AT 8:30 IN THE MORNING LAST NOVEMBER 20, before Sister Fatima Robichaux, M.S.C. left for work at St. Patrick Church in Gibson, Louisiana, she heard a knock at her door. It was Alice McAlister, a parishioner, and she was very upset.
McAlister said that her uncle, 90-year-old Joe Hebert who lives on a neighboring farm, had read something in Tuesday's paper that disturbed him so much that he was planning on plowing under his field. Their environment was about to be poisoned, Hebert had said, and it was useless to try to grow anything any longer.
When Robichaux looked at the paper, she realized that Hebert's 90-year-old eyes had caught something that everyone else had missed: a short notice in the classified ads announcing that a company called Growth Resources was applying to develop a site in Gibson for the treatment, storage, and deep-well disposal of oil-field wastes. The site would be less than a mile from Hebert's property.
Though oil-field waste is not categorized as toxic by the federal government, Hebert knew, as Robichaux and the rest of the community knew, what happened when a company started operating a similar facility in Grand Bois, a community about 50 miles away.
"The trees there are dead, the odor is fierce, and the children are continually sick," Robichaux says. The waste is shipped to that facility by barge and truck and stored in 18 open pits, and water from the treatment plant is discharged into a nearby canal. "When people complain to doctors, they tell them the best thing they can do is move."
Even if there were a good place to build such a site, Gibson would clearly not be one. "Our land here is so delicate," Robichaux says. "We are surrounded by wetlands. Sometimes when there is flooding they have to go retrieve caskets that are floating away from the cemetery."
THE PROPOSED SITE FOR GROWTH RESOURCES' facility borders Bayou Black, which is the source of drinking water for Gibson. "Our people make a living on the bayou. They fish and catch shrimp and crabs and crawfish, and they farm the land. This site would destroy our community."
That morning, as soon as she arrived at St. Patrick's, where she is parish administrator, Robichaux began organizing. McAlister and her family went door-to-door to alert the community. Robichaux began drafting letters for parishioners to send to their representatives, calling all the local churches, and faxing a letter to every Catholic church in the diocese.
That was Wednesday. On Friday they held a meeting at the local community center, and 130 people came. The following Monday, 200 people attended another meeting, including their state senator, state representative, and five people from Grand Bois, where they are filing a class-action lawsuit against the company that owns the plant.
Within weeks Robichaux received letters from politicians at the state and federal levels stating that they oppose construction of such a facility. She also received guarantees that there would be public hearings at which they could voice their objections.
This was community organizing at its finest and, perhaps, swiftest. "It really has been wonderful," Robichaux says. "[Growth Resources] didn't expect a little community like ours to know what they are doing."
IT'S ALSO A GOOD EXAMPLE OF HOW a parish can work for environmental justice. Most parishes have a social-concerns committee, but only a few consider environmental justice part of their work and understand the relationship between religion and ecology.
"God is the creator, and the earth is God's creation," says Joe Holland, professor of philosophy and religion at St. Thomas University in Miami. "If we are oblivious to thatif we lose touch with the earthwe lose touch with God."
Holland, who wrote the Appalachian bishops' 1996 pastoral letter "At Home in the Web of Life," says that the extreme degradation of the earth's environment today and the plundering of its resources means we must work even harder to heal the damage.
"Pope John Paul II talks about the culture of death in terms of abortion and euthanasia, but what we are seeing on the large scale today, in the macro-dimension, is the abortion of the ecological system."
Churches, he says, "must begin to model a new ecological society that has to be born. They need to take on the role that Benedictine monasteries played in the Middle Ages during the barbarian invasions. They became islands of creativity, the places where civilization was rebuilt.
"Parishes, likewise, have to become countercultural."
It's a very tall order. What can parishes do to fulfill their roles as stewards of God's creation? Here are six steps any church can take to help the parish develop a green streak.
"The understanding of humankind's place in the cosmos is always summarized and carried to its highest expression in a holy place, in a holy building."
Rev. James Parks Morton
TWO YEARS AGO, none of the 40 parishes in five rural counties in the Diocese of Rochester, New York had an environmental-justice program. Thanks to peace-and-justice director Kathy Dubel, now half of them do.
Dubel got so many parishes involved because she asked each parish to name an environmental-justice expert within their social-justice committee. "The key is to have one person in the parish take responsibility for making things happen," she says, "someone who has a passion for environmental justice, who can educate people creatively and coordinate a program."
That's what it takes to get things started; in the long run it will take a group. Many parishes have found it easiest to work through the social-justice committee, or to create a subcommittee of that group.
IT'S VERY IMPORTANT, when the idea of environmental justice is raised, to emphasize that there is no disconnection between environmental and social justice," says Mike Schut, associate director of Earth Ministry in Seattle, Washington.
Schut cites a 1987 study by the United Church of Christ concluding that poor people and minorities are the mostly likely to have toxic waste sites located in their neighborhoods. In being a voice for the people and especially the poor, he says, the church cannot help but voice the needs of the earth.
Still, depending on what your parish is like, you may need to approach the topic tactfully. "We don't talk about environmentalism. We keep it in religious terms," says Rob Gorman, associate director of Catholic Social Services with the Diocese of Houma-Thibo-daux, Louisiana.
"There are so many stereotypes associated with environmentalism, such as radicalism. It is better for congregations to talk about stewardship than environmentalism."
"If you are thinking a year ahead, sow a seed. If you are thinking ten years ahead, plant a tree. If you are thinking a hundred years ahead, educate the people."
EDUCATION IS THE BEST THING TO PREVENT people from seeing environmentalism in negative terms. And it is essential for keeping an environmental program active.
"You can't just pick an issue," Gorman says. "You have to understand the theology behind it, so people know why they are doing something. That way, volunteers won't just dry up when the issue goes away."
There are plenty of videos and education kits available for learning about ecology and its relationship with Christianity. There are also models for programs that provide education outside the classroom.
For example, Earthsake, the environmental-justice program of the Denver archdiocese, sponsors monthly outings for anyone in the archdiocese. Last spring the group conducted a "Toxic Tour" of neighborhoods in Northeast Denver that are surrounded by heavy industry and polluted by toxic wastes.
They visited one automobile recycling plant where workers were forced to shovel out the sludge of toxic fluids that collect in pits under the crusher (battery acid, gasoline, coolant), which they put in buckets and illegally dumped on nearby railroad tracks.
Occasionally, the workers, mostly illegal immigrants, were burnt by flash fires while working in these pits. The plant was temporarily closed recently by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. "It really showed us how social justice and environmental justice are intertwined," says Jim Anthony, a member of Earthsake and parishioner at St. Elizabeth Parish in downtown Denver.
THERE ARE ALSO EXPERIENTIAL PROGRAMS for studentslike the program in the Catholic school system in the Diocese of La Crosse, Wisconsin, where a teacher has turned six acres of prairie into a hands-on classroom.
The land, owned by the Sisters of Saint Joseph, was once used as pasture and for growing crops. Now high-school science students are restoring the prairie by planting native Wisconsin flowers, plants, and grasses. One acre has already been restored with 26 indigenous species.
Students in every grade are learning from the land. A class of third-graders learning geometry were asked to go out and identify shapes in the prairie, such as looking for triangles in the stems and leaves of plants. A fifth-grade class fulfilled an English assignment by walking through the prairie and writing about it.
The schools also hold Mass and prayer services on the prairie. "We are trying to get the religious dimension into it," says teacher Laura Barnett, who developed and coordinates the program, "so that ecology is a justice issue for them, not just a feel-good issues
3: Start at home
"If you are in the midst of planting and word reaches you that the Messiah has arrived, do not interrupt your work; first finish your planting, and only then go out and welcome the Messiah."
Rabbi Yochanan Ben Zakai
AFTER ORGANIZING AND EDUCATING, it's time for action. The best place to begin working for environmental justice is right at home, in your church.
"A church building is the spoken word about what you believe about the earth," says Father Al Fritsch, S.J., an organic chemist and director of Appalachia: Science in the Public Interest (ASPI) in Mt. Vernon, Kentucky. "We need to treat the resources of the earth as precious gifts."
Most parishes will want to start small. The environmental-concerns committee at St. John the Evangelist Church in Columbia, Maryland got its parish board to adopt a policy that no Styrofoam cups or plates would be used at parish events.
There are plenty of other easy things a parish can doplant a parish garden, switch to recycled paper for the parish bulletin, or install energy-efficient light bulbs. Besides being environmentally sound, it raises people's awareness.
Eventually, parishes can act on a larger scale. ASPI is one of a handful of organizations that conducts energy and environmental audits for churches. The audit team at ASPI looks at everything from recycling methods and pesticide use to appropriate technologies such as passive solar heating.
OUR LADY OF PERPETUAL HELP PARISH in Chattanooga, Tennessee underwent an audit in 1995. Since then, the parish has installed energy-efficient windows in the parish school and built a grotto next to the church that is paved with recycled cobblestones that had been dug up from the main street in downtown Chattanooga. They also made a kneeler for the grotto out of the old communion rail.
While some churches like Our Lady of Perpetual Help find that environmentalism is almost second nature, others have trouble even thinking about concepts like energy conservation and recycling. Andy Rudin, project coordinator with the Interfaith Coalition on Energy in Philadelphia, says he knows why.
"Most congregations divide their churches into two partsthe sacred part, the space where they worship, and the profane part, such as the boiler room," Rudin says. "The problem with this perspective is that people don't go into the boiler room, because it is not considered sacred space."
To correct this, Rudin has developed environmental-awareness activities for congregations such as "Anointing the Boiler," in which the boiler is given a ritual cleaning, and "Witnessing the Dumpster," which involves emptying the dumpster and seeing how much of their discarded waste could have been recycled.
"I don't expect churches to do many of these activities," Rudin says, "but they are good to help congregations reflect on their underlying perceptions about energy use."
Fritsch says he sees the greatest opportunity for environmental awareness among new churches. "The best thing is to start before you build the church. Before an architect does anything, a church needs an environmental design."
That is exactly what happened at Mary Help of Christians Church, a new parish in Parkland, Florida. In 1994, when parishioners surveyed the 10 acres of land that the church would be built on, they discovered a cypress hammock with trees more than 200 years old.
The parishioners wanted to keep these trees to maintain the natural biodiversity of the areabut the architect had other plans. He wanted to cut down the cypress hammock to clear way for the entrance road, and then relandscape the entire property.
After months of battling, the parishioners won. The architect rerouted the entrance road; in the end only 13 of the 500 cypress trees were cut down. A group of parishioners cut down these trees themselves and held a prayer service beforehand, "based on the idea that you birth, bless, and bury your own," says Paul Gore, a parishioner.
Wood from the felled trees was milled for building crosses for the church. Last September the parish held its first Mass, and the cypress hammock is now home to a prayer garden. "As people use the prayer garden for liturgy or recreation, they are introduced to the idea that all God's creation is holy," Gore says.
OTHER PARISHES HAVE FOUND WAYS to combine environmental justice with social concerns. St. Louis Parish in Fort Kent, Maine has collected food for needy families in its community for five years. Two years ago some parishioners started tending a parish garden next to the church, and produce from the garden is given to families at the food pantry.
"This is a pretty rural area, and produce at the market is very expensive, so most poor people have no access to fresh vegetables," says Denise Potvin, coordinator of the food pantry, who helps tend the garden. In 1996, the second year of the garden, they grew enough vegetables to serve 300 families.
4: Act locally
"The earth lies polluted under its inhabitants; for they have transgressed laws, violated the statutes, broken the everlasting covenant."
PARISHES CAN ALSO LOOK OUTSIDE their church boundaries to promote environmental justice. The best thing to do when working in the community is to join with other churches. Sister Fatima Robichaux, whose parish is fighting the oil-waste facility, ended up calling churches of all denominations in the Gibson area, which is how she got so many people involved.
"Different faith groups bring different perspectives," says Rob Gorman from the Houma-Thibodaux, Louisiana diocese, where Robichaux's parish is located. "You not only get great discussions, but it is more likely that things will get done, because you are working with a group of churches representing the entire community, not just one church."
Many churches are finding legislative advocacy to be a good means of effecting change in their communities. In Phoenix there is a legislative network just for environmental issues called SWEEPSouthwest Environmental Equity Project.
The organization sends out legislative alerts to member churches so that parishioners can contact their legislators about certain bills. They also train people to testify at hearings.
Recently, SWEEP involved people in opposing a state superfund bill that would have exempted most corporations responsible for toxic pollution from paying for its cleanup. Any corporations that polluted before the federal superfund law went into effect, according to this state bill, would not have to pay for the waste's removal and disposal.
The bill was defeated, and SWEEP deserved much of the credit, according to founder and board member Bonnie Danowski. "Legislators say that if ten people call or write letters about an issue, they will react," she says. "They got a lot more than ten phone calls."
Parishes and dioceses are also working successfully in coalitions with secular groups. Ten years ago, Gorman founded the Coalition to Restore Coastal Louisiana with other churches as well as environmental groups, businesses, and commercial- and sport-fishing organizations.
The Diocese of Houma-Thibodaux comprises 40 percent of the nation's coastal wetlands, yet 80 percent of the wetlands in the diocese are threatened. Some wetland is being replaced by canals or filled in for development, and natural erosion has been exacerbated by the levies along the Mississippi River that prevent sediment from settling in the coastal areas.
"The diocese is washing away, and that is not a figure of speech, it is literally true," Gorman says. "We are losing 35 square miles of wetland a year."
Gorman says that if the church had not been involved, the coalition might never have formed. "The other groups were stereotyped as having their own special interests, and no one trusted one another. But the churches were nice neutral groups that everyone trusted. We didn't have an agenda." The coalition ended up naming Gorman as its first chair. "Then we were able to get down to some dialogue."
Besides forming coalitions and networks, a church can launch its own local efforts, such as beautifying roads, building nature trails, or starting or joining a co-op that supports a community farm. A church can also help its parishioners be more environmentally conscious in their homes, at work, and in their general lifestyles.
At Eastside Catholic Parish, a cluster of three churches in Elmira, New York, the Sunday bulletins recently included a list of ecologically friendly substitutes for harmful household cleaners, such as using vinegar and water in place of commercial glass cleaners.
Advising people about their lifestyles may be difficult, but as the church itself becomes more environmentally conscious, parishioners may learn from its good example. Pope John Paul II is one of many who emphasizes that each person must take responsibility for his or her impact on the environment.
"Modern society will find no solution to the ecological problem," he said in 1979, "unless it takes a serious look at its lifestyle."
5: Act globally
"It is manifestly unjust that a privileged few should continue to accumulate excess goods, squandering available resources, while masses of people are living in conditions of misery at the very lowest level of subsistence."
Pope John Paul II
PARISHES MAY FIND IT HARD TO TACKLE international environmental issues, but it is a natural evolution for the more involved churches and a good reminder that our actions affect everyone.
Any church can become a member of environmental organizations such as Greenpeace or the North American Coalition on Religion and Ecology, sharing their publications with parishioners and maybe donating part of the collection. There are also ways for a parish to get more directly involved.
When it became apparent that recycling cans and bottles was not enough, parishioners at St. John the Evangelist Church in Columbia, Maryland started on bicycles. Eight years ago, they began collecting and fixing children's bikes that had been destined for the local landfill and sending them to children in some inner-city parishes in Baltimore.
Then, last year, they made the international connection. The church collected 70 adult bikes that were going to be thrown away and sent them to El Salvador through a group called Pedals for Progress.
"We don't fix these bikes, but we send tools along with them," says Tom McCarthy, the project coordinator. "That way we help develop a local industry in repairing bicycles."
At St. Anne's Church in Fair Lawn, New Jersey, parishioners can participate in the Seed/Pen Pal program. The parish sends packets of seeds for trees and legumes to Franciscan missions in Ghana and Liberia to help develop sustainable agriculture, and some parishioners write regularly to pen pals at the missions.
The project adds a touch of intimacy to their already considerable environmental programs, and helps them understand a culture that makes do with much less than their own.
"Praise be my Lord for our mother the Earth, who sustains and keeps us and brings forth diverse fruits and many-hued flowers and grass."
Saint Francis of Assisi
JUST AS SAINT FRANCIS PRAISED GOD for every being and thing created, a parish community can do the same every week in its liturgy and celebrations.
"By witnessing the earth's magnificence and potency . . . the worshiping community can regain a sense of wholeness as well as humility," writes Al Fritsch in Eco-Church: An Action Manual. "Worship and celebration must foster this experience."
Prayers thanking God for the blessings of the earth or petitions for wisdom in using the earth's resources can be used in any liturgy, especially days designated for environmental awareness, such as the Feast of Saint Francis or Earth Day.
Many parishes make their own eucharistic bread for their liturgies. At St. Augustine's Church in Covington, Georgia, they even make the eucharistic wine. Members gather to collect the grapes at a vineyard and winery owned by one of the parishioners and have a picnic while the grapes are being pressed.
Making your own bread or wine not only gives special significance to the liturgical phrase "work of human hands," but also reminds people that food that is locally grown and processed is less taxing on the environment.
Other parishes turn regular environmental holidays into parish celebrations. On Earth Day a few years ago, Our Lady of Perpetual Help Church in Chattanooga, Tennessee held an environmental fair.
Junior-high students from the parish school created exhibits on ecological issues such as the local water supply and saving the rain forests. The exhibits were displayed in the school all weekend. The students also decorated the church with posters with environmental themes.
That Sunday, Father Al Humbrecht delivered a homily about the connection between spirituality and the earth. "Even the adults learned something from the fair. A lot of adults didn't realize that some detergents affect the environment," Humbrecht says about one of the exhibits. "It was awakening for some people."
Anything that stirs people's awareness of the environment will prove to be worthwhile. Besides those mentioned in this article, there are plenty of actions any parish can take; see if some of them will work in your church. It won't take much for your parish to find out how easy it really is to be green.
For more information on any parishes or organizations mentioned in this article, call Don Beaulieu at 800-328-6515, or e-mail him.END
© 1999 by Claretian Publications
Return to Main | Return to Archive Index