Watershed Discipleship

A few years ago, I was excited to learn about the concept of watershed discipleship, which combines the best of all my worlds: environmental concern from a Christian perspective, with an emphasis on social and environmental justice, with excellent scholarship combined with practical action. Not too surprisingly, many of its originators are from a peace church, the Mennonites (though people practicing it are now from a broad range of denominations). I wrote about the book Watershed Discipleship: Reinhabiting Bioregional Faith & Practice a couple months ago, if you want to get more of a sense of what watershed discipleship is.

This summer, I’m fulfilling the service-learning requirement of my PhD program by helping Ched Myers and his crew at Bartimaeus Cooperative Ministries revitalize the watershed discipleship website. One of the major things I’m working on is writing and soliciting blog posts, so I’m pouring most of my writing this summer into that site, as well as the journal I edit, Whole Terrain. For those of you who are interested, I wrote a blog post about a project we did for Earth Day in April: planting 150 trees at Eloheh Farm with the Wilderness Way Community and North Valley Friends. Check out my post here. While you’re there, feel free to check out some of the other content on the site!

I’ll also post the great video that one of the youth from the Wilderness Way Community made of the day so you can get a flavor for it!

Reedwood Friends Scholar in Residence

Today marks my first day as scholar in residence at Reedwood Friends in Portland, OR. I’ll be offering a six-week series on Wednesday nights and Sunday mornings on the topic “Quakers & Creation Care: ecotheology & action from a Quaker perspective.” I’m excited to begin tonight by sharing my story of how I came to be interested in environmental concerns, and hearing others’ stories of connecting with God in nature. We will also be choosing eco-challenges to work on throughout the six weeks through the Northwest Earth Institute. See below for other topics we will be learning about and discussing together throughout the series. All are welcome to attend!

 

Book review published: Watershed Discipleship

I reviewed Watershed Discipleship: Reinhabiting Bioregional Faith & Practice (ed. Ched Myers, Wipf & Stock, 2016) for Sojourners, and it’s in the April 2017 issue. This is an excellent book of edited chapters from individuals around the USA and Canada who are working to put environmental care into action within a Christian framework. You should all read it! I’m excited about watershed discipleship as a way of looking at environmental care, which has great potential for moving Christians from paralysis into action on their beliefs in the need to care for creation. Perhaps we think of the immensity of the environmental problem and we feel we can’t do much about it, but if we think of ourselves as members of a particular watershed, and we concentrate on caring for that space, it feels more doable. Wendell Berry rewords the Golden Rule to explain how this is an act of care for the entire planet: “Do unto those downstream as you would have those upstream do unto you” (quoted in Myers, ed., 2016, 60).

Caring for our watersheds can be an act of discipleship that moves us out of a deer-in-the-headlights response to the enormity of the environmental problems we face because we can see ourselves taking small actions to care for God’s creation directly around us. As Sojourners readers learned in the May 2014 issue, Ched Myers and Todd Wynward define watershed discipleship as a triple entendre:

  1. It recognizes that we are in a watershed historical moment of crisis, which demands that environmental and social justice and sustainability be integral to everything we do as Christians and citizen inhabitants of specific places;
  2. It acknowledges the bioregional locus of an incarnational following of Jesus: our individual discipleship and the life and witness of the local church take place inescapably in a watershed context;
  3. And it implies that we need to be disciples of our watersheds. (Myers, ed., 2016, 2)

In this first book-length treatment of the subject of watershed discipleship, Ched Myers explains the concept, and a collection of authors under age 40 share their stories intermingled with scripture, theology, and historical reinterpretation. Placing themselves in context in the Midwest, the South, the Pacific Northwest, and California, these authors explore ecotheology in place. They tell the stories of their actions within particular watersheds, recount the history and current setting of their regions, explore information about the local flora and fauna, and point out deeply relevant passages of scripture in which the unaccustomed Bible reader might not even notice an ecological implication. After reading this book, it is impossible to read scripture without noticing how connected to the Jordan River watershed Jesus’ life and parables are, in addition to the prophets and the Hebrew people throughout much of their recorded biblical history.

“Water is life,” as Native Americans have recently reminded us in protests of the Dakota Access Pipeline. The authors of Watershed Discipleship connect the sacred symbolism of water throughout the Christian Scriptures with struggles for environmental justice today. Drawing on biblical imagery such as water baptism, various passages involving the Jordan River, and eschatological images of the River of Life in Revelation, the authors skillfully connect these themes to modern conflicts over access to clean water in regions across the country and around the world.

Baptism is connected with repentance, and the pieces in this volume call us as American Christians to radical repentance for our part in creating the current situation of environmental degradation. Through retelling our history of colonialism, linking our overuse of resources to the culture of systemic oppression experienced by marginalized human populations, and lifting up the biblical focus on the health of the land as a measure of whether or not the Israelites were following God faithfully, these authors show clearly that our disconnection from the land is a spiritual issue. By telling their stories of awakening to the intersectional justice issues faced by the land and marginalized people groups, and their stories regarding how they are going about reconciling relationships with land and people, they offer hope: hope that our small actions of care make a difference, and give us a literal place to start.

I highly recommend this book to any who recognize that caring for creation is something related to their faith, but they don’t know exactly how to go about it. I also highly recommend it for courses in ecotheology, creation care, and other environmentally related religion courses at the college and seminary levels. There is excellent theology in evidence here, interpreting scripture in light of modern issues, while grounding it in actual places and historical reality. You will be challenged to take a step, build a network, get to know the place in which you live, and seek for and find God there.

Christ & Cascadia: conference and new post

I’m soon finishing out my term as the Portland regional editor for Christ & Cascadia, an online journal and conference exploring the intersection of Northwest theology and culture. I recently went to their annual conference in Seattle. Unfortunately, I only got to go for the second day, as I was knocked out with a bad cold, but the part I went to was fun! It was great to gather with people interested in what Christian faith looks like in this region, share a bit about my own interests and research in a presentation entitled, “Cascadian Watershed Discipleship,” and see friends and colleagues. For my presentation, I shared about the concept of watershed discipleship, then gave four examples of communities and individuals who are practicing watershed discipleship around Cascadia: two church communities (Salal + Cedar in Vancouver, BC, Wilderness Way in Portland, OR), one college professor (Wes Howard-Brook at Seattle Univercbock-speaking-at-cc-conf-16sity), and one non-profit organization (A Rocha – Canada near Vancouver, BC). I may write more about these for Christ & Cascadia or other venues, or here, at a later time, but while you’re waiting you can go visit their websites and learn about their work. I enjoyed interviewing people for this project. It was fun getting to know some new people and being inspired by their work.

Speaking of being inspired by others’ work, I also wrote up an interview I did with Peter Sergienko at St. Michael’s & All Angels Episcopal Church in Portland for the Christ & Cascadia journal. (I got connected with Sergienko because he was a GreenFaith fellow in the cohort before me.) I enjoyed learning about the work that Sergienko is doing personally, as well as what his congregation and denomination are doing to enact environmental stewardship, work toward environmental justice, and be aware of both social and environmental needs of the people of the region. You can read my interview here.

For those of you interested in participating in next year’s Christ & Cascadia conference, I recommend it! It’s a good place to network with people of faith thinking about regional Christian practice. I would like there to be a stronger environmental focus. It focuses more on the culture of Cascadia, rather than thinking of it as a bioregion with particular emphasis on place and its effects on theology. I think C&C raises some good questions so far, and as we continue a regional dialogue, I am hopeful that more of an awareness of bioregion and place-based Christian theology can develop.

Friends Journal, Quaker Spaces, and Civic Ecology

I’m grateful for the community we have at North Valley Friends, and I wrote about it for the August issue of Friends Journal. This issue focused on the theme of Quaker Spaces, and in my article, “It’s the Spirit that Makes It Beautiful,” I shared about how our worship space isn’t the most up-to-date, or even the most Quakerly, but we have some really great things going on in both our indoor and outdoor spaces.

I ran across the call for submissions as I was working on a course in civic ecology last semester, and I was thinking about how many of the things we do at North Valley are listed as civic ecology actions that community groups might do. Therefore, when I heard the call for sharing about “Quaker Spaces,” I thought about how our “space” isn’t just our indoor worship space, but includes all the land we steward. I was also working on interviewing individuals about watershed discipleship, and I listened to several of them share about the history of indigenous people in their region, something I had been thinking about, too, so I added some of that into the piece.

In addition to what I wrote for Friends Journal, the full text of which you can read here, I’ll share some of the reflections I wrote for my civic ecology class. This was an annotated bibliography entry on the following article:

Krasny, Marianne E., Alex Russ, Keith G. Tidball, and Thomas Elmqvist. “Civic Ecology Practices: Participatory Approaches to Generating and Measuring Ecosystem Services in Cities.” Ecosystem Services 7 (2014): 177–86.

Krasny, et al. (2014) define civic ecology as “local environmental stewardship actions taken to enhance the green infrastructure and community well-being of urban and other human-dominated systems” (177). These practices are “active, hands-on stewardship or restoration of nature by a group of individuals” (177).

In this article, they are suggesting the importance of measuring the impact of civic ecology practices on ecosystem services. Since they recognize that most locations practicing civic ecology won’t have the scientific know-how or the time and human-power to do extensive scientific data gathering and analysis, they suggest three different ways that community groups could engage in measurement of ecosystem services benefits after their civic ecology practices occur.

First, practitioners can do citizen science measures of biodiversity. These can be measures of species presence, abundance, or diversity in a number of ways, and studies could be defined by scientists in a large-scale, data-gathering call.

Second, practitioners could measure ecosystem function. Although these functions are harder for normal people to measure on their own compared to counting species presence/diversity, they could work in collaboration with scientists, or use simple software that can help them gather data with more accuracy. Also, Krasny, et al. (2014) suggest that the data gathered could have to do with cultural services, since social systems are part of the overall social-ecological system.

Third, practitioners could gather data about the value of ecosystem services. They may not be able to measure and put a dollar amount on larger-scale impacts, but they can measure the small-scale value that individuals put on their time in nature, their ability to grow healthy organic food they otherwise couldn’t afford, or have access to city parks. This data can be gathered through open-ended or Likert surveys.

This article was interesting because it makes me feel like my congregation is already engaging in civic ecology: in the last decade, we put in a walking trail around our property and the public is invited to use it. We did this in collaboration with the city’s park and recreation district. We also put in a large outdoor labyrinth that provides spiritual services, which is one of the measures of cultural ecosystem services Krasny, et al. (2014) suggest (182). Around the labyrinth we planted native species (and some non-native ones) to serve as a berm, as well as to attract and provide sustenance for pollinators. We also have a community garden for the provisioning of people. We sought and found a local nursery willing to donate a number of trees to line the trail in areas that currently have few trees, and we planted them as a community. All of these provided opportunities for our community members to participate in these practices actively. We also provide the space for “passive recreational use” (182), and many people come to walk or run the trail: alone, with their dogs, or with family or friends. This provides ample opportunity for the development of a stronger social network, not to mention personal psychological and physical wellbeing from contact with nature and from exercise.

It’s also amazing to notice in myself the movement in environmental/ecological identity (which I learned about last semester in conservation psychology) as I take on this label as someone who has already participated quite a bit in civic ecology practices, and who is part of a community who has done so. Finding and calling out the things that we’re already doing and framing them as pro-environmental behaviors (De Young, 2014), and even as part of something larger, like the movement for civic ecology, really does make me feel like I’m already farther along on the path toward my goal than I had thought. This has much to do with my work on hope, too: finding the stories of success from my past (or our collective past) to base our next steps on can give us the sense of self-efficacy to feel like we will be able to find the motivation to move toward our hoped-for goal. It’s also helpful to see that we’re already oriented in this direction, and even taking steps in this direction, so finding the momentum to continue doesn’t feel as daunting.

I can see my congregation possibly doing some sort of value measurement survey of people who come to use the trail and labyrinth (we’ve already done informal ones, when the pastor, for example, asks people she sees along the trail how they heard about the trail and how often they use it, just to make conversation and out of curiosity). Seeing this as a part of the ecosystem services that this space provides is kind of a novel thought to me.

Also, if we count spiritual connection to the space as one type of ecosystem services, this has broad implications for how communities of faith might be able to envision themselves and their work as contributing to ecosystem services. If we can start there, and they can have that experience of suddenly seeing their environmental identity through a different lens like I just did (regarding how much my community has already done in enacting civic ecology practices), even if their community isn’t very far along that path, they can still see themselves as part of the whole. I think it’s great to think of cultural and spiritual connections as part of ecosystem services. It values the contributions of all different types of people and organizations, and places us on a similar trajectory, rather than feeling like we need to reorient in order to participate in civic ecology.

Photo credit: Paul Bock

Bibliography:

De Young, Raymond. “Some Behavioral Aspects of Energy Descent: How a Biophysical Psychology Might Help People Transition through the Lean Times Ahead.” Frontiers in Psychology; Cognitive Science 5 (November 2014): 1–16.

Krasny, Marianne E., Alex Russ, Keith G. Tidball, and Thomas Elmqvist. “Civic Ecology Practices: Participatory Approaches to Generating and Measuring Ecosystem Services in Cities.” Ecosystem Services 7 (2014): 177–86.