Eco-Justice Ministries  

Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

A Cloud of Witnesses
distributed 4/24/02 - ©2002

Find the similarities among these people:

  • Jeton Anjain -- a dentist and politician from the Marshall Islands who led the struggle to hold the US government accountable for the horrible effects of nuclear testing on his people and his homeland
  • Wadja Egnankou -- a biologist from the Ivory Coast who is a global leader in the work to protect and preserve the complex mangrove habitat in coastal areas
  • Beto Ricardo -- a Brazilian activist for indigenous peoples of the Amazon rainforest
  • Robert Martin -- the EPA Ombudsman who resigned in protest on Monday

There is an obvious similarity in the committed eco-justice work these four. Indeed, the first 3 are winners of the Goldman Environmental Prize, the preeminent annual award for grassroots efforts to preserve and protect the environment.

What is not immediately obvious is that all four are committed Christians, whose faith has nurtured and grounded their work. For that reason, all four were named at the ecumenical Earth Day worship service that Eco-Justice Ministries sponsored in Denver last Sunday night.

The theme of the service was So Great a Cloud of Witnesses. It was a celebration of the deep heritage of faith and action which nurtures and informs the church in our call to care for all of God's creation.

In the course of the service, we recalled the ancient and persistent stream of the Biblical tradition that calls us into stewardship of the Earth. We remembered figures like St. Francis and Hildegaard of Bingen. We gave thanks for countless denominational resolutions on eco-justice issues, and for the good work of church leaders, theologians and ethicists who have clarified Christian thought about eco-justice.

And, in what I felt was the core of the service, we named and celebrated the four courageous individuals listed above. We enrolled them as part of that great cloud of witnesses, part of that swarm of people who, by faith, have placed their lives and their livelihoods on the line for the sake of God's creation. They served as dramatic reminders that many of the faithful people who form the cloud of witnesses are not generally identified as "church folk."

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Tuesday's news reported the resignation of Robert Martin, the national ombudsman for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. He resigned to protest the transfer of his office into a different part of the EPA structure, where he believed he would have less independence to pursue cases and to protect communities.

I met Robert 10 days ago, when he was in Denver to speak at the Environmental Justice course that I wrote about recently ("Away" - 4/12/02). He was with us one day after he lost a key court decision that allowed the transfer of his office.

Mr. Martin talked to us about his role in a controversial Superfund site cleanup in Denver. A mound of radioactive waste had been "entombed" in an urban neighborhood, 8 blocks from the church where our class met. Robert's efforts were crucial in obtaining a reversal of that first clean-up plan. The waste will now be moved out of the city.

When he spoke to our group of seminary students, Mr. Martin reflect very candidly on how his Christian beliefs had guided and motivated his efforts through nine years in the job of Ombudsman. He spoke of his conviction that the role of government, as ordained by God, is to ensure justice. In talking to our group, he went into considerable detail about the theologically grounded ethics that undergird his personal beliefs and actions.

Because of his faith, Mr. Martin worked tirelessly to bring justice to a Denver neighborhood. In doing so, he embarrassed the EPA, and revealed a plausible conflict of interest in EPA Administrator Christie Whitman's handling of the site. Since 9/11, he had also raised awkward questions about contaminants in and around "Ground Zero" in New York City. By placing the Ombudsman under the EPA's Inspector General, Whitman effectively silenced this advocate for justice.

10 days ago, Robert shared how his inability to compromise his faith and his personal integrity would probably lead to a decision to resign from the EPA. In his resignation letter to Ms. Whitman, he did not use "God-talk", but he made the same point that he made in speaking to us. He wrote:

"Beyond the diligent achievement of cooperative solutions to environmental crises facing American communities, I also maintained that the Ombudsman must stand for truth, justice and democracy. I hope you find it in yourself to recognize that by obliterating the independent Ombudsman function, you have deprived the American people and the Congress of a valuable means with [which] to keep the EPA true to its mission of protecting human health and the environment and to be accountable to American communities."

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There is good work for eco-justice being done in and through congregations and denominations. But some of the most remarkable and courageous witnesses to faith in action are seen in people of deep belief who do their work in secular and community settings.

Thanks be to God for people like Robert, Jeton, Wadja and Beto -- for their visible good work, and for the faith which inspires them.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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