Bay Journal

Living Waters Summit starts key conversation between faith, conservation groups

  • By Whitney Pipkin on November 20, 2013
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Attendees at the Living Waters Interfaith Summit participated in an Open Space exercise that included posting topics worthy of further group discussion. (Whitney Pipkin) Participants in the Summit brought water from the waterways near their home and poured them into this bowl during the opening ceremony. (Whitney Pipkin) The event kicked off with a drum circle and the singing of several spiritual songs from various faith traditions. (Whitney Pipkin)

Drum circles, interfaith songs and a baptismal-like bowl of water all had a place at the first Living Waters Interfaith Summit, hosted by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation in Richmond on Tuesday.

But these were mostly props, intended to set the tone for an event that was both reverent and reflective in its efforts to engage Virginia’s faith-based and environmental communities in much-needed conversation.

“When we started this, it was a leap of faith — every pun intended,” said Tanya Denckla Cobb from the University of Virginia’s Institute for Environmental Negotiation, who led discussion sessions. “We didn’t know what would happen.”

The daylong event drew some 150 people from a variety of faith backgrounds and environmental groups to the Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden near Richmond, VA. It kicked off with a drum circle and ended, after much discussion, with a woman nearly in tears about what it meant to know she was “not alone” in her 40-year pursuit of faith-based environmental stewardship.

Ann Jurczyk and others at the Chesapeake Bay Foundation began planning the event about a year ago, noting the “disconnect” that can sometimes exist between “what we’re called to do and what practical steps we take.”

Ann Jennings, CBF’s Virginia executive director, said that organizers of the event hoped it would help turn a shared interest in stewardship of creation “into action and leadership.” To illustrate this goal, participants brought and poured into a shared bowl some water from where they each live. At the end of the event, they took home a vile of that intermingled water as a reminder.

Woodie Walker with Friends of the Rappahannock said that he hoped to meet with faith leaders in his community to see whether there might be an interest in volunteering with his organization. He made the comment during an “Open Space” exercise in which participants split into groups to discuss specific topics in more depth. The Bay Foundation will compile the recommendations into a larger report expected in January.

Representatives from environmental groups that attended seemed to share the sentiment. Some said they struggle with how to reach out to church groups and how to know whether leaders might be receptive to clean water initiatives.

By the afternoon, attendees like Walker were already talking about how to replicate Living Waters events on a local level. Could a church potluck get the conversation going? Could Living Waters events record their speakers to make the comments available to a broader audience?

The latter idea was spurred in part by pastor and farmer Shelton Miles III’s lively presentation. He used his experience on the farm as a case study in the faith-environment connection, quoting poet Wendell Berry and the Bible.

“To say God is a steward is too flabby a thing to say,” he said in a Southern Virginia drawl. “God has a creative love for all his creation. He delights in what he has made.”

“People of faith are uniquely positioned to be problem solvers and seekers of the truth,” Miles added to heads nodding in agreement and a few “Amens.”   

Many in attendance said they wear multiple hats in their daily lives, serving on environmental boards during the week and, on Sundays, in their churches.

Kim Coble, CBF’s vice president of environmental protection and restoration, took off her policy cap for a moment to tell the audience she began to wonder several years ago “how far policy alone was going to get us.” She now advises the bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland on environmental issues and has found that a combination of efforts on both fronts can be most effective.

The audience had a chance to answer questions via electronic clickers at the outset of the event. According to the instant polling, nearly 80 percent of attendees said they identified with a specific faith group and 63 percent said a combination of spiritual and environmental motivations led them to participate in stewardship.

Several of the church members who attended hailed from denominations that already have some version of a “green team” assembled or consider water quality a high priority. But others were just getting started, inspired by the event to return to their places of worship to discuss how they might promote clean water.

“The belief that we have a moral obligation to engage in the context of our situation has always been there,” J. Herbert Nelson, director of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) Office of Public Witness in Washington, D.C., said during an afternoon panel discussion.

During a morning panel, Rabbi Nina Beth Cardin, chair of the Chesapeake Covenant Community, explained this obligation in more depth, adding that faith groups often find the “challenge of the Chesapeake” so insurmountable that it’s easier to focus on other issues, like poverty or homelessness.

She challenged the faith-based audience to transition from a “Genesis 1 narrative” to one based on Genesis 2, where God’s directive to the first humans implies careful stewardship of the land and its resources rather than simple domination of it.

The panel also addressed the stereotypical divide between science and faith and asked the panelists what they had experienced in their efforts to restore the Chesapeake Bay.

Carl Hershner, Director of the Center for Coastal Resources Management at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science (VIMS), said he finds many scientists to be “deeply spiritual,” as working with the natural world breeds a certain sense of awe.

“You reach the end of your scientific understanding, and then you understand the value of faith-based reasoning,” he said.

Tayloe Murphy, who spearheaded several clean water initiatives as a former delegate to the Virginia General Assembly and secretary of Natural Resources, put it in his own words:

“I think the faith community tells us what we ought to do in relation to our environment. The science community tells us how to do it.”

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About Whitney Pipkin
Whitney Pipkin, writes about food, agriculture and the environment. She lives in Alexandria, VA, and is a fellow of the Institute for Journalists of Natural resources and blogs at thinkabouteat.com.
Read more articles by Whitney Pipkin

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