The Tanzanians were fishing with dynamite. It worked, but the long-term results — depletion of fish stocks, destruction of the living coral reef — led the government to ban the practice. The fishermen persisted, ignoring the law, the government pamphlets and advice from Western ecologists. Yet when local religious leaders ruled that exploding ecosystems violates the Quran’s injunction against wasting God’s creation, dynamiting was finished.
Spirituality of whatever sort can motivate true believers to embrace sustainability, says Mallory McDuff, an environmental studies professor at Warren Wilson College. Her new book, Natural Saints: How People of Faith are Working to Save God's Earth, profiles environmentally committed congregations nationwide.
The book collects the stories and strategies of contemporary church leaders and parishioners working to define a new, spiritually oriented environmental movement. A focus on God's earth, says McDuff, is creating more relevant and powerful ministries offering “lessons for a new world where congregations model the principles and practices of sustainable communities.”
During her research, McDuff traveled the country, her two young daughters in tow; a number of those profiled hail from Western North Carolina.
Jill Rios worships at La Capilla de Santa Maria in Hendersonville, where her husband, the Rev. Austin Rios, leads an Episcopal parish serving Latino immigrants. Under Jill’s leadership, the church is preparing to weatherize the sanctuary to make it more energy-efficient. They’re also establishing a garden that will support a free farmers market for parishioners while providing ingredients for a planned pizza business. The parishioners will bake the pies in a cob oven they’ve built.
The former director of North Carolina Interfaith Power & Light, a Raleigh-based environmental group that works with faith groups across the state, Jill teamed up with a local collaborative to weatherize 300 low-income homes. She’s now organizing Climate Justice Tours that explore the life cycle of coal while highlighting some local best and worst energy practices. The tour includes stops at the Progress Energy plant in Skyland and at Kanuga Conferences, which boasts one of the largest solar arrays in the Southeast.
“This area is rich in examples of people integrating the natural world into their religious ministries,” McDuff notes. At Jubilee! Community church in Asheville, staffer Vicki Garlock is greening the children’s curriculum on the theme of caring for creation. Garlock aims to make her nature-based Christian curriculum available to other churches too. “We can foster that innate connection of children to nature,” she explains, “which is one way you find your spiritual path.”
Will Harlan, the editor of Blue Ridge Outdoors magazine, is a Buddhist who lives off the grid with his wife and son on a farm near Barnardsville. Harlan’s spirituality, says McDuff, infuses his avocation as an elite ultramarathoner: Last year, he completed his second 72-mile run in the Smokies. The first (in 2003) was designed to raise awareness of air pollution in the mountains; the second spotlighted mountaintop-removal mining.
The Rev. Brian Cole of The Cathedral of All Souls in Biltmore Village wrote the afterword to McDuff’s book. The church’s progressive congregation is pushing its leaders to think green when it comes to upgrading their historic structures.
Basic Christian tenets such as loving one’s neighbor as oneself, says McDuff, also call believers to care for creation. “This region is rich for religious environmentalism, given the wealth of spiritual connections to a strong sense of place,” she asserts. “Our collective acts can generate a momentum that transcends the actions of individuals or inaction of legislative bodies.”
Last summer, notes McDuff, “People of faith watched the Senate's inability to tackle the real problem of climate change, the lack of progress at the United Nations Climate Change Conference and the failure of the Gulf Coast oil spill to spark a national demand for alternative energy sources. Given that the United States imports 68 percent of its oil, couldn't this disaster propel a call for more sustainable policies and practices?”
Global warming, she maintains, “has created common ground for Jews, Evangelicals, Muslims, Lutherans, Baptists and Roman Catholics. Our diverse religious traditions provide the structure of intentional community, a shared moral imperative, forgiveness and redemption and, most important, hope in things not seen.”
Signed copies of Mallory McDuff’s book Natural Saints: How People of Faith are Working to Save God's Earth are available at Malaprop’s in downtown Asheville. The author will give a talk Monday, Jan. 31, 2011 at 7 p.m. in the Warren Wilson College Chapel.
— Direct your environmental news to Susan Andrew: 251-1333, ext. 153, or firstname.lastname@example.org.