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Interfaith discussion focuses on environment

Summarizing their traditions’ perspectives on the responsibility of people to care for creation, a Buddhist, a Catholic, a Jew and a Spokane Tribe member recently joined in a panel discussion to launch the Faith and Environment Network.

Participants were Steven Rorie, an adherent of Nichiren Buddhism for 30 years; Amber Waldref, a member of St. Aloysius Catholic Church who works with the Lands Council; Art Zack, a forester, ecologist and member of Congregation Beth Haverim, and Deb Abrahamson of the Spokane Tribe and the SHAWL (Sovereignty, Health, Air, Water and Land) Society.

Steven Rorie, Amber Waldref and Art Zack

Jason Duba, coordinator, said the Interfaith Council of the Inland Northwest’s new network will connect the community through workshops and link congregations to environmental groups to help them with projects they are already doing.

Art expects that the network will help people move from the tendency to put things in separate spheres with religion a side issue, relegated to the hours of worship.

“We need to understand that our lives relate to our environment.  The religious community needs to help people see connections and provide pathways for them to do something about the environment and social justice as part of their spiritual lives,” he said.

Steve said the Faith and Environment Network will enable the interfaith community to educate each other and others about the relationship to the environment as stewards.

“We can come together to do things as the faith community better when we have common ground, to change the views of the populace as a whole,” he said.  “Sustainability is key.  Without a sustainable future, there is no future.”

Buddhism says we are one

Steven Rorie

In Steve’s understanding, everything has subatomic energy and is interconnected—people and the environment—even though they may seem to be separate.

So he believes people of different faiths need to act locally “for the good of where we live.” 

Taking the example of water, he said it interacts with the environment—as snowflakes sparkling like diamonds or rain drops—affecting human experiences. 

“Buddhists believe people are to love nature.  When that love emanates from our lives, nature reflects it.  When greed and harvesting for profit emanate, nature reflects that greed,” he said.  “It elevates my life condition to recognize my influence on people and the environment around me.”

Steve wants religion to promote peace:  “We need to gather and strengthen our resolve to change the environment in our families, in places we work and in our faiths.  We need to spread that caring around the world.”

For him, caring about the environment includes caring about domestic violence and poverty.

All life interconnects

Amber Waldref
Amber Waldref

Amber, who believes everything and everyone is interconnected, conveys her passion for protecting the region’s forests, waters and wildlife, by teaching people an environmental ethic.

She says people need to hear stories about caring for the earth.

Her faith as a Catholic informs her commitment.  She remembers her parents’ reading her stories of St. Francis, who, she says, was a “radical environmentalist, living as one with animals.”

When Amber won a Catholic grade-school poster contest on “We Are Stewards of the Earth,” she started thinking about stewardship as “caring, honoring and respecting the environment and as people healing their relationship with nature.”

From Genesis, she believes God created humans to have dominion as stewards of the earth.  The Hebrew Bible tells of the covenant people have to care for the earth. 

Christian thinkers were concerned about protecting creation.  One, Hildegarde of Bingen, a 12th century Benedictine, feared use of feminine imagery related to water, air, fire and earth might invite abuse of creation, Amber said.

She concurs with Pope John Paul’s letter on “The Ecological Crisis: A Common Responsibility,” which says that “when people turn their backs on God’s plan, the earth is not at peace.”

Contamination inhibits sacred traditions

Deb described work to clean up uranium wastes on the Spokane reservation, bringing together traditions from her father’s side with the Spokane tribe and her mother’s side, which is Navajo and Coeur d’Alene.

Deb Abrahamson
Deb Abrahamson

“In my mother’s tradition, when the belly button falls off a baby it is buried in mother earth to express that we belong to mother earth,” she said.  “So our connection to the environment is our first lesson.  When I had children, I did the same and taught them about their connection to the earth.

“Another teaching is about water.  In our mother’s womb, we are surrounded by water.  Our bodies are mainly water.  We need to protect water, because water is life,” she added.

Because of contamination of the reservation’s land and water, Deb is involved in environmental preservation out of a concern for her people’s survival and ability to continue sacred traditions of digging roots or salmon fishing.

“When we harvest roots or fish, they must be free from pesticides and contaminants,” she continued, expressing concern about the human cost of technological progress.

“We suffer when we seek convenience and comfort over protection of the environment and when we ignore our connection to it as part of our spirituality,” she believes.

Today, the Spokane people suffer from toxins and radiation contamination left by uranium mining on the reservation.

“We enter a sweatlodge to symbolize going back into our mother’s womb for cleansing, but the willow branches, rocks and water we use may be contaminated,” she said.

“As we practice our traditional ways of life we may be exposed to contaminants.  So we must clean up the environment and help people understand what our ancestors handed to us,” Deb added.

To heal spiritually from a history of oppression that stripped people from their culture, she said, “we are restoring our language, renewing our relationship with the environment, understanding who we are as a people, and connecting older and younger generations.”

She knows healing will take time and will require collaborating with diverse people to find solutions, strategies and spiritual connections to create a better world for future generations.

Jewish tradition, teachings undergird caring

Art Zack
Art Zack

Art, whose concern about environment motivated his career choice, found it a challenge to sum up 4,000-years of Jewish understandings of environment in seven minutes.

“There are many layers of influence—religious tradition, dialogue with God and how we live in creation now,” he said.

“According to the Bible, the first man God created was ‘Adam,’ a name from the Hebrew word for ‘earth.’  Man is intrinsically part of the earth,” he said.

Art cited teachings in Jewish books like the Talmud and a Midrash story.  A Midrash on creation says that after creating Adam, God led him around in the garden and said:  “See how beautiful my works are.  All I have created, I created for your sake.  See to it you do not spoil or destroy my world.  If you do, no one will repair it after you.”

Abraham Joshua Heschel, a 20th century Jewish teacher, spoke of Judaism as “theology of the common deed,” he said.

“If Jews are chosen, we are chosen to be partners with God in tikkun olam—to repair the earth.  That commitment is the basis for our messages about social justice, personal relationships and our relationship with the earth,” Art said.  “The Jewish commandment, ‘bal tashkit,’ means ‘thou shalt not destroy or waste,’ because all creation belongs to God not us.

“The 10th commandment, ‘Do not covet,’ means that we not be greedy or take more than we need.  Because human beings have intelligence, we have responsibility as stewards of creation,” he said.

In the Talmud, rabbis debated why humans were created last.  One claimed it was because they were the pinnacle of creation: “God created a feast and invited humans last as the honored guests.” However, another rabbi prevailed.  He said Adam was created the end of the sixth day, so if people became too arrogant, they should remember even gnats were created before them.

Art said Jewish holidays—Sabbath, Hanukkah and Sukkot—carry multiple levels of meaning.  Part of each is to celebrate “our connection to the earth.”

He told a story of two men who fought over a piece of land.  They agreed to go to a rabbi to resolve the dispute.  Both seemed right.  The rabbi couldn’t decide.  So the he said, “Let us ask the land.”  He put his ear to the ground and listened.  After a moment, he said:  “The land says it belongs to neither of you.  You belong to it.”

“We belong to the land,” Art said.  “With the boom in our region now, decisions we make and actions we take on land use in the next few years will affect the quality of life for our children and generations to come.  I hope we will focus on quality of life.”


By Mary Stamp, The Fig Tree - © February 2006