A small congregation gathers every week to worship at the Maryland Presbyterian Church in Towson, just north of Baltimore. They also gather regularly to nurture the four acres of woods surrounding their church and to explore their role in restoring the Chesapeake Bay.
“We share a conviction that it is our responsibility to care for the Earth,” said Bill Breakey, chair of the church environmental stewardship committee. “It’s a God-given treasure, and we are a part of it.”
To put those convictions into practice, church members formed a study group to explore their spiritual relationship to the Earth and discuss sustainable living.
“It’s spiritual, and it’s philosophical,” Breakey said. “What underlies our concern for the Earth? What is our place in the total scheme of things? What is the connection to our spiritual lives?”
The congregation launched a multiyear project to remove invasive, non-native plants from the wooded church grounds and replace them with native species that improve wildlife habitat.
They are developing plans to reduce the amount of stormwater runoff from the church’s roof and parking areas that carry pollutants to local waterways, and to update the church buildings to promote energy efficiency. Each month, the newsletter features “Eco-Tips” that can be practiced at home.
The Maryland Presbyterian congregation is among those in the faith community who are giving Biblically based environmental stewardship a growing presence nationwide.
That’s also reflected in the Chesapeake Bay watershed, where environmental activity in the faith community has spawned both a new guidebook for churches and a network for congregations that want to protect the Bay.
“Stewards of the Bay: A Toolkit for Congregations in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed” was released by the National Council of Churches in January 2006. The 58-page guidebook is free to any congregation wanting to make “creation care” an active part of their faith.
“We wanted to help churches put together their own events and take action to protect God’s gift of water in their own areas. Water is a global issue, but it is also a very local issue,” said Cassandra Carmichael, director of the Eco-Justice Program at the National Council of Churches.
Stewards of the Bay explores the Biblical basis for environmental stewardship, as well as offering suggestions for worship and a five-week curriculum for adult Christian education. The guidebook describes the ecology of the Bay watershed, provides ideas for action projects, and reminds congregations to “track legislation” and “participate in the public process” of decision-making.
Carmichael said that Stewards of the Bay was driven in part by the enthusiastic response to a conference on water resources hosted in 2004 by the National Council of Churches in Annapolis. The conference was funded in part by the Chesapeake Bay Small Watershed Grants Program, the Chesapeake Bay Trust, the Environmental Leadership Program, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Foundation. Approximately 75 participants hailed from a variety of denominations in Maryland, Virginia, and the District of Columbia.
During the workshop, several participants from Presbyterian, Unitarian Universalist, Episcopalian and other churches committed to promoting Bay stewardship among faith organizations.
A working group subsequently worked closely with the National Council of Churches to develop Stewards of the Chesapeake and to promote a new network called Chesapeake Covenant Congregations that was launched at a meeting in Annapolis on Jan. 21, and was attended by participants from 20 different churches in the Chesapeake region.
It is not unusual for congregations active in environmental stewardship to act on their convictions in many ways, including on-the-ground restoration projects.
In Annapolis, the Unitarian Universalist congregation completed a wide range of activities to earn certification from their denomination as a Green Sanctuary. They developed special services focused on caring for creation, with sermons, music, and readings to explore the theme. Youth and education programs complemented the worship. Members found ways to reduce waste at church and volunteered time with Habitat for Humanity. They also helped to restore the Bay’s underwater grasses by growing the plants in their homes and at church, and planting them in a local creek.
“Some churches have begun looking at BayScaping,” Carmichael said. “The Calvary United Methodist Church in Annapolis increased a buffer on their creek with native vegetation, and a Lutheran congregation in Washington, D.C. created an interpretive nature trail on their grounds, with religious and spiritual signage.”
Individual congregations are engaging with environmental issues at the same time that national religious organizations are going on record with environmental concerns.
The National Council of Churches, which began its Eco-Justice Program in 1983, issued its first ecumenical theological statement on the environment in 2004. Also in 2004, the National Association of Evangelicals published an Evangelical Call to Civic Responsibility that included environmental protection.
In 2005, the Interfaith Climate and Energy Campaign delivered a statement of concern to the Bush administration titled “God’s Mandate: Care for Creation,” signed by clergy and congregational leaders from Catholic, Protestant, evangelical, and Jewish organizations.
Carmichael said that the faith community approaches the environment from different viewpoints, but still finds common ground on protecting God’s creation. Most religious groups prioritize peace and justice issues above the environment, but there is a growing recognition that environmental issues are often at their root. International crises of disease and famine, as well as quality of life in U.S. neighborhoods, are driven by the need for clean air, clean water and a safe food supply.
“It’s about justice for all of God’s creation,” Carmichael said. “Animals, plants and people are all connected and you have to make sure you are having right relationships with all of them.”
Vincent Leggett, executive director of Blacks for the Chesapeake, believes that the overlap between social justice and environmental concerns may help people of all races become more effective at solving these problems through their churches. Leggett said that African-American churches, especially in urban areas, have always been involved with environmental issues that affect their quality of life—although those issues often exist under different names.
“We need to shatter the myth that people of color are not interested in environmental issues that affect their communities.” Leggett said. “If you ask, do people want good water, clean air, clean playgrounds, they’ll say yes every time. That’s the essence of environmental issues, though they get dressed up in a lot of ways.”
In rural areas, minority communities share a stronger ethic for what is more traditionally called environmentalism because their daily lives are closely tied to the rhythms of nature.
“But African American churches in the rural areas often don’t know where to move with those concerns,” Leggett said.
“They also end up focusing on issues like housing and education, which they find more pressing.”
Leggett is working with the National Council of Churches and the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay on an outreach plan that will speak more directly to the objectives of African-American preachers and congregations, emphasizing environmental education and field-based experiences in a Biblical context.
As environmental stewardship begins to resonate across different religious communities, its proponents are careful to distinguish themselves from secular organizations. Their actions are ultimately in reverence to God, and not to nature itself.
“Some people compare it to how they can get to know an artist by studying his painting,” Carmichael said. “You come to know God both by God’s written word and by walking in what God has created and being in relationship with it—but God is the creator, not the creation.”
Faith-based environmentalism is also about balance, rather than “resources.”
“Creation—the environment—is not ours. This is not about a chain of being, but about appreciation and gratitude for God’s gifts,” Carmichael said. “God is at the center, not humankind. If you keep that in mind, then the way you interact with the birds, the trees and air is different.”
George Fisher, geology professor at Johns Hopkins University, has spent recent years exploring both the ecological and cultural dimensions of sustainability. Fisher argues that promoting a discussion of values is critical for any meaningful solutions to the Bay’s—and the planet’s—ecological struggles.
“Science alone isn’t enough,” Fisher said. “All of our resource decisions, on any issue, will require deciding how to allocate resources. Who benefits, and who pays the price? That’s a moral decision, ultimately.”
Fisher said that the faith community is well poised to contribute to this discussion.
“There are a lot of value decisions that need to be made and discussed. That’s what the faith community is trying to do,” Fisher said. “Church is the venue in which people with environmental concerns can be engaged in constructive conversation with the business community. There’s a common theological set of beliefs on which you can try to work through disagreements.”
Corinne Irwin of Annapolis has seen this through personal experience as she helped her church become the first certified Green Sanctuary among Maryland’s Unitarian Universalist churches.
“When people look at sustainability, they tend to get wrapped up in economic arguments,” Irwin said. “In faith organizations, its more accepted that there are lots of things you do that are not the cheapest or the fastest, but because they align with your values.”
Some congregations have drawn on Biblical sources to create a direct and sustained dialogue about spiritual values and the environment. The Maryland Presbyterian Church in Towson and the Unitarian Universalist Church in Annapolis have also turned to course materials on “Deep Ecology” and sustainable living, created by the Northwest Earth Institute. The focus of these courses is on spiritual and philosophical discussion, rather than science.
According to Fisher, the scientific and the spiritual eventually must meet.
“All bring wisdom to the table, and they all need to be heard. But it’s hard to find a setting in which people will really listen to one another,” Fisher said. “They tend to parachute in and present their positions, then sit down and argue from their own perspectives. We need to think about ways in which we can start the conversation more productively.”
Carmichael has pondered this question in her work, too.
“It’s important for people in the secular community to respect the perspectives and the distinctions of the faith community,” Carmichael said. “If the secular community wants to work with the faith community, they need to see it as a coalition, not a new voice to be used.”
For information about becoming a Chesapeake Covenant Congregation, visit the National Council of Churches at www.nccecojustice.org/cheshome.htm. To request or download a copy of Stewards of the Bay: A Toolkit for Congregations in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed, visit the website above and select “Resources.”
Congregations for Creation
Religious organizations in the Chesapeake Bay region are actively involved with a variety of environmental issues and supporting the efforts of individual congregations. Examples include:
- The National Council of Churches USA coordinates Chesapeake Covenant Congregations, distributes “Stewards of the Bay: A Toolkit for Congregations in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed” and provides training opportunities through its Eco-Justice Program. It has also partnered with Blacks of the Chesapeake and the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay to produce outreach tools for African-American churches.
- The Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Policy, the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia & the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America offer Eco-Stewardship Resources, including advice on facility management, worship and legislative organizing. Training opportunities are under development.
- Interfaith Works in Pennsylvania fosters environmental stewardship by creating partnerships between sanctuaries.
- The Greater Washington Interfaith Power & Light promotes sustainable energy use and works to reduce the threat of global warming.
- The Religious Partnership for the Anacostia is dedicated to improving the river and its surrounding neighborhoods.
- The Maryland Interfaith Coalition for the Environment works to present legislators with a unified voice from a spiritual perspective.
- The Unitarian Universalists offer a Green Sanctuary certification program and recently began a Legislative Ministry for Maryland.