Free speech plays a key role in our Constitution, but how often do we use this right to advocate for meaningful change? Some Wheaton students decided to speak out on an issue they deeply care about — climate change — at the site of one of America’s most prominent political events: the second presidential debate. Two weeks ago, junior Sean Lyon and 10 other students drove down to St. Louis to make their voices heard.
Lyon is one of five fellows in the student leadership program for Young Evangelicals for Climate Action, a national organization formed in 2012. Its mission, which calls Christians to live “faithfully as good stewards of creation, advocating on behalf of the poor and marginalized,” also focuses on promoting change in the political realm, calling for “supporting our faith and political leaders when they stand up for climate action.” One of YECA’s founders was Wheaton College graduate Ben Lowe ’07 — who also founded the very first college chapter of A Rocha at our own campus.
A leadership fellow strives to make his or her campus “one that cares more, specifically from a moral standpoint,” Lyon said. That means both “caring for [God’s] creation” and “caring for those who are the most vulnerable.” His work centers around mobilizing the Wheaton student body to have conversations about climate change.
After Lyon and other members of YECA noticed that both presidential candidates were not addressing climate change during their campaigns, he assembled a team of Wheaton students to travel to the debate in St. Louis, where they would speak regarding the candidates’ silence on climate change. The problem is “much larger than ourselves and our country,” Lyon said. “This is not a partisan issue, but a moral issue.”
Sophomore Cindy Hu, an environmental science major, explained that she wanted to travel to St. Louis because she believes that “climate change has always been an important issue that is often not given enough attention, especially in Christian communities.” She cares about the effects of American policy on climate change because “we, in the first world, use the most energy and release the largest amount of carbon dioxide,” while it is the “Third World Countries who pay the price of climate change.”
While in St. Louis, YECA spoke during their time slot at the public forum, specifically in the public expression zone. It’s a platform made available for any person with any party affiliation to express themselves about whatever topic they see fit to bring up. A group can sign up to speak through a lottery system, which determines their time slot. YECA received the first 20 minute time slot, which the students used to speak about why climate change is important, why it needs to be addressed and why Christians should care about it. They ended by praying for the debate.
Several hundred people — ranging from interest groups and concerned citizens to members of the media — attended the public expression forum to listen to 16 different groups during a five-hour window of time, beginning at 4 p.m. Although the candidates didn’t attend the public expression forum in person, the topics discussed at the public expression zone were likely passed on to candidates by staffers who did attend, according to Lyon.
Because entering the debate hall proved to be difficult, the students attended a community-wide screening of the debate after they listened to other groups in the public expression zone. Lyon said the community-wide screening really made the experience come alive. Because there were no conduct rules like those in place at the actual debate hall, people in the community-wide screening were free to be more expressive.
As a result, “it wasn’t a very polite forum,” junior Esther Kao said. Since the divided audience had less restrictions, people frequently made jokes or simply walked out. Experiencing the debate first-hand allowed the students a look into “how intimately this affects people’s lives,” she explained. “It’s very different than watching it at Wheaton … it helps put it into perspective.”
For Lyon, the experience was encouraging as the students were able to see how their presence in the community made a difference. That debate was also the only one that included questions related to climate. Taking initiative to speak out on climate change has allowed Lyon to see his personal faith as “not only something I believe, but something I live out and that affects other people.”