An evangelical Christian quoted a Hindu. A rabbi came to the table with an Episcopal priest.
The cause that brought them together with 300 others from diverse faith traditions was a commitment to care for the environment. They gathered May 29 thru 31 at the Center for the Environment at Catawba College in Salisbury to participate in an interfaith conference on Faith, Spirituality and Environmental Stewardship.
The 2 ½-day conference, which featured 45 presenters, was a combination of inspiration and practicality – the soaring spiritual “why” and the down-to-earth “how” of caring for creation.
“No one faith tradition can do this alone,” said the Rev. Canon Sally Bingham, founder and president of Interfaith Power & Light and environmental minister at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco, “we are stewards of creation: On this we all agree.”
In her homily, at the interfaith worship service that was part of the conference, Bingham told participants that “there comes a time when we have to make a choice….We have to choose whether to live for ourselves alone as we have in the past or for our neighbors and those that come after us. We have a choice between life and death.”
Spiritual leaders from across the country addressed the sometimes troublesome passage in Genesis 1 in which God gives humankind “dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.”
“Dominion does not mean to dominate but rather to treat with compassion and care,” Bingham said. Dr. Matthew Sleeth, author of Serve God, Save the Planet: A Christian Call to Action noted that we have dominion over our children, but that doesn’t give us the right to give them a black eye.
When Sleeth was head of ER in a New England hospital, he became increasingly aware of the change in the diseases he was seeing over the span of his medical career. “When I began medicine 15 years ago, 1 in 19 women got breast cancer,” he says. “When I stopped in 2004, it was one in nine. Now it’s one in seven.”
He also noticed significant changes in the natural world. “I noticed all the things that have gone extinct in my lifetime,” Sleeth says. “There are no caribou in Caribou, Maine; no elms on Elm Street; no chestnuts on Chestnut Street.”
Sleeth quit his job and persuaded his family to sell their huge house and buy another that was the size of their former garage. They cut their electric bill to one-tenth the national average and their fossil-fuel use to half. He now travels the nation speaking principally to church congregations (950 in two years) and on college campuses about environmental stewardship.
Rabbi Fred Scherlinder Dobb, board member of the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life and rabbi of Adat Shalom Reconstructionist Congregation in Bethesda, Md., quoted renowned theologian Martin Buber: “…real relationship to God cannot be achieved on earth if real relationships to the world and to mankind are lacking. Both love of the Creator and love of that which [God] has created are finally one and the same.”
In material he provided from the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life, he explained a passage from the Talmud Shabbat: “Rav Zutra helps us see energy efficiency as Jewish law. Bal Tashchit (Torah’s prohibition on wasteful or pointless destruction of property or resources) today means it’s a mitzvah (commandment) to turn lights off…keep thermostats low…bike, walk or drive cars with good mileage…use reusable plates and cups…use compact fluorescent bulbs.”
Gary Gardner, senior researcher at Worldwatch Institute and author of Inspiring Progress: Religions’ Contributions to Sustainable Development, told the group that “we need a new understanding of progress – of who we are, of our relationship to the planet and to each other.” The 20th century idea of progress is “unraveling,” he said. It was a century of record-setting violence, record-setting environmental degradation and record-setting inequality.
The thing that is missing, Gardner said, is a “sense of boundedness or restraint.” He quoted renowned U.S. Army General Omar Bradley: “Ours is a world of nuclear giants and ethical infants.”
Gardner said we need to re-imagine progress. “Sustainability is not just about policies and technologies,” he said. “We need a transformation of consciousness. It’s about changing values and the way we look at the world.”
Participants learned about congregations that have committed to the sustainable path. Rabbi Dobb’s congregation not only had solar panels installed on its synagogue. The leadership also made sure that the workers who installed them received a living wage. Interfaith Power & Light offers resources to faith communities at no charge. Those resources include energy audits, which examine ways that congregations can save money on their energy bills, and Hope Workshops on Global Warming that offer practical solutions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
Other examples of green practices that were aired at the conference include “living churchyards,” in which congregations let cemetery land go wild, providing natural habitats; Anglican parishes which purchase paper collectively; tool-sharing programs that allow people in a congregation to share expensive tools, like table saws, so that everyone doesn’t have to buy one.
Dr. John Wear, founding director of the Center for the Environment at Catawba, said the conference helped to take the environmental message further into the mainstream “not simply by the attendance but also by all the coverage that preceded it and has followed it.” It was gratifying, he said, for those who have held deep convictions about the environment for so long to see “a host of new brethren who are coming to share the depth of our feelings about environmental stewardship.”
The people who attended the conference were clearly energized by the presentations and interactions with others. Two days after the conference, a ministerial association asked if the Center would co-sponsor another event that would bring the environmental and faith communities together.
The evaluations also indicated a level of commitment that surpassed the conference planners’ expectations. “One person wrote that she was ‘transformed,’” Wear says. “I have organized a lot of conferences, but I have never had anybody write that.”