GreenFaith & Sustainability Salon

Last Wednesday’s salon (July 11th) treated us with a virtual visit (carbon neutral!) from Rev. Fletcher Harper, the visionary executive director of GreenFaith, a faith-based n.g.o. dedicated to “inspiring, educating and mobilizing people of diverse religious backgrounds for environmental leadership.” We came into the salon thinking about sustainability…

We had asked Rev. Harper to speak with us partially out of our desire to begin a deeper thinking process about “sustainability” – a slippery word/concept that has cropped up repeatedly in our learning journeys, thinking, and various readings. We had come to realize that “sustainability” seemed to have different meanings in different contexts – it implied one thing when used in regards to institutionality and financial management (the fiscal sustainability of PSR); another when referenced by natural scientists and ecologists (the sustainability of larger ecosystems, beyond the human); and still yet another valence when connected to the language of theology and religion (the sustainability and holism of the body and soul).

  •  Given the trenchant nature of “sustainability,” its multiple appearance in these contemporary contexts – what is something particular that PSR has to contribute to this broader conversation?

  • What of PSR’s historical past can be activated and made relevant here—from figures like William Bade (his seminal role in the early Sierra Club and Bay Area conservation) to Rosemary Radford Ruether (her pioneering eco-theology and eco-feminism)?

Rev. Harper gave us a broad overview of the mission and kinds of programming his organization undertakes, then opened up (via video-conference) for questions. He began by discussing how GreenFaith is guided by three core values:

1)    Spirit – that the location of something transcendent and sacred in the experience of nature outdoors is something universal, trans-cultural. This opens up critical possibilities, he later explained, for ecumenical interfaith work and advocacy.

2)    Stewardship – the belief that our consumption habits can help heal and restore the earth. GreenFaith offers a lot of practical resources in this regard for ways religious institutions (churches, seminaries) can lessen their impact on the environment.

3)    Justice – the principle that all people, regardless of race or social class, deserve access to a healthy environment. Later, Rev. Harper elaborated how this investment in environmental justice allows them to focus on advocacy for particular environmental concerns—ones that particularly affect marginalized communities (of color, of low-income).

  • Given PSR’s historic alignment with progressive theologies that have supported and given voice to the marginalized and oppressed—how might “environmental justice” be one way of narrowing / defining / embedding “sustainability” at our particular institution?

These three principles guide the regular webinars GreenFaith offers, as well as their flagship “GreenFaith fellowship program,” an 18-month long training module aimed at community and religious organization leaders. Much of the learning the trainees undertake is done at a distance, via online engagement, though the trainees are critically brought together for three “retreats”: 1-3 day on-site workshops that foster “meeting the sacred in nature.” What is especially interesting, Rev. Harper shared, is that the ecumenical, multi-faith context of these retreats became as significant and valued for participants as the spiritual retreat into nature itself.

  • The spectacular natural beauty of the Bay Area has long made it a mecca for retreats and nature lovers. If PSR shifts towards low-residency degree programs – “short, intensive bursts of education” in 1-2 week intensive on-campus stays – what if we made part of that intensive experience a collective (ecumenical) “meeting of the sacred outdoors”? That part of every PSR students’ orientation here would offer (optional) encounters with the divine, or with something transcendent, out in the wild? Some one hundred years ago, PSR professor William Bade led “devotional hikes” and camping trips in the Sierras with PSR students—could we envision something similiar happening for our 21st century students?

While GreenFaith has been around for a long while, and stands as one of the oldest religious environmental organizations in the U.S., they are also growing into new directions for the future. They are presently engaged with building collaborations and new kinds of partnerships with institutions of higher-learning – they have a new “scholar-in-residence” program, for example, that brings in academic experts on environmental issues in various religious traditions. Such scholars have served as consultants for developing the community resources and tools for different faith traditions (see here for a brief account of how the scholar-in-residence Pankaj Jain developed theological resources for Hindu and Jain communities at GreenFaith).

GreenFaith is also interested in taking their certification program—currently aimed at getting congregations and faith communities to be more sustainable and energy-consumption savvy—and offering a similar kind of badge for seminaries and institutions that do theological education. They’ve begun a partnership with the Green Seminary Initiative to this end, and are interested in setting up a pilot-class on institutional sustainability that would be taught at six seminaries by Earth Day 2013.

  • What would such a pilot class at PSR look like? How might PSR’s strong history of ecumenicism and inter-religious dialogue foster GreenFaith’s investment in environmental justice advocacy that works across / with multiple faith communities? There seems to be an innate synergy here, waiting to be activated…

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