LAWRENCE — The Most Rev. Michael Curry, presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church, brought a message of hope and love of God and neighbor to Lawrence.
He began his visit at Esperanza Academy, which holds classes in the parish hall of the adjacent Grace Episcopal Church. The middle-schoolers gave him a welcome fit for a rock star.
After meeting with the students and answering numerous questions, he headed next door to Grace Episcopal Church, where he listened to local residents' experiences of the Sept. 13 gas disaster. Many of those who spoke called for environmental justice and Curry clearly supported their pleas.
The Rev. Joel Almono, rector of the church, said the fires and explosions of the disaster destroyed 140 homes. Thousands of residents were displaced, he noted.
Yet the crisis brought the faith community together and clergy members of many denominations helped to bring pressure on Columbia Gas to fix the failed energy system, he pointed out.
Sadia Jiminian, a Lawrence, was at her job in Boston when she got a call that there was a fire in her house. A boiler had caught fire.
She and her family were not able to return to their home until Thanksgiving, she said.
"This is not over," she said of the disaster.
Susan Almono, Joel's wife, talked about the interfaith team, which she said was "part of a huge outpouring of aid."
While a "lack of proper safety procedures" was the immediate cause of the disaster, the root cause goes deeper than that.
"Our energy system is too dependent of natural gas. That's a problem first, because natural gas is dangerous – we found out just how easily it can explode and destroy lives and property. And secondly it emits carbon and methane pollution that contribute to climate change," she said.
Curry, a strong advocate for "creation care," protecting the environment in other words, agreed with Almono's call for environmental justice. It is a nationwide need, he said.
Episcopal bishops met in Detroit recently and visited Flint, Michigan, where people "still could not drink the water," Curry said. He also mentioned the construction of an oil pipeline under American Indian burial grounds in the Dakotas.
"You don't do that to anyone," he said.
The pipeline was held up temporarily by a court, but then "a new pharaoh" came to power in Washington, he said, insisting he was being "biblical and not political."
The pipeline got approved – and it leaked, he said.
The bishop also spoke of the oil industry's bid to drill for oil in Alaska and how that affects indigenous people.
"Our climate is in jeopardy," he warned.
Environmental activists sometimes refer to the planet as Mother Earth.
"We need to take care of Mama," the bishop said.
Curry said the faith community, the people who believe in God, have the power to bring about change.
"Church folks are still around when the cameras are gone," he pointed out.
While he was meeting with the middle-schoolers, one student asked him why he decided to become a priest. Curry said the example of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. inspired him.
"By following the teachings of Jesus, he was able to make a difference," he said.
Because of the outlawing of racial discrimination, for which King and his followers fought, life in the United States is "a lot better than it used to be," Curry said.
All of the students at Esperanza are girls. Most of them are from families with limited incomes. The school was established in 2006 by Grace Church and Christ Episcopal Church in Andover.
The school operates independently and offers a rigorous curriculum. The goal is to equip graduates for success in secondary school and college.
"Don't think the impossible is not possible," Curry told the students. "Don't you give up on yourselves."
He received a standing ovation.