This article is part of the Sacred-Public Partnerships series, published in collaboration with Sacred Sector, an initiative of the Center for Public Justice. The series explores the ways in which faith-based organizations – the sacred sector – and government partner for good. Sacred-Public Partnerships focuses specifically on the intersection of the sacred sector, religious freedom, and government-administered social safety net programs and explores why partnership between government and the sacred sector is essential to the success of social services in the United States.
By Kathryn Post
What will our world look like in 12 years? Is it ethical to start a family when natural resources are being depleted? How can I afford to travel and see Earth’s beauty before it’s too late? These are the questions I am asking as I draw closer to my mid-20s, and I know I’m not alone. Even so, at a time where countless issues are vying for our attention, it can feel like the world is refusing to take environmentalism seriously.
If you’ve grown up in the church, you’re likely familiar with the biblical case for creation care — God created the Earth and entrusted its care to humankind. Our call to environmental stewardship does not give humans the power to abuse creation. As the Center for Public Justice’s Guideline on the Environment says, “That which is not human has its own identity and purpose by God’s design and does not exist merely as a means for human ends.” Instead, humanity bears a unique responsibility to care for creation in a manner that reflects God’s care of creation.
GreenFaith is an interfaith, international organization mobilizing, educating and inspiring diverse religious communities to effectively engage in environmental activism. Since 1992, GreenFaith has partnered with religious schools and houses of worship, equipping them to become leaders in the environmental movement.
One of GreenFaith’s projects is The Bhumi Project, which is the first Hindu environmental network. The name Bhumi—Sanskrit for Mother Earth—alludes to the Hindu belief that all life is sacred. The Bhumi Project is currently collaborating with religious groups in India to advocate for the development and deployment of renewable energy in rural communities.
“India has about 200 million people that still don’t have access to reliable energy,” said Bhumi Project Director Gopal Patel. “We’d like to increase the renewable energy literacy among religious leaders in India, empowering and equipping them to talk about renewable energy in their congregations, places of worship, and publicly.” By integrating Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim and Sikh perspectives into the discussion on environmentalism in India, Patel hopes that the Bhumi Project can bolster the national narrative around renewable energy.
At the local level, Interfaith Partners for the Chesapeake also empowers faith communities to engage in environmentally friendly practices. The organization partners with congregations in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed — the area around Western New York State, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Washington, D.C., Delaware and Virginia where drainage empties into the Chesapeake Bay — since 2004. Today, the Chesapeake Bay suffers from deteriorating water conditions and contamination. The poor water quality is damaging aquatic life and harming those who rely on water or food that originates in the Bay. Some of the organization’s current work involves grouping congregations into hubs based on geographic location to support collaborations within the same watershed.
Much of the organization’s work involves helping religious communities understand how their interaction with the environment impacts the watershed they live in. At Govans Presbyterian Church in Baltimore, Interfaith Partners for the Chesapeake conducted a water audit, offered recommendations for halting water pollution, assisted the church with securing funding and helped them implement a bio-retention plan on their property.
“[Water quality] is a complex problem, and it’s going to take a complex solution, which is going to involve hundreds of thousands of people changing the way they interact with the natural world,” said Jodi Rose, Executive Director of Interfaith Partners for the Chesapeake. “And because of that, we need to get down in the trenches to help people understand the nuanced issues in their communities.”
For both Interfaith Partners for the Chesapeake and GreenFaith, religion is an integral component of their work. It’s what motivates the organizations to care for the Earth in the first place and what compels them to consider how environmental damage disproportionately harms vulnerable communities.
“The heart of the environmental crisis is a religious crisis, it’s a spiritual crisis of values and morals and essentially of humanity walking down a path that is self-destructive,” said Patel. “There needs to be a reorientation toward asking, ‘What does it mean to be a person living in harmony and balance with the natural world? What does that mean for our businesses? Political institutions? Financial institutions?’ There needs to be a real considered approach about why we are living the way we are.”
Rose discussed how people’s lack of environmental awareness blinds them to the impact their lives have on those with less privilege. “In our mindless goings-on in our lives, as we trample on the Earth, spread salt and pesticides around on our yards and driveways and worry about our green lawns, we are muddying the waters for those who rely on our natural streams to feed their families,” she said. “Caring for the Earth is caring for one another.”
For these reasons, both groups have decided to approach environmental activism from a faith-based perspective. And their faith-based identities allow them to play a distinct, necessary role that bridges the gap between government and other institutions, such as schools and houses of worship.
The environment belongs to all humanity. Therefore, government has a responsibility to enact justice by caring for and preserving creation. Government is responsible not only for responding to environmental degradation that has already occurred, but also for preventing environmental harm from happening in the first place. Partnering with faith-based organizations — the sacred sector — is one way governments can fulfill this responsibility; after all, local organizations are uniquely positioned to build enduring relationships with community members and to meet their particular needs. Faith-based organizations also benefit from such partnerships. With government funding, their impact on their communities grows in magnitude and permanence.
GreenFaith, for example, receives funding from various state and federal governments. The organization currently receives funding from the Norwegian government to participate in an interfaith rainforest initiative taking place across five countries. This program trains and mobilizes religious leaders to advocate for indigenous people and protect tropical rainforests.
Interfaith Partners for the Chesapeake also receives government funding; the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation recently awarded them a three-year grant that will allow them to mobilize 100 congregations across five regional hubs.
The organization also meets with government officials from local jurisdictions — for example, officials who work for the public works department of a city or town — to understand the intricate needs of the ecosystems in their region. “Government has the best sense for the needs in the local watershed,” said Rose. “They have studies, data, they’ve been testing water quality, they’ve been watching the indicators.”
After meeting with representatives from the local government, Interfaith Partners for the Chesapeake connects with congregations in that jurisdiction, helping them plan and implement action steps specifically tailored to their environment.
Novelist Wendell Berry once said, “Do unto those downstream as you'd have those upstream do unto you.” Addressing this quote, Rose said, “This is the simplest summary of how caring for our watershed is a reflection of our care and concern for one another and for future generations.”
Patel also described his work at GreenFaith and the Bhumi Project in similar terms. “Essentially, the work we are doing is for the next generations of young people in the U.S. and across the world,” he said.
As the Earth grows more contaminated each day, the impulse to give in to despair or apathy is strong. Yet, as Christians, we have the unshakable hope that God is actively redeeming all of creation for God’s glory. Faith-based organizations like GreenFaith and Interfaith Partners for the Chesapeake are faithfully committed to honoring the Earth as an act of love for future generations, and sacred-public partnerships play an essential role in promoting the Earth’s health in communities across the globe. May we continue to support the sacred sector’s contributions to the environment, advocate for partnerships, and be faithful stewards of God’s creation.
Kathryn Post is a writer and student at Yale Divinity School where she is pursuing her passion for religion journalism.
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