Environmental activism can be a matter of faith

Religious coalition has ecology as center

May 28, 1999|By John Rivera | John Rivera,SUN STAFF

A national faith-based environmental coalition of Catholics, liberal Protestants, evangelicals and Jews announced yesterday a decade-long initiative to help congregations put care for the Earth's natural resources at the heart of their ministry and mission.

Leaders of the New York-based National Religious Partnership for the Environment said member denominations have pledged $16 million to fund educational programs and publications on the ecology for clergy and laity, and the integration of environmental projects into their human service agencies.

Two Maryland-based projects will serve as models for what coalition officials hope to accomplish.

"The religious community has made a structural commitment and a financial commitment to move forward on these issues over the next 10 years," said Paul Gorman, executive director of the coalition. It was founded in 1993 by representatives of the U.S. Catholic Conference, the National Council of Churches of Christ, the Evangelical Environmental Network and the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life.

The move to address environmental issues from a religious perspective is not simply a matter of churches jumping on an environmental bandwagon, said John Carr of the U.S. Roman Catholic Conference.

"This is not simply the environmental movement at prayer," Carr said. "This is the religious community, with its own tradition and teaching about care for creation and stewardship of the Earth, trying to find its distinctive voice on important issues that face the country."

Environmental issues have received increasing attention from the country's religious denominations, which often frame them as matters of social justice. Many have issued statements or have passed resolutions urging care for creation, like the U.S. Bishops' 1991 statement, "Renewing the Earth," and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America's 1993 document, "Caring for Creation: Vision, Hope and Justice."

Evangelical congregations are being encouraged to become "Noah Congregations" that actively care for the environment. Pressure from Jewish groups, led by the "redwood rabbis," is credited with helping persuade a Jewish businessman to accept a government offer in March that will result in the preservation of the Headwaters Forest in Northern California, which had been the largest tract of unprotected redwoods in the world.

But the country's religious communities were not always on the environmental forefront.

"I think the religious community frankly was slow to engage environmental issues for a number of reasons," Gorman said. "Traditionally our concerns have been for human well-being, for social justice, for those humans in this society who are most oppressed and threatened. But we realized these are inescapably religious concerns. That a measure of our relationship to our creator God is our faithful stewardship of God's creation."

Coalition leaders held up two Baltimore projects as examples of grass roots environmental efforts they want to encourage through the initiative.

At Loyola College in Maryland, the campus ministry staff developed a retreat for students focusing on environmental spirituality, which they have conducted for the past two years.

"The purpose of the retreat was to get students in touch with themselves in relation to the wonder of God's creation and the wonder of ourselves in relation to God's creation," said Sister Mary Jane Kreidler.

"The purpose was to make students aware that this is a part of who they are as committed Christians and that we have a responsibility in terms of how we choose to live in our environment and to commit to make that environment better," she said.

The experience was profound for some of the students, she said.

"For some we found that once the connection is made, it has a life-shaping effect on them, even in terms of choosing their majors, what they're going to do with their lives," she said.

The Maryland Catholic Conference, the lobbying arm of Maryland's Catholic bishops, last week held the first of two conferences that will develop an environmental policy agenda.

Last Friday's meeting, held at St. Mary's Seminary and University in Roland Park, brought together Bible scholars, theologians and representatives of local and national environmental groups to lay out the principles of Catholic teaching on the environment, said Richard J. Dowling, Maryland Catholic Conference executive director.

At a second conference in late September, which will include clergy and laity involved in social justice issues, as well as Catholic educators, participants will hammer out principles "which we can apply in our churches, communities, family life and in our public policy advocacy efforts," Dowling said.

Pub Date: 5/28/99

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