Eco-Justice Ministries  

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

Church Fights and Definitions
distributed 8/15/14 - ©2014

This summer, I've often told a personal story about transforming churches for environmental witness and ministry. For over 15 years -- since before the founding of Eco-Justice Ministries -- I've been deeply involved with the national United Church of Christ as a volunteer advocate for the environment.

I'm honored to have played an ongoing role in addressing what began as a setting of deep conflict, and guiding a national denomination toward a dramatically different range of programming and advocacy. Apparently, I've never told this tale in Notes! As briefly as I can, let me share the story, and name a few important insights that come from it.

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From my perspective, one of the UCC's great contributions to both the United States and the Christian church has been its groundbreaking work in the area of environmental justice. In the early1980s, activist from the UCC joined with residents of a predominantly Black community in North Carolina to fight the creation of a toxic waste dump. The protest was not successful, but the awareness that grew from it led to the publication in 1987 of the UCC's highly-regarded (and highly statistical) report "Toxic Waste and Race". Since the 80s, the denomination has claimed an ongoing, passionate involvement in fighting the pollution that disproportionately impacts communities of color. The UCC coined the term "environmental racism" to describe the widespread and systemic racial injustices related to problems like waste dumps, hog farms and urban air pollution.

But even as the UCC helped to shape the nation's environmental justice movement, the denomination was strangely silent on other environmental issues. As my own eco-justice awareness and commitments grew in the 1990s, I was concerned and frustrated that my denomination did not speak out about "green" topics such as climate change, endangered species, or issues from my Rocky Mountain region about forest management on public lands.

I was not the only one who was upset about the narrow range of environmental issues. A bitter fight developed in the national circles of the church between two factions with very different priorities. Anger and distrust built, and each side fought for resources and staff to work on their favored topics. Eventually, it became clear that wrangling over which issues to address was making the problem worse. So we changed strategies.

I helped draft resolutions to the UCC's national convention in 2001 and 2005 that tried to figure out why we were fighting with each other. These resolutions called on the UCC to look inward -- to evaluate our own programs, staffing, history and commitments on a wide range of eco-justice issues. When the first resolution didn't get results, the second resolution called for the formation of a national task force with diverse representation, including both sides of the conflict.

In 2005-6, our task force met through frequent conference calls, lots of emails, and occasional face to face gatherings. One of those in-person meetings broke open the source of the long-standing conflict. After days of careful conversation, one person -- from the environmental justice side -- blew up. "I don't care if I never see another tree," she shouted, "just so long as my grandchildren don't have asthma!" Silence settled over the room as she sobbed.

That evening, when we gathered again to figure out what had gone so horribly wrong, I shared with the task force insights from a Sierra Club study from a few years before. I observed that our two factions were operating from profoundly different definitions of "the environment." The Sierra Club had seen two opposing definitions among their membership; their report called them "surface" and "system" (which I've discussed in previous Notes).

The environmental justice movement, for the most part, worked from a "surface" perspective. With a focus on human communities -- "the environment is where we live and work, play and pray" -- the environment is seen as a place that can get dirty from pollution. When that pollution disproportionately hurts classes of people, it is a justice problem.

The "nature" faction in the UCC, for the most part, worked from a "system" perspective. Looking ecologically, the environment is seen as the web of life which nurtures and sustains us all. Pollution, climate change, and the loss of species degrade the health of the life-giving web.

Our different definitions had, for decades, led to anger and misunderstanding. The environmental justice folk saw concern for forests and oceans as an attempt by rich folk to protect pretty places for vacations. (Thus, the shouted "I don't care if I never see another tree.") The ecologically-minded saw a focus on racial justice as a human-centered mindset of "dominion" that ignored life-and-death concerns for the whole Earth.

When we started to talk with each other about our experiences of the environment, about the events and teachings that shaped our ethics and commitments, then we started to hear truth and meaning from all sides. We found some common ground, and some compassionate understanding. We began to discern an approach of both/and instead of either/or. We found that "eco-justice" was a more helpful framework for developing programs than our previous approach of working from a list of "environmental issues."

Our breakthrough about definitions has borne rich fruit. Through the last eight years, the UCC has found it possible -- both theologically and politically -- to bring a much wider perspective to its environmental ministries. Climate change is a major concern that is now addressed across the denomination. A church-wide initiative in 2013 (Mission 4/1 Earth) included an ambitious goal for tree planting -- because of the now-shared understanding that trees are part of a healthy world for all of us. Denominational programs still have a strong emphasis on environmental justice, and they seek ways for congregations to move toward carbon-neutral buildings and community gardens.

Since 2006, the UCC has moved past a bitter fight which had split faithful and committed people, and has moved toward reconciliation and cooperation. With a new awareness of the power in our diverse language and experiences, the denomination is planning the next stages of its broad and diverse environmental ministries.

This story is fresh in my mind and heart this season, because I'm wrapping up another chapter of my UCC volunteer involvement. For the past eight months, I've been serving on an environmental ministries steering committee, making recommendations to the national church about programs, staffing and budgets for the next three years. Our 50-page report is taking final shape. (Sorry, folk, at the moment it is an in-house document that won't be published widely!)

There is so much still to be done in the UCC -- and other denominations -- as we seek faithful and effective ways of advocacy, education and religious witness about God's damaged creation. But when I look back 15 years, and contrast today's UCC with the church of the late 90s, I see a denomination that has experienced grace and healing, and that has managed to expand and deepen its environmental work.

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My experience with the national UCC has shaped and informed the work of Eco-Justice Ministries. It is clear to me that, in all denominations and in our larger communities, we need to address the dynamics that divided and then energized the UCC.

We must be attentive to language, because it shapes our politics and worldviews in ways that are both powerful and hidden. The styles of communication -- in meetings, classes and in worship -- can foster either conflict or cooperation. A time of looking inward -- at our own beliefs, assumptions and experiences -- may be a necessary prerequisite for effective witness and advocacy in society. And, I'm reminded that meaningful change in churches can come very slowly, indeed.

I celebrate the still-emerging environmental ministries of the UCC, and I rejoice in the distinctive work for justice and ecological sustainability in other faith communities. With care, dedication, patience and urgency, may we all grow in understanding and action.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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