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May 24, 2001, WASHINGTON, D.C. – A May 20-23 environmental justice ministries conference here left no doubt about it: Protection of the environment is a religious issue. And the more than 350 religious environmental ministry leaders from 40 states who participated in the conference left no doubt about how deeply they care about the issue.

In plenaries, workshops and worship, they immersed themselves in the theology undergirding environmental ministries, the facts and figures on significant environmental justice issues and the "how tos" of starting and growing environmental ministries in congregations and judicatories.

The environmental justice ministries conference, long in the planning, took place coincidentally just after the Bush Administration released its energy policy. Mid-conference, participants descended on the U.S. Capitol for an interfaith "Let There Be Light" rally where they critiqued the Bush Administration’s energy plan and formed a "human bar graph" to illustrate the United States’ disproportionate contribution of greenhouse gas emissions to the environment and thus to global warming.

They fanned out across Capitol Hill to share their concerns with 200 senators and representatives, presenting each with an energy-efficient compact fluorescent bulb.

Then, at conference’s end, they prepared to "return home to organize around a very different vision for our energy future in the pulpits and pews of the American heartland," according to Rev. Richard Killmer, Director of Environmental Justice for the National Council of Churches, New York, whose Eco-Justice Working Group and 23 participating denominations sponsored the conference.

As the conference opened, the Rev. Dr. Wesley Granberg-Michaelson, General Secretary of the Reformed Church in America, New York, offered one of two "theological anchor" plenary presentations.

"I hear that about 200 environmental groups have joined together in opposition to the President’s proposals. What is the church’s role? To simply join that lobbying chorus as group 201? Or is there something unique, and true, we bring to this debate, precisely because we are churches?," he asked, then proceeded to discuss four scriptural foundations for care for the environment.

The first, he said, is God’s covenant with the earth and all living things. "Creation is chosen by God before God chooses and calls a people," he said. Second, the idea of "’nature’ as a separate object to be used, exploited and subdued – which is the hallmark of the industrial age – results from the break in relationship between God, humanity and the creation."

Christ came to redeem, hold together and reconcile all things, to restore a creation "groaning, looking toward its redemption," Granberg-Michaelson said, concluding that "creation becomes a gift of grace, a gift to be offered back to God for the sake of the life of the world."

Most who attended the May 20-23 conference are environmental justice ministry leaders in NCC-member Protestant and Orthodox communions (denominations). Participants included leaders in the Interfaith Climate Change Campaign, which now reaches into 18 states. These campaigns include Protestant, Roman Catholic, Orthodox and Evangelical Christians, Jews and people of other faiths.

The campaign is designed to help people of faith see global warming as a religious issue and to encourage individuals, congregations and governments to do something about it. The National Council of Churches’ Eco-Justice Working Group is partnering with the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life in this strategy that was kicked off in August 1998.

Under the theme "On Earth As It Is in Heaven: Witnessing to the Healing of God’s creation," speaker after speaker at the May 20-23 conference emphasized the importance of the religious community in protecting God’s creation and the many ways that concern for the earth and its inhabitants is rooted in religious faith.

Dr. Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz, Professor of Christian Ethics and Theology at Drew University in Madison, N.J., in the second "theological anchor" plenary presentation, urged adherents of different approaches to protection of the environment to recognize all that they have in common and to allow their emotions, intellect and actions lead them step by step.

"Emotions are a doorway into thinking," she said. "We are faced with the task of changing patterns of thinking. We need a radically different understanding of being in the world. Otherwise the same assumptions about it being there for us to use, without limits, will keep coming back in."

"Sometimes we want everything predetermined before we start doing," she continued. "Let’s take action, and as we do, we’ll get to know. Keep doing what you are doing and understand what you are doing has to influence your thinking."

Drawing on the biblical injunction to "love your neighbor as yourself," Dr. Isasi-Diaz called her listeners to a "non-selfish self-interest" that wants for others what we would want for ourselves.

"We can only know a little piece of reality based on our own experience of the world," she said. The corrective to that, and the best we can do, is to choose to look at the world from the perspective of those affected the most by a problem or situation – global warming, for example – nature, the oppressed, the poor.

Finally, she urged her audience to strive toward an identity as "justice people." Justice "is not something we do, it is something we are," she said. "The only way justice will be a religious virtue is if we think of being justice people. Only by being justice people can justice hold us responsible for what we do and who we are."

"Action on behalf of justice has to include the understanding that we are one," she said. "It’s not that we ‘relate to nature.’ We are in nature and nature in us."

"Climate change – in the opinion of many – hurts efforts to protect God’s creation," said Killmer. "And we know that in order to protect creation, we’ve got to conserve. We can’t continue to live a lifestyle that is going to harm creation and harm future generations."

Senator Joe Lieberman (D-Connecticut) contributed a word of theology. Speaking at the "Let There Be Light" rally, he reminded his listeners that "God put Adam and Eve in the Garden to work it and to guard it – not just to work it. And that speaks to the heart of environmental protection that we have an obligation to protect God’s creations and to guard them.

"We’re here for a short period of time on earth, blessed that we are to be here for that period of time, and we always have to remember the words of the Psalm, ‘The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof.’"

Sen. Susan M. Collins (R-Maine), in her rally statement, commented, "I believe we can create an energy policy that will create sufficient energy for us and our children while upholding our duty to provide stewardship of the Earth."

Arguing that "our best strategy for dealing with our energy crisis, particularly in the short term, is to increase conservation," she said. For example, "if every American were to replace just four 100-watt incandescent light bulbs with compact fluorescent bulbs, we’d eliminate the need to build 30 new power plants."

She urged everyone, whatever their religion, to "participate in this debate." Collins especially commended the Maine Council of Churches’ Spirituality and Earth Stewardship Program, the Maine Interfaith Climate Coalition and Maine Interfaith Power and Light, "a committed group of citizens that have joined together to purchase electric power that has the least possible adverse effect on our planet."

At the conference, United Methodist layman, author and activist Bill McKibben termed the threat caused by climate change "the moral crisis of our time." Religious groups must take up the issue of energy consumption, he said, because they are the only influence positing a meaning of life other than accumulation of goods and the only large institution that remains potentially subversive to the belief in consumption as the ultimate goal.

National Council of Churches General Secretary, Dr. Bob Edgar, a United Methodist, preaching at the conference’s closing worship, agreed, saying, "As a foundation for public policy, conservation should be a centerpiece not an afterthought, a solemn vow not a concession. God is calling us to be stewards of this fragile planet."

McKibben, in his address to the conference, urged conference participants to get more people involved in working against ever-increasing energy use and global warming. "Churches need to get beyond talking and start doing," he said.

Then he spoke straight to households, suggesting that the sports utility vehicle (or SUV) is a symbol for what’s wrong. "It’s a very real part of the problem," he said, explaining that if one family replaces a car like a Taurus or Escort with an SUV, the difference in gas consumption in just one year is the equivalent of leaving their refrigerator door ajar for six years.

Raising the fuel efficiency that SUVs get by just three miles per gallon would save more petroleum than the largest estimates of how much oil is under the Arctic Wildlife Refuge, he added.

Industrialized countries must take the lead in reducing greenhouse gas emissions and cutting energy production and consumption, said another presenter, Ram Y. Uppulari of the environmental advocacy group Environmental Defense. "We’ve contributed the most to this problem, and we’re in the best position to do something about it," he said.

At the same time, Uppulari said, a comprehensive strategy must encourage every individual and every country to help prevent global climate change according to their own individual or national circumstances, he said.

Uppulari linked the environmental justice efforts to faith groups’ historic commitment to alleviate poverty. "Poverty is the root cause of a lot of stresses on the environment, such as deforestation," he said. "We must help developing countries in poverty alleviation. They can’t focus on controlling pollution from their industries when there are much more pressing human issues on a day-to-day basis."

To anyone skeptical about the conclusiveness of research linking human activities to global warming, Uppulari proposes approaching this issue in the same way as Blaise Pascal approached the question of whether God exists.

Pascal wrote, "Let us weigh the gain and the loss, in wagering that God is. Consider these alternatives: if you win, you win all; if you lose, you lose nothing." Similarly, "the stakes are so high and the costs potentially so immense" if we guess wrong and do nothing about climate change," Uppulari suggested.

The conference featured workshops on topics including "Eco-Justice in the Bible," "Children’s Environmental Health," "Living Our Lives as if Creation Mattered," "People of Faith Confront Environmental Racism," "Creation and Worship," "Congregations and Energy Use" and "An Orthodox Perspective on Creation."


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