Few places elicit thoughts of sacred and scenic landscapes– forests, volcanoes, waves, reefs, and diverse flora and fauna– more than Hawaii. From May 7-12, the Eco-Stewards Program will gather in these landscapes in the spirit of Aloha ‘Aina (Love of the Earth). We’ll travel around the island of Oahu learning and listening to community and faith leaders, farmers, gardeners, scholars, activists and others. More specifically, we’ll hear about clean energy efforts from the Blue Planet Foundation, explore how a taro root farm helps build community for at risk-youth, and learn about local culture and faith traditions. During the week, we’ll reflect upon and share our personal eco-faith journeys while also hearing from local Hawaiians and organizations about their own stories of faith and Creation care.
This year’s Special Edition Hawaii Program will include a wider age range of participants to both engage young adults and help recruit more of them in the future. We’re excited to meet the congregation of Christ Church Uniting (Disciples and Presbyterians) who will be hosting us in Kailua. Our wonderful group of 13 Eco-Stewards and leaders includes participants from the Northeast, Southeast, Pacific Northwest and two Hawaiian islands. We share different watersheds, denominational affiliations, and vocations, adding an extra layer of education as we learn from one another. We look forward to what Hawaii has in store for us and ask for the continued prayers and support from you and all our Eco-Stewards community. Stay tuned for blog posts after the trip!
The Eco-Stewards Program is excited to announce our Eco-Stewards 2018 Hawaii Special Edition Program on the island of Oahu from May 7-12, 2018. This special edition program will include participants beyond our typical 20-30 age range as we try to engage future Eco-Stewards program leaders and recruiters who work with young adults at the intersection of faith and the environment. Young adults (age 20-30) are also encouraged to apply. Funding is available to offset travel expenses on a first-come, first-serve basis. Application deadline is March 7. Download the EcoStewardsHawaii2018application.
By Vickie Machado, Eco-Stewards Alum & Leadership Team
With the start of the New Year, comes a slew of New Year’s resolutions—most of which people tend to break within the first few weeks. Occasionally they last through the end of the month, but for the most part they fall to the wayside. While I’m not one for making New Year’s resolutions, 2018 ushers in a new stage, and with it (I hope) a more intentional way of looking at time.
Each Eco-Stewards trip that I have attended has allowed me to cultivate a place and space for time—time to reflect, work, and commune with others. I think back to the 2011 Montana Eco-Stewards Program as we circled in the Graber’s home to share a wonderful home-cooked meal with local neighbors or when we worked pulling invasive ivy at Forest Park during our 2013 Portland Eco-Stewards Program. Still more recently, I recall our visit to Richmond Hill during the Richmond Eco-Stewards Program and the evening taize services we shared with community members just last year as we joined them in prayer for the city.
Each trip also features a larger sense of spontaneity—time that grows from the spirit allowing for fun games of Frisbee, kind and unexpected visitors and marvelous sights to see such as the awe of floating with manatees down the Ichetucknee River towards the end of our 2014 Gainesville Eco-Stewards Program. Regardless of whether these moments are organized or organic, Eco-Stewards carves out a ‘sacred space’–a time and place in which I can step outside of the mundane and into a reflective state that focuses on the moment.
In Gainesville with the start of the New Year, I’m finding it more important to prepare myself to find these sacred spaces throughout the year and recognize the goodness of daily moments. The quest for sacred space seems part of the process of understanding where you were, where you are and where you want to be. It offers a heightened awareness of physical, mental, emotional and spiritual place. A chance to absorb your position with others or individually.
After a collective Advent meditation last month, a friend of mine noted that though he found his thoughts to wander to the stresses of the day, his meditation time was not lost. He showed up, he was present and he made the most of the moment. Thereby showing that putting in the effort to find this sacred space is not futile.
Recognizing intentionality and time whether I’m floating down a river or doing a more everyday task of reflecting upon the week is important. Being present offers a sense of sustained grace, something that allows me to pursue a space where I can reflect, plan and create. Most of all, it provides a time and place for the presence of making the most of a moment.
Vickie Machado lives in Florida and loves the water. If she’s not at the beach or in the ocean, she can be found biking around town. She has attended Eco-Stewards programs in Montana, Portland, Oregon, and Boston/Vermont; hosted Eco-Stewards Gainesville in her home state of Florida; and is now part of the Eco-Stewards Leadership Team. She’s always looking forward to the next adventure.
In June, I arrived in Richmond for the Eco-Stewards Program, a week of exploring the James River watershed and its organic farms and intentional Christian communities. I wasn’t really sure what impacts the program would have on me, but it didn’t take long to start having meaningful conversations and experiences that would have lasting changes, especially on my diet. During our week, we were offered mostly vegetarian options and I found I enjoyed filling my sandwiches with sautéed kale, pea sprouts, and other greens instead of meat. I talked with many people, both fellow Eco-Stewards and our guest speakers, who currently or at some point in their lives had been vegetarian or vegan. We talked about their faith and their motivation for their food choices.
After Eco-Stewards, I decided to become a vegetarian myself. It was not a random decision. In fact, it was something I had thought about for a while before Eco-Stewards, but never found any reason in my life to fully commit to it. Even before June, I often ate meat-free meals and many times, I jokingly referred to myself as a “vegetarian with commitment issues.” After discussions at Eco-Stewards and some personal reflection, I was compelled to become a vegetarian by thinking about how to make my ecological footprint smaller as a way to better care for God’s creation.
Eating a large amount of meat is more harmful to the earth because raising cows for beef, one of the most highly-consumed meats in our country, uses more energy and resources than growing crops. Pork and poultry use less resources than beef, but still significantly more than plant-based agriculture. If it takes 10 pounds of plant feed to produce 1 pound of beef, why not save the 10 pounds of plants for human consumption and feed more people? By eating the plants that would be used to feed cows, pigs, chickens and other animals, instead of eating the animals, we could grow more food for everyone on this Earth, thus showing better care for our neighbors. In addition, cows produce a large amount of methane gas which is a contributor to global warming. Therefore, eating meat does cause you to have a larger carbon footprint. These facts also helped to motivate my decision to cut meat out of my diet.
I’d be lying to you if I said that this was an easy thing for me to stick with. Most of the time I do enjoy being a vegetarian and feel much healthier because of my new eating habits. However, there have been times when I’ve wanted to eat meat. Resisting temptation, however, is part of what we practice as Christians, and because I committed to this as a spiritual practice, I resist that temptation
I often get questions about my eating habits, but I enjoy the questions because it opens the door to good conversations. I can share how I feel called to care for creation and I want to have less of an impact on the earth which I choose to do by not eating meat. Additionally, I can talk about how caring for creation is key to my theology. These conversations open a lot of doors to other topics and meaningful discussions about faith and food, both of which people typically have a lot of thoughts on.
Unfortunately, many people are disconnected from their food (both in what they are eating and the ways it was grown/raised) and I, personally, would like to be much more connected to the food I eat than I currently am. I work at a camp where most of my meals are made for me. While this is convenient, I have little control over what I eat, and many of my vegetarian options are made from processed foods. Still, being vegetarian still allows me to have more awareness about my food, even while having little control over what is on my plate.
I read a devotional recently which discussed looking at the Advent season as a road ahead of us. In the road are boulders and potholes. The boulders are things that we have done that we shouldn’t have, and the potholes are the opposite, places where we have fallen short. To prepare ourselves for the coming of Christ on Christmas, we need to clear that road by filling in the potholes and moving the boulders. We must prepare our hearts for His coming through asking to be forgiven for our wrongdoings and changing our actions. In terms of environmental justice and food justice, there are a lot of potholes and boulders along my road this Advent season. However, through not eating meat, I am filling in those potholes just a little. It is a good step for me on my faith journey and my journey to lessen my carbon footprint.
This Advent season, if you feel like your shortcomings are a result of not caring for creation, reducing your meat consumption is a good place to start making changes. It doesn’t have to be to the degree of complete vegetarianism; there is a lot of middle ground and eating more vegetables and less meat can cut your ecological footprint significantly. There are a lot of facts and figures on the subject. For more information and ideas for making diet changes, check out Green Eatz. In addition, if you are curious about the size of your carbon footprint, check out this online calculator. I was very surprised after learning my own footprint, and I am inspired about how to fill in more of the potholes in my road during Advent.
Laura Haney is a Virginia native who until recently has always lived in the James River Watershed and grew up loving the land within it. Currently, she works and resides at Camp Grady Spruce in Possum Kingdom Lake, Texas where she leads groups of 5th graders in outdoor education programs. Following in the model of Eco-Stewards, she teaches children about the natural world so they may see the beauty of it and learn to care for it well. Her Christian faith strongly motivates her love for the outdoors and the work she does each day with children.
In one, we’re gathered in a circle near the banks of the James listening to the story of Earth Mother as reenacted by Beth Roach, a Member of the Nottaway Indian Tribe of Virginia and Grants Manager of the James River Association. Afterwards, she tells us about the 2015 James River Unity Walk (a Nibi Walk or Water Walk) when Sarah Day, an Ojibwe elder, led walkers from the James’ headwaters near Iron Gate in the mountains to its confluence with the Atlantic Ocean at the Chesapeake Bay at Fort Monroe. Indigenous women carried a bucket of water downstream, praying for the water as they walked beside it. The ceremony recognizes women and the sacred connection between their body and the water. Men don’t participate but are allowed to walk beside the women and carry the Eagle feather. The women carry water, the women carry life. Beth led us Eco-Stewards on a few steps of a simulated Walk for Unity. It was a powerful experience for me as a Male being told I was not allowed to carry the water no matter how badly I wanted to.
Since my Eco-Stewards journey on the James River, or the Powhatan River, my company, Affordable Energy Concepts, has been doing a large solar project for Bath County Schools. It’s the largest school system solar array in Virginia, and one school has a solar array so large, 100 percent of it’s annual power bill will be generated by the sun. Read more here. This project is special to me because I graduated from Bath County High School in 2008 and this past September, I put solar panels on my high school. How cool is that!
How is the James River involved in this project? Well, our company is based in Madison Heights, which is just across the James from my apartment in Lynchburg–about 2 hours by car upstream from our Eco-Stewards home base in Richmond. Essentially every Monday since Eco-Stewards, our crew has piled into the truck for the weekly ride. We snake east along the James over the mountain and turn north before Glasgow to follow the Maury River upstream to Lexington; then follow Kerr’s creek uphill and cross over the hill to chase Bratton’s Run downstream to Goshen, where the road follows Mill Creek to the eastern end of Bath County. We then cross over another mountain into the Cowpasture River Watershed, and for two of the schools, we cross over one more mountain into the Jackson River Watershed. These rivers and streams are all in the James River Watershed.
The river is first called the James River at the confluence of the Cowpasture and the Jackson—the place where water from two of the schools meets water from the third school. This is where they started the Walk for Unity. Our weekly commute is mostly along the path of that 2015 water walk.
There’s something thought provoking in recognizing that our sweat on the job, the melted ice we pour out of the cooler each day, the rain that soaks us on the job, and now the snow blocking the solar energy to the panels, all flows back to our home base farther down the James River, and farther on toward Richmond– all within the same river that our Eco-Stewards group held sacred in Richmond last summer. It’s the river Beth and the Ojibwe walked in prayer. The river of impressive stream habitat and water quality restoration in Ralph’s talk. The river of the most horrific parts of the slave trade. The river of the Nottaway people, the Monacan people, and other indigenous tribes. The river flowing below the Richmond Hill Community, where we ate, slept and prayed. The river inspiring our song-writing. The river of the Eco-Stewards’ prayers.
These past five months have felt like a continuation of the week-long Eco-Stewards journey, hearing stories of neighbors while on the road up and down stream, growing closer to my coworkers on the long car rides. Learning that my crew lead Justin helped build a shelter at the park where the Maury and James meet. Watching a co-worker Andrew yell at the highway sign holder throwing trash in “his river” on the road construction site. Hearing stories of co-workers getting in trouble for jumping into the James off the Appalachian Trail Foot Bridge. Catching Amazing scenic views of the river on Highway 130.
I am an Eco-Steward and the James River is my home. It’s been a gift to be part of the Eco-Stewards in my own watershed and to keep living in and meditating on that same river. I’d encourage everyone reading to explore your watershed, find out where God is working in your watershed. Pay attention to how the roads follow the waterways. And most of all get to know it. “Once you know it you will start to love it, and then you will protect it”— words spoken by at least three of our Eco-Stewards guests speakers. So true.
The pictures below are of places where I’ve stopped along the long commute to get to know the James a little better.
Alex Haney (27) participated in Eco-Stewards Seattle in 2016 and then helped plan the 2017 Eco-Stewards Richmond Program along with Eco-Steward Alums Kathleen Murphy and Colleen Earp. Alex is a Virginia native and a Christian who grew up in the headwaters of the James and currently lives near Lynchburg, where he works for a solar panel contractor. Alex has an affinity for solar cooking, enjoys learning to play music on guitar, finding wild plants, and figuring out how to cook local food. “Eco-Stewards has shown me that my passion for the natural world and my faith are very much connected where I did not see it before,” says Alex. “I’d recommend the Eco-Stewards Program to anyone who cares about our natural world, and believes in God”
by Kathleen Murphy, Eco-Stewards Seattle/Richmond Alum
“Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly, now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.” – From The Talmud, 303.
My favorite verse, Micah 6:8, shows up in a lot of places without planning. It’s a common passage and I think a favorite of many but I chose to think of the verse as what Christianity means to me. It lacks any imperative about accepting Jesus or even really a mention of God, Jesus, the Holy Spirt et al. What it does highlight is action.
Words have meaning but action has more meaning. Words without action are meaningless. Through my participation in Eco-Stewards these past two years, I have learned a great deal about multiple issues facing our nation, particularly in Seattle (June 2016) and Richmond (June 2017). Taking the knowledge from these place-based experiences and transforming it into action has been easy yet hard, fun yet exhausting, confusing yet inspiring.
A recent trip to Guatemala only added to my Eco-Stewards mindset and commitment. While in Guatemala, our group of 20 from the Presbyteries of the Peaks and James planted 860+ trees in two sites. Perched high on the mountain side, one a mile high and the other 9,100 feet up (approaching 2 miles in altitude), we planted black alder trees to help minimize erosion and soil loss from years of deforestation. At Lake Atitlan, we learned about raw sewage draining into the lake from an organization working to find a solution, Amigos del Lago. A picturesque lake surrounded by volcanoes and small towns being poisoned by the simple fact that there is no local sewer system.
Even though our efforts may seem minuscule in a country and world with so many problems, I take heart that we turned curiosity into learning, faith into action, and love into new tree saplings that are now soaking up sun on the mountainsides.
Remember friends, we are not able to complete the transformation of the world. That is too much to bear. We can, however, do our small acts of justice and mercy in a humble walk with our Creator and Creation. We are called.
Now back from my trip to Guatemala I am resuming work at Virginia Poverty Law Center where I work with our public benefits attorney to provide healthier meals to low income schools. When not at work I like to run, spend time by the beautiful James River, and support my local organic farmers at my favorite farmers market. I frequently think about how my actions and purchases in the grocery store damage or uplift the environment, a skill I really honed during my trips with the Eco-Stewards.
How has Eco-Stewards impacted your thinking about environmental stewardship? How does your current work or passion connect to your Eco-Stewards experience? Become a blogger and share your thoughts with our wider community!
Last week young adult leaders representing watersheds around the country— from the Willamette Watershed in Oregon to the Biscayne Bay Watershed in Florida—gathered in Virginia’s James River Watershed to partake in the 10th annual Eco-Stewards Program– yes, it’s been a decade since our first program at Westminister Woods in Northern California. Amen!
This year, in light of such national events as Standing Rock and the water crisis in Flint, MI, we shaped our Eco-Stewards Richmond program around the theme of Water is Life in order to focus in on the sacredness of water and the region’s journey toward justice. To engage with this topic, we listened, sang, prayed, walked, paddled and farmed with locals from Richmond and Charlottesville who shared stories about the importance of place and community. Our week was further framed by Watershed Discipleship (Ched Myers, Ed.), as we investigated the themes that arise throughout the book, most notably the practice of understanding and caring for places and those who inhabit them.
The call to become disciples of our watershed, paraphrased by Myers as “We won’t save the places we don’t love, we can’t love places we don’t know and we don’t know places we haven’t learned,” was reiterated throughout the week. At times the concept was illustrated directly by those involved with the work, like watershed restorationist Bobby Whitescarver who has helped Virginian farmers protect over 500 miles of river from livestock excretion while building up tree cover in an effort to prevent soil erosion and excess sediment in the water. Similarly Ralph White, who served as park manager of the James River Park System for 32 years, expressed the importance of knowing and loving a place in an effort to reclaim the health of the river, upholding early volunteer efforts as a method that directly connected locals to building a cleaner James River (originally, the Powhatan River).
While the theme of physical place was essential and prevalent throughout our encounters, much more came out of our week together as our group critically looked at our faith in light of pressing issues of identity, race, privilege, and outlook as well as overconsumption, energy, and pollution. Geographers, historians, tribal leaders, legal aides, faith leaders, social justice advocates, environmental ethicists, singer-songwriters, organizers, theologians, activists, conservationists, eco-liturgical-homesteaders and watershed specialists graced us with their insight into the push for justice within the James River Watershed. This was manifested as watershed expert Kristen Saacke Blunk introduced to us the history of Richmond’s enslaved peoples and the ongoing work of racial reconciliation. Others like Willis Jenkins, a professor at the University of Virginia, helped us explore concepts of stewardship and kinship ethics as we examined larger themes throughout the book and discussed human-nature interactions.
Still, our week ventured beyond dialogue as Beth Roach of the Nottoway Indian Tribe of Virginia invited us into a Water Walking ceremony, blessing the waters while reinforcing the life-giving energy that comes from them. Further along our journey, we visited places of intentional community like Richmond Hill (which prays daily for healing in Richmond), Charis Community (young adults dedicated to radical Christian discipleship), Shalom Farms (which is committed to increasing access to healthy food through hands-on education), and Camp Hanover (a Presbyterian Church USA camp and retreat center) that showed us the importance of collective efforts of listening to the land and loving its inhabitants.
All those who spoke with us invited us to dive deeper into the James (Powhatan) River watershed to uncover truths found in untold histories and the subaltern voices of both people and animals in an effort to understand the important work of reconciliation, revitalization and revelation that is occurring today. Collectively and individually, we wrestled with how to hold tightly to our faith in a world saturated with past and present trauma.
Themes from Watershed Discipleship came to life as we discussed the links of racism and the neglected earth, and the efforts to reimagine a new future in the wake of both environmental and social atrocities. Perhaps most of all, through our communion together— reflecting upon our own eco-faith journeys, sharing meals, praying together, assisting in local farmwork, singing and making music, and exploring the James by canoe— God continued to provide us with the call for open hearts as well as the importance of addressing injustice though action. Recognizing the struggle of this place allows us to return home with a better understanding of the complex solidarity required to strengthen and uphold local watersheds reinforcing that water is life.