Interfaith group taking message of ‘creation care’ to the masses
Leaders believe the call to be stewards of Earth needs to be taken more seriously
It's commonly thought that religion and politics don't mix. Religion and science don't have a great history, either.
But some Christian, Jewish and Muslim groups in the Chesapeake Bay region insist that environmental stewardship is one arena in which science, religion - and even politics - are a natural fit. And they are working together to make their point.
Earth Day in Annapolis this year will include the Earth, Water and Faith Festival, featuring all of the music, booths and activities of an Earth Day celebration, but framed with speakers and readings that emphasize the call for "creation care" in a variety of faith traditions.
In February, 36 Maryland clergy petitioned state lawmakers to support wind power legislation. Greater Washington Interfaith Power & Light coordinated their input, which resulted in a joint letter signed by Protestant, Catholic, Jewish and Muslim leaders, as well as ministers from the mixed-faith Unitarian Universalist church.
"All of the major faiths are very consistent about the need to be stewards of creation, but not every religious group takes that seriously or is aware of it," said Bishop Eugene Sutton, who leads the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland.
Often called the "green bishop," Sutton expressed his stewardship convictions when nominated to his current post and soon organized an environmental committee to work with the 116 churches in the diocese.
"We have a divine charge to take care of the Earth," Sutton said. "If you are a religious person, you know we don't own the Earth. We're just the managers. And if God were not merciful, we would have been fired."
Sutton also sits on the board of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and helped to organize an interfaith leadership forum that took place at the foundation's headquarters in January.
More than 60 people attended, representing a variety of faiths in Maryland.
Some participants also represented umbrella groups like the Chesapeake Covenant Communities, Chesapeake Interfaith Environmental Group, Baltimore Jewish Environmental Network, and a Washington-based organization called Groundswell.
Former Maryland State Sen. Bernie Fowler, a longtime advocate for the Chesapeake Bay, was in the crowd. "Frankly, I don't see success without the faith community putting its shoulder to the wheel," Fowler said.
That's precisely what Sutton asked them to do.
Citing ongoing water pollution, toxic metropolitan areas and environmental racism, Sutton asked, "Why don't you and I take the lead in addressing these problems?"
Until recently, faith groups as a whole have not been vocal participants in solving local or global environmental problems.
That's changing, as more faith leaders remind congregations about the "creation care" messages they say have always existed within their teachings.
Sutton believes that Christianity, especially in the West, has become too self-centered. Creation care, he said, has been displaced by a focus on the individual soul. "We've failed to show that our relationship to God depends on the quality of our relation to the 'other' - to other people and to the Earth, to things beyond ourselves," Sutton said.
Rabbi Nina Beth Cardin, who recently spoke at the 2012 Maryland Environmental Legislation Summit, said that history and habits get in the way.
"For 2,000 years, the Jewish people were in exile. My sense is that Jews felt alienated from the land, that the land where we lived wasn't ours," Cardin said.
Cardin founded the Baltimore Jewish Environmental Network five years ago and helped to make sustainable living a growing area of emphasis for city synagogues. The network began by helping synagogues and congregational events "go green" and has since worked with a large Jewish charitable organization called The Associated to hire a full-time sustainability officer.
Today, Baltimore has 14 green synagogues and in 2008 the Baltimore Business Journal named The Associated "Green Nonprofit of the Year."
Martha Scott represents the Islamic Society of Annapolis in the Chesapeake Interfaith Environmental Group. Scott finds stewardship messages throughout Islamic teachings, including the Qur'an.
She also points to a 10th-century text, The Case of the Animals Versus Man Before the King of the Jinn, which raises tough moral questions about human responsibilities to the natural world.
"These principles were there in the beginning, but became forgotten. When the Ottoman Empire fell and people were being invaded, they were simply too busy surviving," Scott said. "We need to discuss what it means for us today."
Scott said that the concept of "fasada" is commonly translated for non-Arabic speakers as "corruption," when it actually means "pollution" in a broad sense. This narrow translation may be another reason that Islamic stewardship messages have been overlooked.
"But God created everything in balance. If we get it out of balance, we have to put it back in balance, whether it's global warming or endocrine disrupters," Scott said.
The Chesapeake Bay and most of its rivers are clearly out of balance. But so far, faith groups seem more likely to tackle broad issues like climate change and energy, or encourage personal behavior change.
In part, big-picture topics are most accessible for faith groups because they align more closely with traditional interests such as international humanitarian causes and personal morality.
They are also a good starting point for groups that currently have little involvement with environmental topics.
The DC Green Muslims, for example, is a group of young professionals who work on a voluntary basis to bring environmental awareness into the Muslim community.
"It's a big part of the faith," said outreach coordinator Sarina Bajwa, "but in terms of everyday family and community, people aren't really talking about it. We want to make it part of the conversation."
The Green Muslims are currently working to become an incorporated nonprofit organization while working with local mosques to promote green practices and developing environmental leadership opportunities for youth. They have also been invited to speak to a Muslim community in Michigan.
Bajwa is optimistic about the future. "If you're working with people for whom faith is a way of life and who are trying to live by those rules, and you put it in that language, people are going to respond. It's not just something to do for humanity, but it's a duty," Bajwa said.
Big-picture topics may also prevent some discomfort, by sidestepping the trickier problem of political activism close to home. Taking a position on specific environmental issues, especially local ones, can be a challenge for religious groups.
Chesapeake Covenant Communities is one organization working to smooth the transition. The organization serves the entire Bay region but is most active in Maryland and metropolitan DC. They specifically pursue stewardship programs that help repair and sustain Chesapeake waters.
Their "Covenant Communities" program has recruited about 12 congregations that have signed covenants for their place of worship. They agree to weave stewardship messages and actions into their worship, facility management and outreach, and the organization supports them with resources.
Congregations also agree to bear witness in the larger community.
"Some are more willing to do this than others, and they have different ideas of what that looks like," said Executive Director Dottie Yunger. "But we don't tell them what to think about a particular issue. We ask them to make that decision and then make it known."
Chesapeake Covenant Communities also hopes to become more involved with the watershed implementation plans that are taking place throughout the Chesapeake region.
WIPs are the local-level plans designed to meet federally required pollution limits set for the Bay and its rivers by the regionwide pollution diet, officially known as the Total Maximum Daily Load.
WIPs are controversial in many areas because allocating scarce resources toward pollution reductions can be a budgetary nightmare for local governments, and many disagree with the required reductions.
"The faith community is part of the local community, but it's not one that has identified itself as being engaged in this process and it's not one that the local governments have tried to bring into the process," Yunger said. "As people of faith, we have a call to be good stewards of the environment and, with this major work going on, it behooves us to be involved with the process."
Joelle Novey, director of the Greater Washington Interfaith Power and Light, has also experienced the wide spectrum of comfort and discomfort that congregations have regarding political action.
"There are some congregations where, culturally, it's normal to be doing activism. In others, it's a new idea," Novey said.
While seeking input on Maryland's off-shore wind legislation, Novey found a wide variety of faith leaders willing to respond.
"My experience with the off-shore wind project showed me not to assume that you know who's ready. You have to ask," Novey said.
Jewish congregations invited a speaker to visit, put up yard signs and sent cards to legislators. One leader testified at a town meeting.
"I was delighted that the Orthodox Jewish district was so open to this," Novey said. "That's a group that until now has only met with us to talk about using less plastic and joining a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture)."
Some Maryland faith leaders believe that finding points of agreement within and between faiths could be a game-changer.
Rabbi Cardin suggests that religious faith gives small, daily stewardship choices a larger frame. Without it, the enormity of environmental problems may lead people to believe that individual actions won't make a difference.
"Much of the environmental community is focused on granular goals - getting this bill passed or recycling these bottles," Cardin said. "But this is not about a technical fix to a technical problem. It's not just about the Bay, the recycling or what to do with your pharmaceuticals. It's a spiritual question of how we as human beings live on this Earth, and our relationship to nature, our fellow man and generations to come."
Cardin also said that the environmental movement needs stories that move us. She's not alone.
The Rev. Dr. William Hathaway of the First Presbyterian Church of Annapolis is co-chair of the Chesapeake Interfaith Environmental Group. Hathaway said that good science and good faith will never be in conflict.
"We are in a world full of scientific information and lots of good environmental activists. But it's my sense that the scientists and the activists need to know how to connect to the hearts and spirits of the people," Hathaway said. "Religious people, scientists and environmentalists need to be working together."
Bishop Sutton, who calls politics "spirituality in action," is continuing to lead an interfaith dialogue that he hopes will make a mark in Maryland. "We've got millions of Marylanders who gather each week in places of worship. What a powerful statement it would be, for instance, if we could get Muslims, Christians, Jews and faith leaders to go the legislators and say we are united. It's a sleeping giant."
Comments are now closed for this article. Comments are accepted for 60 after publication.