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Friars’ Plunge into Potomac Raises Awareness of Climate Change

CHESAPEAKE, Md. — There are plenty of reasons not to jump into a freezing river in the middle of winter, but none of them stopped a committed group of advocates for climate justice during a fundraiser last month.

More than 200 people — including Dennis Bennett, OFM, Jacek Orzechowski, OFM, and postulant Angel Vazquez — splashed their way into the frigid waters of the Potomac River on Jan. 24 as part of the 10th annual Chesapeake Climate Action Network’s “Keep Winter Cold” Polar Bear Plunge. The event raises awareness about the climate crisis while raising funds to support CCAN’s work for clean energy solutions across Maryland, Virginia and Washington, according to the organization’s website.

A few days before the event, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported the average combined global land and ocean surface temperature for 2014 was the highest on record, underlining the need for reform.

“Our involvement in the polar bear plunge is a way of expressing public support on behalf of the Catholic Church for individuals and grassroots organizations that are addressing climate justice,” said Jacek. “This is a form of new evangelization and it helps to hold up a consistent ethic of life. Climate change, which has already begun wreaking havoc on the poor and most vulnerable across the globe, is one of the most fundamental right to life issues that will impact future generations.”

Participants were organized into fundraising teams, with each team raising money for both CCAN and an organization of its choice. The three HNP members were part of a fundraising team of more than 20 people supporting the Franciscan Action Network, which co-sponsored the event. Other participants included Patrick Carolan, FAN’s executive director, and members of St. Camillus Parish and Langley Park in Silver Spring, Md. Ten members were Latino young adults. Together, the teammates raised more than $4,000.

Dennis Bennett and Jacek Orzechowski take part in a polar plunge the Chesapeake Climate Action Network's Polar Bear Plunge in the Potomac River.

Dennis Bennett and Jacek Orzechowski wade in the frigid waters of the Potomac River. (Photo courtesy of Jacek)

“We were all a little nervous about plunging into the water, as it was about 36 degrees Fahrenheit,” said Dennis, who was participating in his first polar plunge. “But when the moment arrived, we all ran full-speed ahead into the water. Jumping all the way in was tough, and it knocked the wind out of me. But being in the water with so many people for such a great cause was worth it!

“Participating in this event allowed me to meet people from all over the Maryland/D.C./Virginia area who are also passionate about promoting ecological and climate justice,” he continued. “I was able to have great conversations with people. This allowed me to share my faith in a unique way, and to witness to our commitment, as friars, to protecting the environment.”

St. Camillus parishioner Tim Lambert took part in the polar plunge because he wanted to express his commitment to stopping climate change.

“We showed that we can do something that demonstrates how deeply we care about our planet,” he said. “We stepped way outside of our comfort zones, had some fun and raised money for some great groups at the same time.” Lambert advocates for climate justice through his involvement with the Citizens’ Climate Lobby, 305.org and the fossil fuel divestment movement.

Representatives from several media outlets were on the banks of the river, reporting on the event.

“One of the Latino members of our polar bear plunge team was interviewed on the Spanish-speaking TV news station Univision,” said Jacek. “In that interview, she expressed her hope that her participation will help to animate other Latinos to get involved in safeguarding God’s creation.”

Later this month, members of St. Camillus Parish will meet with their elected state officials in Annapolis to urge them to support the doubling of Maryland’s commitment to wind and solar energies.

Information about climate change can be found in the Justice and Peace section of the Province’s website.

Maria Hayes is communications coordinator for Holy Name Province.