‘Heartland’ climate change documentary premiers in Kansas Episcopal cathedral

By Melodie Woerman
Posted Feb 27, 2024

Kansas Bishop Cathleen Chittenden Bascom describes The Episcopal Church’s participation in the United Nations climate change conferences in the documentary “Hot Times in the Heartland.” Photo: YouTube screenshot

[Episcopal News Service] “Hot Times in the Heartland,” a documentary film on climate change and its impact on Kansas, which has seen decreased farm income as low rainfall yields shriveled crops and more severe weather, premiered at Grace Cathedral in Topeka on Feb. 25.

“This film has the power to motivate us, each and all, to find our niche and to act,” Kansas Bishop Cathleen Chittenden Bascom said as she welcomed more than 160 people to the cathedral’s All Saints Hall. “It brings me more hope than I’ve had in a long time.”

Bascom was one of 20 people including academics, climate scientists, Indigenous and interfaith leaders and policymakers interviewed for the two-hour documentary from Prairie Hollow Productions and producer Dave Kendall.

Two years in the making, the film looks at issues as diverse as protecting the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve, where most of the remaining 4% of the nation’s original prairie grasses still thrive; the increasing use of wind and solar power to meet energy needs; and, the health effects of a worsening climate, from an increase in allergies to what Haskell Indian Nations University professor Daniel Wildcat is seeing in students – climate anxiety.

In the film, Bascom describes The Episcopal Church’s participation in the United Nations climate change conferences. She was part of the church’s delegation in 2021 and 2023. She and other Midwest Episcopal delegates call themselves “The Great Middle” and have continued to meet and talk, hoping to encourage others “to hear more about the realities of climate change and the effects of the climate disasters” while also “trying to learn how to not hit hot buttons,” she said.

The cathedral viewing included about 75% of the film to allow time for a panel discussion, during which moderator Rex Buchanan, former director of the Kansas Geological Survey, asked Bascom if as a religious leader involved in climate work she had ever been told to “stay in your lane.”

She said creation care issues are an integral part of her faith and the church’s teachings. “The Christian community of Anglicanism – The Episcopal Church comes out of the Church of England – has a long and really reverential tradition, particularly from the Celtic tradition, of understanding that humanity and the natural world are together,” she said. “Augustine says we’re not fully human if we’re not engaged with the natural world, and the natural world is not itself apart from humanity. So, [climate work] is really Orthodox Christianity.”

Bishop Cathleen Bascom (far right) answers a question during a panel discussion after the screening of climate change documentary “Hot Times in the Heartland” at Grace Cathedral in Topeka, Kansas. Others are (from left) moderator Rex Buchanan, psychologist Steve Lerner and Rabbi Moti Rieber, executive director of Kansas Interfaith Action.

The Episcopal Church has long been an advocate for policies that protect the Earth, including reducing greenhouse gas emissions, promoting sustainable energy, encouraging the safe and just use of natural resources, and supporting communities impacted by a lack of environmental stewardship and environmental racism.

Another religious leader, Rabbi Moti Rieber, also was featured in the film. He noted the Jewish concept of tikkum olam, which is Hebrew for repairing the world, and said that healing ecological damage can help keep people from the suffering that climate change brings. He serves as executive director of Kansas Interfaith Action, a multi-faith issue-advocacy organization of which the Diocese of Kansas is a partner.

Bascom said that locally, the diocese has replaced turf grass on its property with a series of gardens –prairie, pollinator and culinary – that serve as a public green space for the community as well as a center for creation care work across the diocese.  Known as Bethany House and Garden, the spaces were designed with the belief that human beings and all of God’s creation are interwoven and called into holy relationship.

While the impact of burning fossil fuels is well known – from polluting the air to accelerating global warming – Kansas has seen another devastating consequence, when a Dec. 7, 2022, rupture in the Keystone Pipeline released more than 500,000 gallons of crude oil into a creek on a farm in north central Kansas. The pipeline carries tar sands oil from Canada to Oklahoma, and the clean-up took more than four months.

The documentary, which has a Facebook group, will have additional screenings in cities across Kansas and in Kansas City, Missouri, in coming weeks. It also will be broadcast in its entirety on area PBS stations in March and April.

–Melodie Woerman is a freelance reporter based in Kansas.