What does “spiritual” mean to you?

While “spiritual” often refers to religious beliefs, it also commonly describes a variety of very personal experiences, thoughts and emotional responses to the world around us. Anyone who loves nature — religious or not — also knows the feeling of connection with the natural world that goes beyond the physical place he or she is in.

Why is it so hard for a photograph to really capture that amazing sunset, vista or waterfall? It’s because there is a linkage with nature that connects us to more than just being present. It is the essence that is hard to capture with a photograph, put into words or fully explain.

Mahatma Gandhi said: “a spiritual relationship is far more precious than a physical one. The physical divorced from spiritual is like body without soul.”

One can also look to a different source, Native American beliefs. Sitting Bull said: “Every seed is awakened and so is all animal life. It is through this mysterious power that we, too, have our being and we therefore yield to our animal neighbors the same rights as ourselves, to inhabit this land.” Many diverse cultures are united in trying to understand their relationship and place in stewardship of the natural world.

Pope Francis, who just visited the United States, has shaken things up a bit with his encyclical on the environment, “Laudato Si.” For the first time, maybe the most visible religious leader in the world has made protecting the environment not just a nice thing to do if we can afford it, but a “moral responsibility.” “Everything is connected,” the pope wrote. “Concern for the environment needs to be joined to a sincere love for our fellow human beings and an unwavering commitment to resolving the problems of society.”

Even though the press has focused on climate change and the pope’s message as a political rebuttal to some, the encyclical contains some of the most extensive writings to date on the linkage of religious belief, social justice and environmental protection principles and causes.

If you are more comfortable taking out the theological teachings, you can still find many of the same points that the environmental movement has been making, here and around the world, but expressed with the conviction of a significant layer of the spiritual. It is interesting that there are many elements of common language and thought among the causes of the environment, civil rights, social justice and faith-based stewardship.

One of the key challenges facing the Chesapeake effort is how to broaden and diversify the meaningful engagement of local stewards in restoration and protection actions.

Putting aside political correctness, and with both historic and contemporary foundations already laid for the imperative to care for the environment, it makes sense to expand our efforts to audiences whose personal motivation may also be strengthened by their religious beliefs. Nearly all faith traditions, though highly diverse, share a spiritual connection to the natural world as creation. So it makes sense to reach out to the faith community.

National surveys indicate that 30–40 percent of our population regularly participates in or is affiliated with a religious congregation. In the Bay watershed, this means 5 million to 7 million residents and nearly 20,000 individual houses of worship. Congregants are as diverse as society, representing every social, economic, racial and political persuasion.

For more than five years, the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay has been working closely with a group of faith leaders who have formed the coalition, Interfaith Partners for the Chesapeake. The IPC’s mission is to educate, support and motivate people and communities of faith in the Chesapeake watershed to care for the Earth and all of its inhabitants, beginning with their own home, the Bay watershed.

We all know that the science, politics and solutions for many global and regional issues can be complicated and leave people overwhelmed or powerless. As IPC Director Jodi Rose points out, “We remind folks to start with what they understand and what they can impact in their own communities.”

Working together, the Alliance and the IPC have developed a number of programs that engage and mobilize individuals and faith communities. And we have started close to home — by talking about the lands and facilities that are managed by houses of worship.

Our Trees for Sacred Places program targets faith-owned properties, including congregational grounds, retreat centers and church summer camps where there is space to plant trees.

The Alliance provides educational workshops to talk about the value of trees while the IPC explores the symbolism of trees in the spirituality of faith traditions. Together, we help to organize volunteers and provide hands-on training for tree planting and maintenance that will guide congregations. More than 2,000 trees have been planted on these properties to protect soil and water, add habitat and beauty, and create places of reflection and meditation.

With help from Maryland Department of Natural Resources, the IPC and Alliance also launched River Wise Congregations in 2015. This program offers technical, faith-based and financial support to educate congregational leaders about the growing problem of polluted runoff, and helps them implement demonstration projects on their grounds. As an added benefit, the Anne Arundel Watershed Stewards Academy is training one or two members of each congregation to be a Master Watershed Steward so that ongoing leadership can happen from within each faith community.

In November, the Alliance will be supporting the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, which along with other partners, will be presenting the second “Living Waters Summit” — a gathering of diverse faith communities seeking to learn about and take action for the Chesapeake.

We hope to do more in the future.

Everyone views the environment and the protection and restoration of a local river or the Chesapeake through their own lens of beliefs and experiences: hunters or fishermen through their sport, a birder through the ebbs and flows of migration, a kayaker from the river, an urban dweller through parks and human landscapes, a corporation through sustainability, a farmer through soil. For faith communities, these diverse viewpoints are also married with a sense of spiritual mission — caring for the Earth as our home.

In the opening of his encyclical, Pope Francis said, “I wish to address every living person on this planet.” It is hard to ignore the unmistakable connection we have with the air, water and land around us. Through our respect and stewardship of water and the land, we demonstrate respect for each other and for future generations.

Working with faith communities to bring about the restoration of the Chesapeake watershed has given us all a “spiritual” reward already.