Elements of Faith http://faith.medilldc.net A special report on religion and the environment from Medill News Service | Washington Fri, 11 Dec 2009 21:29:44 +0000 en-US hourly 1 http://wordpress.org/?v=4.3.1 The program http://faith.medilldc.net/2009/12/09/about-medill-in-washington/ http://faith.medilldc.net/2009/12/09/about-medill-in-washington/#comments Wed, 09 Dec 2009 14:52:23 +0000 http://faith.medilldc.net/?p=279

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Nuns in the Northeast are racing to keep sacred grounds out of developers’ reach http://faith.medilldc.net/2009/12/08/earth/ http://faith.medilldc.net/2009/12/08/earth/#comments Tue, 08 Dec 2009 17:56:59 +0000 http://faith.medilldc.net/?p=6 By Bridget Macdonald | Medill News Service

It’s not just a feel-good spiritual mission. Over the past 40 years, the number of Catholic nuns has plummeted 66 percent, and the number of Catholic brothers by 60 percent. The financial strain of dwindling membership has resulted in lucrative – and often attractive – offers to sell the orders’ land over to developers.

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SCHOOL CLOSING: The beginning of a mission for Sister Chris Loughlin.

PLAINVILLE, Mass. (RNS) — Looking over the wooded parcel her Catholic order sold in 1992, Sister Chris Loughlin stood with arms folded, the regret on her face plain to see.

But Loughlin and her fellow Dominican sisters in this town about 30 miles southwest of Boston have more than made up for the loss of 10 acres from the former orchard that was bequeathed to the order in 1949.

Gesturing to surrounding fields and forests, Loughlin explained, “Now we have these 42 acres, and 32 of them are in a conservation restriction. So no matter what happens at this point, at least the land is preserved.”

The old orchard is now home to the Crystal Springs Earth Learning Center, and the rambling farmhouse is the unassuming headquarters for a remarkable land conservation initiative, the Religious Lands Conservancy.

Launched by Loughlin in 2002 with the Massachusetts Land Trust Coalition, the Religious Lands Conservancy has been instrumental in placing hundreds of acres of property owned by religious communities into conservation. With a faith-based mission to protect the earth, Loughlin has approached congregations throughout the Northeast to broach the spiritual value of conservation.

EARTH: The beginning and end

Whoever we are and wherever we go, everybody has the same final destination, according to the Bible. “All go to the same place,” the Book of Ecclesiastes says. “All come from dust, and to dust all return.

Jews commemorate this dusty fate at funerals, when the deceased are buried in simple, bio-degradable caskets that allow the body, eventually, to “mingle with the earth,” said Rabbi Judith Hauptman, a professor of Talmud and rabbinic culture at New York’s Jewish Theological Seminary. In Israel, not even coffins are used, in order to speed up the body’s blending with sacred soil, she said.

For Muslims, being buried without a coffin is considered a parting gift to the world. “Giving your body back to the earth is seen as one of the last acts of generosity that you can do,” said Omid Safi, a Muslim scholar and author of “Memories of Muhammad,” a new biography of Islam’s founder. Islamic literature is filled with tales of flowers blooming from gravesites, Safi added.

Some Jews sprinkle the body with dust from Israel, placing it on the deceased’s eyes, forehead, heart, and, for males, the area of their circumcision, as a reminder of the covenant between God and Abraham, according to Samuel Heilman’s 2001 book “When a Jew Dies.” At grave-side services, mourners will shovel dirt, preferably from the Holy Land, on the coffin, using the convex side of a shovel to symbolize the difficulty of dealing with death, until the coffin is hidden from sight.

Tradition holds that when the Messiah comes, Jews will be resurrected on the Mount of Olives in Israel, which is one reason Jewish law discourages cremation, said Hauptman. “It’s a whole lot easier to put you back together if your bones are there,” she said.

When the End of Days arrives, souls buried outside of Israel will begin an arduous journey through underground tunnels to the Holy Land. Sometimes a little bag of Israeli soil is placed with the deceased in order to help them find their way.

“If they bring a little soil with them, somehow it’s going to ease their journey,” Hauptman said.

~ Daniel Burke, Religion News Service

It’s not just a feel-good spiritual mission. Over the past 40 years, the number of Catholic nuns has plummeted 66 percent, and the number of Catholic brothers by 60 percent. The financial strain of dwindling membership has resulted in lucrative – and often attractive – offers to sell the orders’ land over to developers.

Loughlin said although religious orders are fading, their land could yet be a lasting legacy.

She is among a growing network of Catholic sisters who have re-examined their connection with the earth in the context of their faith. Mary Evelyn Tucker, a professor of environmental studies and religious studies at Yale University, said the increasing involvement of religious groups in preservation is not simply a trend, but “the rediscovery of ancient traditions.”

“All the rituals of world religions are very much nature-based,’’ she said.

The green-sister revolution is rooted in the teachings of the late Rev. Thomas Berry, who before his death last June fostered the idea that the environmental crisis must also be understood as a spiritual crisis. Sister Mariam MacGillis, a Dominican nun who has been at the forefront of the movement, said Berry’s perspective shifted her work “quite radically” to encompass a respect for all life on earth.

Ever since MacGillis co-founded the 226-acre Genesis Farm Earth Learning Center in Blairstown, N.J., in 1980, Catholic sisters across the U.S. and Canada have woven environmental justice and community-supported agriculture into their religious vocation.

In a state that is the nation’s third-most densely populated, the Dominican sisters of Plainville are helping to save a critical habitat, said Bob Wilber, director of land protection for the Massachusetts Audubon Society, and their foresight has helped spark conversations with other orders. “Some of the most significant land left (in Massachusetts) is owned by religious entities,” he said.

As religious orders took root across the U.S. in the 19th century, they built vast networks of schools, hospitals and orphanages to provide social services to the poor and marginalized. The rise of government and private programs, however, made many of these institutions obsolete.

In the mid 1970s, the sisters in Plainville confronted an increasingly familiar situation: fewer students were enrolling in their parochial school, and shrinking numbers of sisters meant having to hire (and pay) lay teachers.

“We converted that school building into a home for our retired sisters,” Loughlin said.

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A look at why religious orders feel connected to the land.

In a scenario faced by many Catholic orders, the cash-strapped sisters began to sell off pieces of property to help pay for the care of elderly members. In similar situations, land that was once eyed for a cemetery was split into subdivisions, and shuttered churches have been converted to million-dollar condos.

Yet Kathy McGrath of the Massachusetts Land Trust Coalition said many religious groups are starting to see that the benefits of protecting land often outweighs the costs, although some still need convincing.

“It’s so important,” McGrath said, “to have someone like Chris who is connected to…”

“Old nuns,” Loughlin interjected from across the table.

McGrath laughed, and then finished her thought. “She speaks their language, and they respect her.”

McGrath acknowledged that for many religious orders that are short on cash, preserving property in a land trust or a conservation easement might seem to make little financial sense. “They are giving up rights, for very little in return monetarily,” she said.

Unlikely conservationists

HOLYOKE, Mass. (RNS) — At this year’s annual meeting of the Trustees of Reservations, one of the state’s oldest conservation groups, the award for Conservationist of the Year went to an unlikely recipient – a community of aging nuns from one of the poorest cities in the state.

“It was very touching to be in front of a group of about 300 people who were all so very applauding of our efforts,” said Sister Elizabeth Oleksak, who accepted the award on behalf of the Sisters of Providence. “It was kind of the cream on the cake, if you will.”

The award was based on the sisters donating the “Land of Providence,” a 26-acre parcel on the banks of the Connecticut River in Holyoke, given to the Trustees of Reservations for conservation, farming and recreation.

The river was once the economic lifeblood of Holyoke. During its heyday, the small city, located 90 miles west of Boston, was a center of paper and silk manufacturing. But now a quarter of Holyoke residents live below the poverty line, with a median household income of $30,441, compared with $50,502 for the state as a whole.

Once bustling mills now loom over the river like hulking empty shells. Yet the sisters see revitalization evident at the water’s edge. “It began with our community’s mission of reaching out to women, earth and the poor,” Oleksak explained.

In 2006, the sisters struck an agreement to lease the vacant land to nonprofit organization Nuestras Raices, Spanish for “our roots,” which provides training in sustainable agriculture and farm economics for the city’s immigrant poor.

Farm program manager Kevin Andaluz said the collaboration provided an important resource “for people to eat healthy … and to give some idea to every kid of how to work the land.”

With members of the order getting older, the sisters were faced with the choice of whether to keep their land assets. Since neither Nuestras Raices nor the sisters had any expertise in long-term management, they sought help from the Trustees.

“We saw that the sisters had great interest in long-term conservation and service to community,” said Jocelyn Forbush, the regional director for the Trustees.

It was decided to protect the land in a trust, with one important stipulation: Nuestras Raices would be able to continue farming as long as possible.

Oleksak said the partnership has allowed the sisters to continue a tradition of service in Holyoke that dates to 1873, “but with a particularly important emphasis at this time on nurturing a relationship with the earth as well.”

Forbush said the project has opened her eyes to opportunities for collaboration with religious landholders in the region. It also posed interesting questions for her organization, which makes an effort to carry on the legacy of property donors.

“How do you have the spiritual or religious element come through in the way we do conservation with a sort of secular approach to the world?” she asked.

Forbush said her experience of working with a religious congregation revealed a set of shared beliefs, even if those beliefs weren’t necessarily religious.

“That doesn’t have to be about God and the church,” she said, “but it sort of comes down to this shared real sense of spirit around the earth and taking care of the earth.”

~ Bridget Macdonald

Yet Loughlin has appealed to religious communities by stressing the importance of perpetuity – leaving a legacy for future generations – a concept that advocates for conservation value as well.

Although more congregations have been coming to the Religious Land Conservancy for guidance, McGrath said, the work remains urgent.

“We are kind of in a hurry to get to some of these places that have real value for conservation before they are sold.”

About 60 miles to the southeast, at the gateway to Cape Cod, the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary has run a retreat center on 118 acres of waterfront property in Buzzards Bay since 1943.

Waterfront land in the area has skyrocketed in value, and the congregation has had many offers to sell. Yet the Rev. Stanley Kolasa, the center’s director, explained that “we realized that this is a gift – this is a gifted place. We want in some way to return the gift.”

With financial uncertainties prompting difficult questions, members of the congregation looked for answers at the Religious Lands Conservancy’s 2005 conference. Mass Audubon joined the conversation, and the land soon became a top priority for the state’s Coastal and Estuarine Land Conservation Program.

“It blossomed into a contiguous 300 acres on the ocean,” said Mass Audubon’s Wilber. “It’s probably the last time this will ever happen with land fronting on the water.”

Just one town south of Plainville, in Attleboro, the La Salette brothers have been another success story. The order built the Shrine of Our Lady of La Salette in 1953 adjacent to pristine woodlands, but the area became increasingly difficult for the brothers to manage.

“That land was being abused significantly by vandals, all-terrain vehicles, they were having drug parties in the woods,” said the Rev. Roger Plante.

Plante said the La Salette brothers wanted the land to be as much of a draw for spiritual reflection as the shrine had become, and enlisted the help of the Religious Lands Conservancy.

Charlie Wyman, a land protection specialist with Mass Audubon who worked with the brothers, said although this was his first partnership with a religious community, “we quickly discovered while we see the property through different lenses, our goals were virtually the same: to see property protected for all time for wildlife and people.”

Plante called the collaboration “almost miraculous,” saying it enabled the brothers to extend their traditional mission of healing to include the environment.

“When we speak of reconciliation, for too many years it was between us and God, us and our neighbors, us and ourselves,” said Plante.

“But more and more, we are highlighting the need for heavy-duty reconciliation between us and the Earth.”

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Wind advocates can see breath of Holy Spirit in the clean energy turbines provide http://faith.medilldc.net/2009/12/08/wind/ http://faith.medilldc.net/2009/12/08/wind/#comments Tue, 08 Dec 2009 17:56:14 +0000 http://faith.medilldc.net/?p=12 Wind advocates see breath of Holy Spirit in turbines’ clean energy

By Kat McCullough | Medill News Service

Religious leaders are excited about the use of wind turbines as a source of power that’s less harmful than alternatives such as fossil fuel. Environmental stewardship as an article of faith is a growing movement among religious groups in the U.S., even as the number of groups seeking to harness the power of wind remains relatively small.

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The story behind the Rev. Charles Morris and his church’s wind turbine.

WYANDOTTE, Mich. — On top of a nondescript brick building in this blue-collar Detroit suburb, a small windmill spins in the breeze, looking somewhat out of place amid the 1970s-style homes.

The windmill and two solar panels, slanted to catch the sun’s rays, sit on the roof of the rectory across the street from St. Elizabeth Catholic Church – a testament to the Rev. Charles Morris’ belief that his duty as a believer includes preserving the environment.

“I always thought about the value it would be to have a wind turbine because … it points to a different way
in which we husband the gifts of God,” said Morris, St. Elizabeth’s pastor. “These are sacred gifts, and they’re God’s – not ours to use as profligate.”

Morris is excited about the possibilities of wind power as an energy alternative that’s less harmful to the environment than, for example, fossil fuels. There is a plan to put a number of turbines in the Detroit River, which divides the U.S. and Canada and flows near St. Elizabeth Church.
He remembers well the day in June 2001 when his wind turbine was dedicated.

“We had dignitaries in the parking lot by the rectory, and I climbed up on the ladder with my holy water and went to do the blessing prayer,” he said. “Beautiful day, bright blue sky, but nary a cloud. And it was very still. But wouldn’t you know … the holy water hit the wind turbine, and out of nowhere a gust of wind came up and I heard all these gasps and oohs and ahhs. And I looked up and said, ‘Thank you.'”

The modifications to St. Elizabeth started in 2001, when Morris attended an energy workshop and learned that installing wind turbines was relatively easy – and could also qualify for state tax rebates. He said he was inspired by the Rev. Sally Bingham, a well-respected leader in the sustainability field who is the environmental minister at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco.

Morris “really understands the connection between religion and saving creation,” said Bingham, an Episcopal priest and founder of the group Interfaith Power and Light. “I think all of us as religious leaders who are working in this movement understand that how we treat creation is a reflection of our relationship with God. If we are destroying God’s creation, it doesn’t demonstrate a very sincere love of God.”

AIR: Inspiring mindfulness

Everybody uses air, of course. Not only is it essentially for respiration, it also carries sound: the peal of church bells, the bellow of a pipe organ, the whisper of a Muslim father calling his newborn to holiness. But Buddhists use air, or more accurately, breath, in a unique way: as a vehicle to mindfulness and liberation.

Thousands of years ago, the Buddha instructed followers to sit in the lotus position beneath a shady tree, keep their bodies still and straight and simply pay attention to their breath. Just as rain settles swirling dirt on a dusty road, focusing on the steady back-and-forth of our breath can calm an agitated mind, the Buddha said.

The meditation master actually devoted an entire sutra, or discourse, to the “full awareness of breathing,” in which he explained that breath meditation “if developed and practiced continuously, will give rise to understanding and liberation of the mind.”

Nearly every contemporary Buddhist sect now uses some form of breathing meditation, said Susan Piver, an author and meditation instructor. “In any kind of meditation, you are substituting your mind-stream for another object of attention,” she said. “In some traditions that is an image or a sound; in Buddhism the object is breath.”

Mentally following the breath forces the meditator to focus on the present moment and sharpens their powers of concentration and awareness, according to Piver, whose most recent book is called “Quiet Mind: A Beginner’s Guide to Meditation.” “Your breath can’t be anywhere but the present.”

While the practice seems simple, it’s not easy, especially for modern minds accustomed to hyper-speed multi-tasking. But even non-Buddhists have begun to pick up forms of mindfulness meditation, using it to reduce stress, depression, and even chronic lower-back pain.

~ Daniel Burke, Religion News Service

Environmental stewardship as an article of faith is a growing movement among religious groups in the U.S., even as the number of groups seeking to harness the power of wind remains relatively small.

St. Thomas Episcopal Church in Springdale, Ark., uses three wind turbines as part of its year-old Trinity Wind Project. Stephan Pollard, an energy expert who oversaw the project, says energy savings was not the motivation for the turbines.

“The point is to send a message that … it’s time to step up to the plate and take responsibility for the stewardship of the planet,” he said. “Cost is important, but the church felt as a whole we need to be paying more for the things we’ve been taking for granted.”

Pollard added that the project was a tangible way that St. Thomas could preach a practical lesson: Do as we do, not just as we say. “It needs to be done so we can see what happens,” he said.

Bingham came to the idea of environmentalism as a religious duty while in the seminary, where she founded the Regeneration Project to promote the connection between ecology and faith.

“I’ve always had a very strong sense of God in nature, and in the early ’80s I was getting worried that humans were destroying the planet,” Bingham said. “I never heard anyone at a pulpit talk about it and they weren’t teaching it in seminary. So I teamed up with another seminarian and we founded the Regeneration Project.”

Interfaith Power and Light began as an offshoot of the Regeneration Project in 1998 to help religious communities purchase renewable energy. It now has chapters in 29 states and the District of Columbia. Morris, from St. Elizabeth’s, helped found the Michigan chapter.

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The Rev. Sally Bingham sees a link between ecology and faith.

Morris likes to proudly show off the energy system he installed at his church and rectory. He has just installed a LED chandelier in his dining room, and all his lights are on motion-activated sensors. In the rectory basement, a complex system turns the energy collected on the roof into power for the buildings.

Morris has four renewable energy systems operating in the rectory.

“We have a solar attic fan which is an off-the-shelf technology. Regardless of if you have (tax) incentives or not, this is something that can pay for itself within a couple years. We replaced the boiler here with one that’s rated about 94 percent efficiency. That reduced our gas load by a third.”

Morris also installed solar-powered hot water, the solar panels and a wind turbine. “The reason we have both those systems is due to Michigan’s climate,” Morris explains. “In the summertime we have more solar gain than Florida. In the wintertime, forget it – but you have wind.”

Bingham sees a bright future for wind power in the future of the American energy system.

“It may be the fastest growing industry right now,” Bingham said. “We have a serious problem in the U.S. with getting the wind energy into the (electrical) grid because we need to redo our grid. But wind, to me, is always blowing.”

One thing that would help, she said, is for Americans to change their view of the large wind turbines springing up around the country.

“Wouldn’t you rather have a wind turbine in your backyard than a coal plant or a nuclear power plant?” she said. “I think wind turbines are beautiful. I know there are some people who haven’t gotten used to them yet, but if we have young children around us and they see a wind turbine we can say, ‘Isn’t that beautiful?’ and those children will grow up thinking turbines are beautiful rather than an eyesore.”


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Religious leaders work toward preservation of world’s water supply http://faith.medilldc.net/2009/12/08/water/ http://faith.medilldc.net/2009/12/08/water/#comments Tue, 08 Dec 2009 17:56:00 +0000 http://faith.medilldc.net/?p=10 Religious leaders work toward preservation of world’s water supply

By Michelle Minkoff | Medill News Service

Vietnamese Catholics in New Orleans are one religious group of many throughout the United States that try to protect water — rivers, lakes and oceans — because, they say, their faith calls them to take care of the planet.

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Rebuilding gardens: Bringing food and togetherness to a community

NEW ORLEANS — The green movement is going blue for many groups of different faiths that consider it a religious duty to protect the world’s bodies of waters.

While water advocacy is a fairly recent phenomenon for some religious groups across the U.S., environmental activism as a matter of faith is a longstanding tradition for the Mary Queen of Vietnam Catholic Church in East New Orleans.

“This is part of the work of being a steward of creation,” said the Rev. Vien Nguyen, the church’s pastor. “We are commissioned to this by none other than God himself and the church.”

For years, Nguyen and his congregation have been fighting the pollution of the Chef Menteur landfill, located a little more than a mile from the church. Runoff from the landfill leaches into wetlands that border the Naxent Canal, which in turn feeds into the Naxent Lagoon in the heart of Village de L’Est, a neighborhood primarily occupied by members of Nguyen’s church.

“We rely on the seafood industry,” he said. “When the water is contaminated, our livelihood is threatened.”

But it’s not just about their jobs. The Vietnamese Catholics say their faith calls them to take care of all aspects of the planet, especially along the southern coast of the United States.

The landfill had been closed, but was reopened after Hurricane Katrina to accommodate construction debris, said Lauren Butz, the church’s environmental justice coordinator. Because the landfill wasn’t lined, it couldn’t handle toxic waste, and as houses were gutted, the landfill collected “anything you might find in your garage,” she said. Even though Chef Menteur was closed in late 2006, the debris was merely covered up, and continued to seep into the water.

Nguyen’s congregation went to court to move the landfill to a location designed that can accommodate toxic materials, but a decision has not yet been issued. Although his congregation has to travel 90 miles to testify at the court hearings – a hardship for some older parishioners – they are steadfast in pursuing the case, he said.

WATER: A cleansing rebirth

Nearly every major religion uses water for ritual cleansing, whether believers are readying a loved one for burial or preparing to enter sacred spaces. Some religions believe that water derived from a particular source, such as the Zamzam Well in Mecca, has healing properties. Others, like Catholics, believe that holy water sanctified by priests can confer blessings and even ward off evil.

For most Christians, water plays a particularly important role as the vehicle through which new members are baptized into the faith. Baptists, Catholics, and Eastern Orthodox believers may never agree on when and how proselytes should be submerged or sprinkled, but all agree that water is the essential element for washing away sins and saving souls.

“It isn’t just cleansing,” said the Rev. Russell Haitch, a United Methodist and associate professor of Christian education at Bethany Theological Seminary in Indiana, “it’s a way of being incorporated into the death and resurrection of Jesus. It symbolizes the total transformation of one’s life.”

When Christians are baptized, they are following the example of Jesus, who the Bible says was baptized by his cousin John the Baptist in the Jordan River. If Jesus hadn’t been baptized, it’s not likely that the ritual would have survived, said Haitch, author of “From Exorcism to Ecstasy: Eight Views of Baptism.”

At the time, John’s baptisms symbolized a moral cleansing and a turning of one’s life to God. John may have been following the example of contemporary Jews who baptized converts as “new persons” and used water extensively for cleansing rituals. After Jesus, baptism began to take on new meanings, however.

According to Genesis, “the face of the waters” was the first thing God formed on earth; for many Christians, water was the first element of the world redeemed by Jesus when he stepped in the River Jordan.

“This is the first step of taking back ground, as it were, from the enemy,” Haitch said. “The water of the Jordan is being reclaimed as a means of union with God.”

~ Daniel Burke, Religion News Service

“This is the first time they’ve been allowed to rebuild in peace since after the (Vietnam) war, so they have thrown everything into it,” he said.

Butz’s passion lies in reducing water used in sustainability plans and works closely with the Vietnamese community – a textbook example of collaboration between environmentalists and religious groups working together to achieve the same goal.

Issues of water preservation are so important to Mary Queen of Vietnam that the church launched a Community Development Corporation in May 2006 that’s designed specifically to work on environmental and water-related issues.

The group’s central project is working to redesign local gardens to minimize the water needed to grow and harvest organic plants. In the past, the gardens were far enough away from the water that they had to be irrigated, a process that introduces additional toxins and dirt into the local water supply.

Another Catholic group in Des Moines, Iowa, is also advocating for clean water, but with slightly different goals.

Many members of the National Catholic Rural Life Conference are concerned about polluted water killing off livestock in their area. “We are to protect the animals we have dominion over, according to the Bible,” said Tim Kautza, the water coordinator for the council. “And we need to do that by reducing pollutants in the water, so that they can be healthy again.”

Kautza added that every human being deserves protection, the right to be sustained by food and the ability to earn a living. In rural communities, because so many people depend on the natural ecosystem for work and livelihood, advocating for laws to protect livestock is directly related to the community’s survival.

“It is said we have a religious responsibility to be stewards of the land. But in rural areas, and all over, the land is powered by and relies on water. And if nothing is being done, it’s up to us to step in,” said Kautza.

This religious duty to protect water extends beyond just Catholics. Leaders representing many of the world’s religions met in New Orleans in October to discuss the importance of preserving global water supplies.

The Anglican bishop of London, Richard Chartres, said he felt progress was being hampered by many people in the church who are still “in denial” about the urgency of threats to the environment.

“We need to build a truly transforming community of the future,” he said. “But to do that, it is absolutely crucial that we remain positive.”

Arctic tribes, for one, depend on water and fishing for their survival, and believe in a sacred quality of water and nature. “We’re seeing less wildlife in the water. It’s not good for us, and it’s not good for this world,” said Patricia Cochran, chair of the Inuit Circumpolar Council.

Margaret Barker, a biblical scholar, argued that saving the world’s water supply is an imperative bound up in humanity’s covenant with God that is detailed in the Bible.

When religious scholars discuss the covenant, it is often seen through the lens of Abraham’s covenant with God. But in fact the covenant Barker was referring to is older – the story of Noah and the pact he made with God after the storied flood.

It was, Barker said, a “system of bonds to keep the whole creation together in one system, and bind it to the Creator, the source of its life.” Sin was considered anything that disrupts the covenant, including the sin of environmental degradation.

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Mighty Mississippi: Tourists and locals reflect on the river.

“Water is the source of life, and so while it is absolutely imperative that we protect the creation as a whole,” Barker said, “water is of particular concern.”

At the New Orleans summit, the spiritual leader of the world’s 250 million Orthodox Christians, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, argued that humans have a special religious duty to protect the waters because they often are the cause of the pollution.

“Even the smallest human intervention, even the minutest change in the natural order brought about by human action can have – and does have – long-term devastating effects on the planet,” said Bartholomew, who’s earned the unofficial title of “Green Patriarch” for his environmental activism.

Bartholomew bemoaned the depletion of the world’s rainforests, which act as sponges for the world’s waters and help maintain balance in the ecosystem. He also expressed concern for the stress modern irrigation had placed on the waters.

“Irrigation for agriculture takes 70 percent of global demand for water, and – almost unimaginably – some of the world’s greatest rivers are so depleted by the influence of humans that they no longer flow to the sea,” he said. “And those that do, carry in their waters all the chemical fertilizers, herbicides, insecticides and waste materials they have collected along their course.”

In early November, the Festival of Faiths in Louisville, Ky., brought together more than 60 religious and nonprofit groups concerned about preserving water. Co-chair Christina Lee Brown said her organization is working to bring environmental and religious groups together to preserve an element that has long been used as a sacred tool of cleansing and purification.

“The conversation’s not over yet,” Brown said. “In fact, this is just the beginning … What is extremely important is that we find a way for our communities of faith to connect their actual faith beliefs with the preservation and care for water.”

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In Hawaii, sacred beliefs are pitted against sustainability, conservation — and tourists http://faith.medilldc.net/2009/12/08/fire/ http://faith.medilldc.net/2009/12/08/fire/#comments Tue, 08 Dec 2009 06:55:38 +0000 http://faith.medilldc.net/?p=8 Hawaii, sacred beliefs pitted against sustainability, conservation

By Kellen Henry | Medill News Service

The fires of Kilauea provide a stark backdrop to a burgeoning debate in Hawaii that has pitted sacred beliefs and economic growth against each other. Today, the spiritual beliefs that honored the volcanoes as the realm of the divine are being practiced as conservation – Hawaiians fighting to preserve the environment from developers, tourists and even environmental groups.

Lava flows into the ocean from the active Kilauea volcano in the Puna District of Hawaii’s big island.

HILO, Hawaii — The caravan of tourists begins to form at dusk, snaking its way down a deserted stretch of State Route 130 on the big island of Hawaii, past the point where lava flows from the Kilauea volcano destroyed the roadway.

As night falls, visitors scramble over the rough terrain to the viewing area, fixing their binoculars and cameras on the glowing plume of smoke and choppy waves that mark the spot where lava seeps into the Pacific.

Here, new Hawaii is being created as the ocean hardens molten rock into new coastline. But beneath the tourists’ feet, the earth is being reborn as green ferns and grasses reach upward from the crevices carved by the volcano’s fiery flow.

“There’s a whole other magic that’s here that is so powerful and so strong,” said Hanalei Fergerstrom, a priest of the Temple of the god Lono.

For Fergerstrom, that power is not just the beauty of the tropical paradise, but the inexorable connection between the Hawaiian people, their faith and the land where their ancestors sowed the first seeds of human life into the volcanic soil.

The fires of Kilauea provide a stark backdrop to a burgeoning debate in Hawaii that has pitted sacred beliefs, environmental protection, economic growth and sustainability against each other.

As a practitioner and teacher of traditional island spirituality, Fergerstrom advocates for native Hawaiian rights and worships the pantheon of Hawaiian deities including Pele, the fiery goddess of the volcanoes, who inhabits Kilauea.

The native religion centers on the belief that all things contain a spiritual force called mana. It is this sacred force that runs through people, deities and living things, but also weather, waves, rocks and the steam seeping from volcanic fissures. Through prayers, chants and dancing the hula, people can communicate with the spiritual forces in the world around them.

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Traditions of island spirituality call for a reverence for nature.

Because of the sacredness of living and nonliving things, the Hawaiian belief system created a society centered on conservation and self-sufficiency. Natives divided the islands not by property lines, but by self-sufficient pie-shaped wedges called ahupua’a. People lived on the shoreline, while the pristine volcanic summits were reserved for the gods.

Today, the spiritual beliefs that honored the volcanoes as the realm of the divine are being practiced as conservation – Hawaiians fighting to preserve the environment from developers, tourists and even environmental groups.

“Native Hawaiians were pretty good conservationists in their own way,” said Les Sponsel, director of the spiritual ecology program at the University of Hawaii at Manoa.

“Almost anything in nature was considered in some way, to some degree, spiritual _ the waves coming in and out (were) the gods of the ocean breathing. Even rocks were considered to have some kind of spiritual power.”

These beliefs carried with them the ideas of caring for the land as a family member, of asking permission before partaking of the earth’s gifts and of accepting responsibility as a member of an ecosystem.

The Polynesian people had a lifestyle far less detrimental to the delicate island ecosystems than that of the European settlers who followed them, according to Sponsel. Areas of spiritual significance were kept pristine because access was limited to priests or those who traveled with a spiritual purpose.

The old Hawaiian ways stand in sharp contrast with places like Volcano National Park today, home to the Kilauea and Mauna Loa volcanoes, which receives upward of 2.5 million visitors a year.

Fergerstrom and other native Hawaiians are troubled by the focus on tourism and attempts to preserve the volcanoes, rather than include them as a vibrant, living part of Hawaiian culture.

“You preserve dead things, like you pickle mangoes, you pickle onions,” he said.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the island, the sacred summits of the dormant Mauna Kea volcano are at the center of an even more heated controversy, pitting the realm of the spiritual against the interests of science and development.

For Hawaiians, Mauna Kea is the umbilical cord that connects the terrestrial with the realm of the gods. Limited access protected its pristine ecosystem and helped keep water supplies clean as they flowed to population centers in the lowlands.

“Anybody could go to Mauna Kea, but you had to have a reason,” Fergerstrom said. “Now, how do you balance what is the exploited part with those people who are actually on spiritual journeys?”

Mauna Kea’s summit is a prime site for astrological and scientific discovery, home to the world’s largest astronomical observatory. Fighting development on Mauna Kea is an issue on which native Hawaiians and environmental groups have found common ground.

But sometimes even good intentions miss the mark.

“Conservation without recognizing the culture, the sense of place, isn’t really conservation,” said Marti Townsend, program director of KAHEA, the Hawaiian Environmental Alliance.

FIRE: A watchful witness

A small fire burned throughout Sheetal Shah’s hour-long wedding ceremony last October at an Atlanta hotel. Rather than extinguish it, the Hindu priest who officiated fed the fire with ghee, a kind of butter, and with offerings from Shah and her groom’s parents. The happy couple circled the fire — contained in a small box called a “havan” — several times while vowing their devotion to each other.

Just as many Western cultures require witnesses at wedding ceremonies, for Hindus like Shah, fire serves as an essential divine witness; without the flames, a wedding is not considered complete or authentic.

“I don’t think I’ve ever heard of a wedding ceremony that hasn’t had a fire,” said Shah, who is director of development for the Hindu American Foundation. “If we’re not allowed to use fire, we’d change locations.”

People in India have revered the fire god Agni (the original source of the word “ignite”) for thousands of years, said Vasudha Narayanan, an expert on Hinduism at the University of Florida. Like the ancient Greeks, who composed the myth of the mortal Prometheus stealing the fire from the gods, Hindus associate fire with the intellect and knowledge. Almost every major marker in Hindu life — from birthdays to funerals — can only be done in front of fire, Narayanan said.

Fire is considered an ever-watchful witness, present in the sun in the sky and in the hearth at the center of many Indian homes, and thus an apt element to watch over the wedding ceremony. Today, the wedding fire is sometimes also associated with the romantic spark that drew the betrothed together.

“That’s the beauty of these kinds of symbols,” Narayanan said, “they give room to be interpreted in many different ways.”

~ Daniel Burke, Religion News Service

KAHEA works on behalf of native Hawaiian environmental rights on numerous issues, including attempts to prevent the University of Hawaii from installing additional telescopes on Mauna Kea.

In many cases, environmental, political and business sectors don’t appreciate the cultural or spiritual concerns tied up in decisions on land and resource usage. These misunderstandings often pit well-intentioned groups against one another in the so-called “green-brown divide,” with eco-advocates accused of cultural insensitivity on one side, and native Hawaiians labeled as stuck in the past on the other.

“Just because you’re giving respect to something that was here before you and will exist after you, does not mean that we are advocating for something that’s somehow not forward-thinking,” Townsend said.

As these groups grapple with finding mutual understanding, the need for a sustainable future is all the more apparent. Before white settlers arrived, the Hawaiian Islands provided for upwards of one million people. Today, a similar number of residents and tens of thousands of tourists are sustained almost totally by imported food, goods and energy.

Hawaii is the most oil-dependent of all 50 states, relying on imported petroleum for 90 percent of its primary energy, according to the Hawaii State Department of Energy, even though the state has abundant wind, solar, wave and geothermal resources.

“Those are major sources of energy, so it seems natural that we wouldn’t be mining oil and taking carbon and burning it and taking carbon from the crust and putting it in the atmosphere,” said Rob Kinslow, executive coordinator of Hawaii Interfaith Power and Light, a chapter of a national organization that promotes interfaith conservation efforts.

The year-old Hawaii group is trying to build relationships within religious communities on Oahu in order to give a platform for faith groups to advocate conservation and sustainability.

“The church, along with everybody else in our society, has bought into the idea that the environment is a wholly owned subsidiary of the economy,” Kinslow said. “In fact, the opposite is true, in that the world we inhabit, the world that we were given by the creator, the world that we’re told to steward, it’s our home and it’s the church.”

Still, Kinslow doesn’t see a sustainable solution in simply unplugging from oil and trying to harness large-scale alternative energy, either.

The better idea is a return to the small-scale, sustainable communities that live within the means of the resources they have, much like the pie-shaped ahupua’a where native Hawaiians once lived.

Fergerstrom says Hawaii could be the place where the lava enters the water, sending out ripples of social change to model a more just, peaceful and sustainable world.

“Like Pele, how do you kindle the fire, how do you keep those embers burning long enough for it to catch the rest?” he said.

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