Eco-Justice Ministries  

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

Transformation Happens
distributed 9/16/11 - ©2011

This week's issue of Eco-Justice Notes is underwritten by Hank and Marry Warren of Denver, Colorado. Their generous support helps make this publication possible.

Amazing, but true: a church convention changed a man's life. I saw it happen!

Lee was a farmer from a small town in Iowa, and he was elected to be a delegate to the national convention of the United Church of Christ. Before he left to go to the General Synod, he met with some members of his church to discuss the resolutions that were coming up for a vote. He was a well prepared delegate, and he knew where he stood on all of the important issues.

After five long days of business meetings, Lee announced, "I don't know how I'm going to explain my votes to the folk back home." He explained that he had been transformed by the Synod experience, where he encountered a bigger and more complex world than he had ever known in his small town. Through the course of the week, he had talked with people with life stories completely different from his own. Compelling personal narratives, powerful worship experiences and rigorous theological debates challenged his assumptions about poverty, racism, gender, war, the environment, and about faithfulness. His votes on the resolutions were changed by what he saw and heard, and so was the worldview that he took back home.

Transformation happens. It is not possible to script life-changing experiences so that they are guaranteed to occur when and where we desire. We can, however, set the stage to provide the best opportunities for receptive souls.

Transformative experiences are essential as we try to make progress toward God's shalom. We need them for ourselves as we continue to grow in commitment. We need to provide those opportunities for members of our communities to be transformed, because it takes much more than factual education to change lives and shift values in support of a world that is more just and sustainable.

There are many factors involved, but two seem especially important in designing experiences that can be transformative in shifting people toward an eco-justice life.

  1. Encounter with the "other". At the heart of transformation, our established perspectives are broken open when we are surprised by something that is new, real and true. By definition, we are taken outside of ourselves, and we see ourselves and our world differently. This different way of seeing is what theologian Sallie McFague writes about as "the relational eye". The encounter with others can happen in many ways.

    For Lee, a church convention provided a multitude of "others" far beyond his experience and imagining, and he was open enough to be startled out of his preconceptions. For people who have grown up in light-filled urban settings, the first look at a dark sky filled with an uncountable multitude of stars is a profoundly humbling moment.

    Study trips can take us to places and settings with great potential for new self-awareness and changed perspectives. (A study trip where we go to experience new realities is a very different thing than some mission trips where the goal is to take our way of life to others.)

    I have written about how Tink Tinker -- a professor at Iliff School of Theology, and a genuinely radical advocate for justice and peace -- had a transformational experience on a study trip. The sudden realization that his prescription eyeglasses were unaffordable for Central American farmers opened his eyes (literally!) to his own economic privilege. Our good friends at New Community Project offer a variety of eco-justice learning tours to the tropics and the arctic that combine ecological and cultural encounters which are transformational for most who go. Other agencies, and some denominations, provide study trips that are designed to provide a life changing experience of "other" for those who have always been part of the affluent US empire.

    Closer to home, there are many opportunities for life-changing eco-justice encounters. A visit to a city dump or a "concentrated animal feeding operation" (the industrial setting where chickens or hogs are produced) makes real for us the impacts of our way of life. A visit to the zoo can, potentially, allow us encounter, and be changed by, species that are endangered in the wild.

    In the Denver area, a community group offers occasional "toxic tours" of an urban neighborhood surrounded by toxic industries. The afternoon drive around Globeville -- with sights, sounds and smells accompanying powerful stories from life-long residents -- changed me through an encounter with the reality of environmental injustice. Similar toxic tours are available, or could be created, in other local settings.

    Transformative experiences can by joyous, gentle and ongoing, too. Gardening and composting are daily experiences where folk encounter the "other" of natural processes and the wonders of growth. An extended time of careful and attentive study of a local habitat is life changing when that place is seen as a dynamic, systemic web of ecological relationships, instead of just a superficial collection of "things".

    Transformation can happen when someone or something outside of our normal expectations breaks through with truth. We are changed when we meet an "other" in a way that shifts our perspective on our own lives, our society, and the world.

  2. Mental maps. Some sort of cognitive grounding is required to make sense of a dramatic experience of the "other". Without a mental map that places these new realities into a coherent context, the "other" will often be experienced as odd, quaint or threatening. Those mental maps can be drawn in preparation for an event (before going to the zoo or the dump), as part of the experience (a distant study trip or investigating a local habitat), or shortly after a startling experience (being amazed by stars).

    Lee was transformed at a church convention because the "others" he encountered fit into a structured experience of the church as a community of peace and justice. It is unlikely that he would have reacted as well at a gay pride parade or a civil rights protest.

    A trip to the zoo needs to include education about the crisis of astronomical extinction rates, the ways in which human activities are causing extinction, and the efforts to protect and restore species. Without that framework, we won't really hear from those "others", and our gawking will just be sentimental or trivial.

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Transformation does happen, and it is possible to create settings where that change is more likely to happen. We can design occasions where an encounter with someone or something draws us outside of ourselves so that we experience a different reality. And we can help people to make sense of those dramatic experiences so that their experience is meaningful and lasting.

Our churches can build a foundation for transformation with classes and sermons. Those are good and important. But it is when we create compelling experiences that we really move our members, friends, and ourselves into dramatic change.

Where is your church providing transformative eco-justice experiences?


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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