top of page

“The Fire in Your Belly”

As we begin, I want to invite you to call to mind a body of water that you love; a place that is meaningful to you on a beneath-the-surface level of your existence, that speaks to your heart as you bring it before your mind’s eye. What James Finley in our reading refers to as a “heightened sense of communal presence.” Maybe it is the ocean near us here or another further away. Perhaps a river you have traveled on or lived close by. It could be a little stream or creek, even, that holds a special place for you. Hear its waves or its gurgling over rocks. Notice its scent rising up to meet you. Just sit with that for a minute and let it settle in.

Rev. Karen Van Fossan is a UU minister serving in the Midwest. In her recent memoir “A Fire at the Center: Solidarity, Whiteness, and Becoming a Water Protector” she says that it began with the flame. A member in her then church, the UU Congregation of Bismarck-Mandan, North Dakota, a Lakota artist stood during their time of Joys and Sorrows, lit a candle, and told the story of the Dakota Access Pipeline and how folks could help by offering supplies to those in opposition, the indigenous people encamped at Standing Rock and their allies. That was her start as a water protector – a trip to the store with Ronya and the money they collected to buy paper products and canned goods. Karen would go on to spend much time at the camp, she, and her congregants, offering supplies, working in the kitchen, standing with the protestors. She was eventually arrested for her efforts in solidarity and did a little jail time alongside others.

A little history here.

The Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) is a 1,172-mile-long underground pipeline that has the ability to transport up to 750,000 barrels of crude oil per day. It begins in the shale oil fields of the Bakken Formation in northwest North Dakota and continues through South Dakota and Iowa to an oil terminal near Patoka, Illinois. Together with the Energy Transfer Crude Oil Pipeline from Patoka to Nederland, Texas, it forms the Bakken system. The pipeline transports 40 percent of the oil produced in the Bakken region.

Prior to construction, some farmers expressed concern about the disturbance of the land, including soil erosion and soil quality, concerns about potential leaks in the pipeline caused by destabilization in certain areas prone to flooding, causing an environmental disaster, as well as the spread of invasive weeds into surrounding land. Groups had raised concerns about safety, and the impacts on air, water, wildlife and farming, because of the risk of the pipeline disruption.

In 2016, environmentalists and Native Americans expressed concerns the Missouri River might become contaminated in the event of a spill or leak.  Sioux tribes expressed concern over leaks because the pipeline passes under Lake Oahe, which serves as a major source of water.


The pipeline was opposed by the Standing Rock Sioux and the Cheyenne River Sioux tribes despite it not crossing tribal lands. In September 2014, Standing Rock Chairman Dave Archambault II indicated the tribe's opposition to any pipeline within treaty boundaries encompassing North Dakota, Montana, Wyoming and South Dakota. The tribe contended that the route would run across sacred sites and be a potential hazard to its water supply. 

In the spring of 2016 protests began at pipeline construction sites in North Dakota and drew indigenous people, calling themselves water protectors and land defenders, from throughout North America as well as many other supporters, creating the largest gathering of Native Americans in the past hundred years.

In April 2016, a Standing Rock Sioux elder established a camp near the Missouri River at the site of Sacred Stone Camp, located within the Standing Rock Indian Reservation, as a center for cultural preservation and spiritual resistance to the pipeline, and over the summer the camp grew to thousands of people. Through many protests and lawsuits, the pipeline remains fully operational today. i

Recently I had the privilege of hearing Karen speak alongside the Rev. Clyde Grubbs a UU minister and Texas Cherokee, at a webinar put forth by the UU Ministry for Earth. ii There, as in the book, she spoke of a central fire at the camp, always burning, always tended. A place of gathering for people on a daily basis where plans and concerns were voiced and heard, where prayers were lifted for the work and the workers. This central fire, this place of holding space provided an orientation, she says, a way to be human in a world that can sometimes, many times perhaps, be inhumane. And it created in her a longing, this sense of spirit, this vibrant moment, she describes it as, for a way of life that is directed toward protection, in this case of the water, the Missouri River under which the pipeline extends. And in that communal space there arose a courage that continues within her today. A fire at her center mirroring the fire at the center of the camp exists now with an intensity, as Finely puts it, in the aftermath of which something is never quite the same.

Throughout her story she struggles with her settler colonialist roots as a white woman of privilege, wondering if she even had a place among these people, feeling that her ancestry made her part of the problem as opposed to the solution. She became a water protector cautiously, mindful of the colonial mindset – an extractive mindset that takes and takes and takes. A mindset that analyzes and sorts and chooses and weighs, seeking always to win, holding back where fear of loss exists. Mindful of how this lived in her. She was exposed to and welcomed into a different way of being and a profound courage based on what the moment calls us to, without consideration of winning or losing; more about what matters, what speaks to core values, the fire in your belly I call it.

Beyond Standing Rock my exploration has taken me into an awareness of the plight of water in our times. We are climate aware people here and we know the threats to our aquifers that exist. We are not alone. I read that in Mexico City, due to recent limited rainfall and failing infrastructure, they are fast running out of water, have times of day when there simply is none at the tap, and that if things don’t change they are doubtful about what it may be like in a few years. iii I learned that 4 billion people worldwide experience water scarcity at least once a month. Geography and climate play a huge role in water availability, but six countries, the US being third in terms of percentages just below China and India, consume 49% of the water used globally. I found that the biggest water footprints come from agriculture – cocoa, chocolate and coffee production, cattle supplying leather goods and beef for consumption. In 2015 the US was using 322 billion gallons per day of water, most of it going toward electricity and food production. iv I would be surprised to find that it is any less today.

“Big Wind Carpenter is a two-spirit member of the Northern Arapaho Tribe who grew up on the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming, where fossil fuel extraction impacted every aspect of life. ‘The river that we used to play in was being used for the dissolved solids of the fossil fuel industry,’ they say.” The sulfuric acid plant was visible from their mother’s house in a place where largely native people lived in trailer homes. The wealthier lived in the mansions to the north, a largely white population who remained unexposed to the visuals described as well as the dangers. This led to Big Wind becoming a Water Protector who was at Standing Rock and more recently in western Massachusetts. Along the way they had an epiphany – that it’s not just this river that is sacred, all of them are sacred; that water itself is a sacred thing. v

There are so many stories I could share today about the state of water in our world, a truth that saddens me, honestly. It shouldn’t be so easy to come up with examples of misuse, overuse, pollution, degradation, and their impact on people of the least means to do anything about it. It shouldn’t be. And yet, we live in a time when it is and as much as we know it is the case, the collective we, the western we, those of the colonialist mindset who hold the power to shift the tide, do very little toward that end.

We have done our part to raise awareness about climate change and plastic use and the state of water on the Cape. We speak up. Some have opposed the proposed gun range at Joint Base Cape Cod because of its environmental impact. Maybe we even limit our personal use, knowing that it will take much more in higher places to really shift things, but still, we try to do our part. There is a fire in our bellies! Is there something we can do together as a body of faithful UU’s here in Chatham to further the cause? I will be participating in the Chatham Town Clean-Up on the 27th with some of you. Every bit helps.

There is a central fire here, too, on the hill – the fire of commitment to this place and all it has meant to us these many years; commitment to one another as we navigate all of life’s passages together; commitment to our liberal religious tradition. Week after week we are drawn back in to receive and to offer from our heart’s stores to one another and to our world.

So, I call you now back to that body of water you began with this morning, to remembering your connection to that water. Clyde suggested that we need to restore our relationship to the water and our surroundings – listening, taking a prayerful, contemplative look. They shared that our bodies, ancient and present, are connected through all the water that is and ever was; that there is no more or no less than there ever was. They invite a solidarity with the water, with our ecosystems as a spiritual practice.

My invitation today is to such a renewal, so as to kindle once more, the fire in your bellies. Not just a head invitation – where we engage with the facts, although those are important, but a heart centered invitation. An invitation to renewed awareness and commitment to the precious resources we have all around us. An invitation to listen to the sacred fire in your bellies.

May it be so and blessed be.

Rev. Tracy Johnson

UUMH Chatham, April 14, 2024

ii UU Ministry for Earth; Water is Life;

iii PBS/GBH, March 3, 2024; “Mexico City is Running Out of Water” interview by John Yang.

iv Yes! Magazine; Summer 2023, Just the Facts; Chris Winters.

v Ibid; People We Love, Sacred Activism by Breanna Draxler.



​Unitarian Universalist

Meeting House of Chatham
Sunday Services  10:30 AM

819 Main Street
All MAIL To: PO Box 18​​
Chatham, MA 02633
(508) 945-2075

Serving our Cape Cod Community in Chatham since 1986

bottom of page