Healing work being done in communities

“The danger is that religion becomes a mere ritual. It’s not sufficient to merely ring a bell, you know.” – Dalai Lama

Some religious sensibility, most of would agree, is ingrained in human experience. But acknowledging that, we also know it’s a mixed bag. Self-perpetuating denominational divisions frequently reinforce prejudice and contribute to narrow understandings of the world.

Opportunistic political leaders kidnap religious language to further personal goals. Hucksters flaunt popular but superficial spiritual messages and get-rich schemes across airways and television screens.

But there’s reason for measured optimism. We live in a haunting time but some religious leaders are now finding a common ground in addressing the deeper challenges of preserving and protecting the natural resources of our planet. Our future depends on it.

In 2013, The Mining Journal made special note of a press conference held one morning in January at Marquette’s Presque Isle Park Pavilion. It launched a second chapter for an interfaith environmental initiative (Earthkeepers) that has now left a legacy across Northern Michigan since 2004.

Twenty-two months later, the report card is in for Earthkeepers II: Forty churches and tabernacles across the Upper Peninsula completed energy audits with ongoing savings from 34 energy conservation projects, undertaken by those same faith-based communities, that total $20,000 annually.

Because of those completed measures, 300,000 pounds of toxic chemicals and 1,927 mg of mercury will be prevented each year from polluting the Upper Peninsula’s biosphere. In response to preserving the biodiversity of our Great Lakes Basin, 10,000 Northern white cedar trees were planted by 400 faith-based volunteers in 2012 and, during past summer, 15 interfaith community gardens were established.

How did this happen? The core of the strategic work took place during six retreats. A team of volunteers from ten faith traditions met in lighthouses, church basements, retreat centers and, on one occasion, at St. Anne’s Roman Catholic Church on Mackinaw Island, site of one of the oldest Christian missions in North American. Evenings were spent reflecting on spiritual and environmental issues.

They were led by a team of three university students who over these past two years reported on eight different books that dealt with social movements, religion, and ecology. Funding for this Earthkeepers II initiative came from donations and a two-year grant from the US Environmental Agency.

Two images, for me personally, linger from these recent collaborative efforts. The first is from that January morning back in 2013. Through the doors of the Pavilion, moments before the Earthkeepers II press conference ended, four representatives arrived from the Keweenaw Bay Indian Community with gifts of a dozen potted plants of sweet grass and sage for distribution from their recently established tribal greenhouse. They had driven two hours through a snowstorm.

The second is from the small community of Beth Shalom Temple, the Jewish synagogue in Ishpeming, This summer, volunteers from Beth Shalom were among the first of the Earthkeepers’ faith communities to establish a community garden specifically intended to protect native plants and pollinators.

They chose as their garden site a piece of ground on the edge of a community plot in Marquette’s Park Cemetery. Next spring, as we all watch for signs of new life, there in the melting snow, in a place of the buried dead, new life will sprout as a sign of hope from the soil.

Our planet is speaking to us. The science is real. We’re in unprecedented trouble. At the same time, we don’t necessarily have to believe the inevitable consequences of bad environmental news.

There is a great turning happening. A return to the Earth. She needs our care. Together we can make, in a humble way, a difference.

Editor’s note: Jon Magnuson is director of the Cedar Tree Institute, a nonprofit organization in Northern Michigan that initiatives projects and provides services in the areas of mental health, religion, and the environment. For more information: www.earthkeepersup.org.

Earthkeepers I and II has been a collaborative effort of Northern Michigan’s religious communities and include volunteers and leaders representing the Roman Catholic, Lutheran (ELCA), Buddhist, Presbyterian, Episcopal, United Methodist, Unitarian Universalist, American Friends (Quaker) and Baha’i traditions. Since 2004 various partners have included The Nature Conservancy, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Lake Superior Watershed, the United States Forest Service and the Keweenaw Bay Indian Community.