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1999 NCC News Archives

Feature Story: Ecumenical Environmental Justice Conference "Recycles Souls"

The smell of garbage mingled with the scent of incense during an ancient Armenian Orthodox blessing service – held at a Southside Chicago landfill. The ceremony was part of an ecumenical environmental justice conference sponsored by the National Council of Churches.

On many levels, the juxtaposition of the two smells illustrated the May 13-16 conference theme, "Christ Is In Our Midst: Environmental Ministries in the Church in the 21st Century." More than 270 church leaders and laypeople from throughout the country attended. Most of them carry responsibility for environmental justice ministries in their churches and communions.

The garbage and incense revealed the intentionality of holding the conference in an urban area, where people in poor neighborhoods are impacted by contamination. It also illustrated the growing awareness in the church about environmental issues. Finally, it exemplified the tone of the conference, which emphasized worship and appreciation of God's creation while simultaneously criticizing practices that harm creation.

"Holding the 'Blessing of the Fields' service on a landfill culminated three days spent in worship, workshops, presentations and tours of local contamination sites, all of which showed that caring for creation is a religious issue," said the Rev. Richard Killmer, Environmental Justice Director for the National Council of Churches (NCC). "It also signified our religious solidarity with people all over the world who have to live near toxic sites." The NCC's Eco-Justice Working Group sponsored the conference.

"To hear the gospel read and then for us to touch our crosses to the ground out there at the landfill was inspiring," said Father Haroutiun Dagley of Grayslake, Ill., one of the Armenian Orthodox priests who led the service. "In conjunction with the theme of the conference, which is about paying attention to creation, it seemed to make sense to do this service which asks for divine favor and healing on the four corners of the world. So we were asking for blessing and also doing our part by attending the conference. The blessing and the conference seem to me to represent fulfillment of the first and second commandments (to love God and neighbor)."

The blessing service was held at the Land and Lakes Landfill on the Southeast Side of Chicago. Earlier, conference participants toured several sites in the city, including the "toxic donut" – an area of landfills, toxic chemical factories, steel mills and sewage treatment plants that surround a public housing project called Altgeld Gardens.

"The tour was both disturbing and promising," said the Rev. Andrew Whitted, an African Methodist Episcopal Zion pastor from Salisbury, N.C. and a member of the NCC's Eco-Justice Working Group. "On the one hand, we saw the many different kinds of contamination and the people who live next to it. But we also saw people in the area who are definitely in the know and have the tenacity to see the struggle through."

This sense of hope and struggle among discouraging circumstances infused the event. Presenters told stories of neighborhoods throughout the world where the health of people and wildlife is being threatened while the preachers at the conference brought participants to their feet with prophetic sermons.

For example, on the Friday of the conference, Robert Knox, Director of Environmental Justice for the Environmental Protection Agency, told a chilling story of a neighborhood in Los Angeles where a disproportionately high number of children had become sick with cancer, many dying from their disease. When he visited, he found that the school the children attended was next to a chemical facility. There were people cleaning up outside the plant covered by full body suits. Meanwhile, there was only a chain-linked fence separating the plant from the school, and the children were playing outside completely exposed.

Conferees on Friday also heard Father John Chryssavgis of Brookline, Mass., draw on theology from his Greek Orthodox tradition to show how "the world is like our body" and "the cosmic tree is also the tree of the cross." And that evening, the Rt. Rev. Steven Charleston empowered and roused attendees by telling them they have been consecrated by God to do environmental justice work.

People who have been engaged in environmental justice work in the church for years expressed excitement that finally, momentum seems to be building. "I've been doing this ministry in various forms for over 10 years, but I am seeing a real progression now, with many new people getting involved and a theological maturity," said Jennifer Holmes, a Restoring Creation Enabler for the Presbytery of the Cascades in Oregon.

"With each successive gathering, there are more creative ideas and increased grassroots networking," said Jim Schwab, a layperson with Augustana Lutheran Church in Chicago who has been actively involved in the Lutheran Earthkeeping Network of the Synods (LENS). LENS was initiated at the first NCC Eco-Justice Working Group summit, held in Estes Park, Colo., two years ago. "Before, it seemed to be people working in isolated pockets, but increasingly the work is more coordinated, for instance in the global warming campaigns being formed regionally," said the Rev. Sharon Delgado, Pastor of First United Methodist Church in Santa Cruz, Calif.

Participants also commented on the greater denominational and racial diversity in this conference, due especially to greater participation of Orthodox and historic Black church representatives. "The denominational diversity in leadership and worship was striking," Ms. Holmes said. "This conference made it so much more clear just how faith-based this work is, but also revealed there are as many takes on what environmental justice means as there are people here," said Susan Youmans, an Episcopal lay environmental justice leader from Winchester, Mass.

Father Dagley and Rev. Whitted commented that the theological and biblical reflections were extremely helpful and will help deepen the commitment of people from their denominations for environmental justice work. "Dr. Barbara Rossing's work on the book of Revelation, talking about the trees of Lebanon crying out themselves for justice, was helpful," said Rev. Whitted. "In my tradition, you need to offer something related to the Bible." Rev. Whitted said he talked to Father Chris Bender, a Greek Orthodox priest from Morgantown, W.Va., and they realized their denominations are in a similar place in relation to this issue. "It's new for us and new for them," Rev. Whitted said.

Presenters and attendees alike also stressed that bridges need to continue being built between environmentalists and activists in poor neighborhoods, or as Paz Artaza-Regan, a United Methodist from Washington, D.C., characterized the groups "in the environmental hierarchy: stargazers, tree huggers and bird kissers, fishers and hunters, and rats and roaches." She commented that the religious community needs to work hard so that "human justice and environmental sustainability are not pitted against one another."

The conference itself mitigated against any kind of divisive approach to environmental issues. As Rev. Delgado commented, "I was struck in the tour by how both the poor and wildlife have been edged into the area covered with landfills and other toxic sites. This reveals so clearly how the same systemic problems that create the destruction of land and wildlife also create oppression and injustice. This conference helps each of us to make the connections between trees and environmental racism, to see that there is more going on than our own particular passion."

Presenters said perhaps the most important function of the conference is to recharge them and to make them feel less alone as they struggle locally on a wide range of issues from environmental health to deforestation. "I appreciated Rev. Charleston's use of the story about how the disciples were sent out two by two, the reason being that they needed somebody for support," said Mr. Schwab. "Many churches are stuck in mental perceptual ruts around these issues, but this conference gives many of us a rare chance to network and to get creative about finding new ways to get the message out."

The purpose and accomplishment of the conference was perhaps best summed up by Marion Burns, a longtime activist in Chicago who, along with Hazel Johnson, is responsible for organizing local neighborhoods around the major environmental issues in the area. "In order to be an environmentalist, you must recycle your soul," she told the group. Participants concurred that gathering to worship, share ideas and resources and hear new perspectives, recycles their souls.

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