Religion goes green as ecology joins theology in the pulpit

Posted: Friday, November 03, 2000

VANTAGE, Wash. (AP) -- When they're not saving souls, more of the religious faithful are trying to save the environment. They're lobbying for the Endangered Species Act, conducting energy audits and educating others about global climate change.

Around the nation, priests, pastors and rabbis are mixing theology and ecology, urging their congregations into earthly stewardship with passages straight from the Bible. Their message: From the Columbia River to the California redwoods and the hills of West Virginia, this planet is the handiwork of God, who wants us to take care of it.

''Our goal is to bring the mission of care for God's creation more fully to the heart of religious life,'' said Paul Gorman, director of the National Religious Partnership for the Environment, a network of environmentally aware Roman Catholic, Jewish, evangelical Christian and mainline Protestant organizations.

In the Northwest, seven Roman Catholic bishops and one bishop from southeastern British Columbia will issue a pastoral letter early next year on the Columbia River.

''There are so many issues surrounding the river and its watershed. From the standpoint of the bishops, this was an opportunity to reflect on, from a spiritual standpoint, not only its beauty, but the way it brings people together,'' said Bishop William Skylstad of Spokane.

There is much symbolism in water for many different faithful, from purification to destruction. Indians of the Northwest have long incorporated the river into their religious beliefs.

Tsagiglalal, the ''She Who Watches'' ancient petroglyph carved into stone over the Columbia River Gorge, is one sacred site. Just upriver at the Columbia's Stonehenge Memorial, Druids gathered in June at the Summer Solstice to welcome the new season.

The Seattle-based Washington Association of Churches, which has 1,600 congregations and parishes as members, has an environmental justice program that has met for ''days of moral deliberation'' on the Columbia River, said director John Boonstra.

Wheat farmers, barge owners, fishermen, hydropower interests and others have examined not only the politics, economics and science of river management but also its spiritual value.

''Is there consensus? No. Should there be common ground? Yes,'' Boonstra said.

For many of America's religious, keeping the faith in the literal wilderness is relatively new.

The Rev. Chris Bender shares the word with the 35 families at his Assumption Greek Orthodox Church in Morgantown, W.Va. He got involved three years ago in the National Council of Churches' eco-justice working group.

''Once I got involved, I began to realize the nature and degree of the crisis facing us in the environment, and it became a very big part of my ministry,'' he said.

This fall, an interfaith educational campaign is under way in 16 states to educate people about global climate change.

Kicking off the effort recently in his state, the Rev. Fred Morris, head of the Florida Council of Churches, said, ''If we genuinely believe in a creator God, then caring and protecting God's creation is an essential and central part of our religious life and activity.''

Anne D. Burt, coordinator of the initiative in Maine, compared it to the stand that churches took on civil rights in the 1950s and '60s.

''This is the same thing,'' she said. ''It is an issue of justice -- it's an issue of the right relationship with the earth.''

In northern California, the ''Redwood Rabbis'' battled to save old-growth trees from logging in the Headwaters Forest. Last year, Pacific Lumber, owned by Maxxam Corp., agreed to sell two stands of redwoods to the U.S. and state governments to create a 7,470-acre reserve. Pacific Lumber also agreed to restrictions on cutting and land-management requirements for much of its other redwood inventory.

The rabbis had appealed to Maxxam owner Charles Hurwitz ''on the basis of his faith,'' but it was unclear whether that was the deciding factor, said Mark X. Jacobs, director of the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life in New York City.

The coalition has focused on forest preservation and issues of global climate change, matters that have a very high level of interest among younger Jews, he said.

''This is a new area in Jewish life where younger people have an opportunity to exercise leadership,'' he said.

For Ronald J. Sider, a theology and culture professor at Eastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, activism has been a key part of the involvement of evangelical Christians in the environment.

In 1995, he led the Evangelicals for Social Action to Washington, D.C., to advocate for the Endangered Species Act, which caught some in the capital by surprise. ''Politically most everybody thought all evangelicals were part of the Christian Coalition and in the back pocket of the Republicans in Congress,'' Sider recalled.

But the mandate to support endangered species and the environment generally comes straight from Scripture, he said.

''We think that means we do not carelessly wipe out forever that which the creator has gently and lovingly shaped,'' Sider said.

End Adv for Friday, Nov. 3

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