness of all beings to serving up the remains of animals who had suffered the inherent cruelty of factory farming? At the same public ritual where we acknowledged the fragility of planet earth, how could we serve meat, one of the largest contributors to climate change?2
I felt startled and a bit heartbroken, but I wasn’t surprised. We so often fail to align our personal and institutional food choices with our values, even within the environmental and climate movements. Subdued, I found one of the food organizers, said that I’d heard that there would be vegan pizza, thanked her, and asked where it might be. She smiled and spread her hands wide in an encompassing gesture. “All of the pizza is vegan!” she said. “And all of the cupcakes are vegan!”
As my son and I munched on tasty vegan pepperoni (and yes, macaroni) pizza and cupcakes, I reflected on how far the animal, environmental, and climate movements have come, and how they are beginning to come together. I thought about the Better Food Foundation’s DefaultVeg campaign, which makes plant-based food the institutional norm, not the exception. Even though DefaultVeg policies give diners the choice to add animal products to their meals optionally, institutions adopting DefaultVeg report that the consumption of animal products declines dramatically.
One by one, individuals and institutions are changing their behavior in ways that matter to people, animals, and the planet. Yes, we still have so far to go. The Procession reminded me that we are making progress, step by step.
Click here to learn more about DefaultVeg.