From Richmond to Guatemala

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.

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Stunning Lake Atitlan, which is polluted by sewer waste

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.

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I hold a sapling while our team plants black alder trees.

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.

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Riding in the back of a pick-up on the way to our second tree-planting site.
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A busy market in one of Guatemala’s small towns.

 

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!

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Richmond Reflection: Listening to the Water

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!

The Eco-Stewards Richmond team gathers on a footbridge over the James River during a week of watershed discipleship.

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 Eco-Stewards learn about the river’s history with Justin Doyle, Community Conservation Manager for the James River Association.

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.

Signs of the James River’s complex history.

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.

Beth Roach of the Nottoway Indian Tribe of Virginia leads the Eco-Stewards in a water blessing ceremony.

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.

Help us keep the Eco-Stewards Program banner flying by recruiting future Eco-Stewards, hosting a future program and making a donation to our grassroots efforts that shape young adult leaders through place-based experiences that connect faith and the environment!

Richmond Bound!

On Monday, our 2017 Eco-Stewards team will gather on the banks of the James River and “journey toward justice” during our week in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed. We’ll travel from Richmond to Charlottesville to Camp Hanover and back to Richmond. We’ve assembled a wonderful team representing watersheds from all around the country, including those in Connecticut, Florida, New Jersey, North Carolina, Massachusetts, Ohio, Oregon and Virginia. Please keep our group in your prayers as we travel, learn, listen, eat, serve and share together from June 5-10. Water is life!

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Ready for Richmond!

Great recruiting work everyone! We have a wonderful group coming together for our June 5-10 program, Water is Life: Journeying Toward Justice on the James River. We still have a few open spots, so if someone you know is interested, we’ll still accept their applications if they get them to us soon! They can contact us at ecostewardsprogram@gmail.com

 

Richmond Deadline Extended to May 1

Okay folks, we’ve extended our application deadline for Eco-Stewards Richmond until May 1. So please keep spreading the word about this wonderful opportunity for young adults, ages 20-30, who have an interest in connecting faith and the environment. Some funding is available for those who need assistance.
Participants will benefit from this program in the following ways:
1) Spending time with other like minded folks in their 20s who are passionate about the environment and faith.
2) Being mentored by older adults who have professional experience and passions at this same intersection.
3) Learning from locals through place-based experiential education about the themes of watershed stewardship/ discipleship, climate justice and eco-theology.
4) Spending time reflecting on one’s own personal vocational discernment.
5) Crafting one’s own “Eco-Faith Journey” as both a spiritual exercise and a future professional organizing/ communication tool.
6) Engaging in creative spiritual experiences rooted in Celtic Christianity and contemporary culture.
7) Cultivating hope, recreating in nature, and practicing joy!
Click here for more info about Eco-Stewards Richmond, Water is Life: Journeying toward Justice on the James River, June 5-10, 2017.

Meet Our Richmond Trip Leaders!

Greetings Eco-Stewards Community,

We are still accepting applications from young adults (age 20-30) for Eco-Stewards Richmond: Water is Life– Journeying Toward Justice on the James River. Please continue to spread the word! Our second application deadline is April 15, and we are looking for more young adults to enjoy this time of community building, vocational discernment, place-based learning, eco-faith discovery, spiritual reflection and outdoor recreation! We’ve lined up an excellent team to lead this exciting adventure from June 5-10, 2017. Read their bios below.

Meet the Eco-Stewards Richmond Program Leaders

Rev. Rob Mark serves as a Presbyterian pastor at Church of the Covenant in downtown Boston, and has coordinated the Eco-Stewards Program since its inception in 2006, leading programs in California, New Jersey, West Virginia, Massachusetts, Vermont, Oregon, Florida and Washington. In November 2016, he responded to a call from indigenous leaders to join 500 clergy from around the country in a historic witness of solidarity at Standing Rock. Rob is passionate about grassroots programs like the Eco-Stewards Program that affect lasting change. He also likes coffee, ultimate Frisbee, stringed instruments and the joy of stewarding his 3-year-old son Rowen who is named after a Scottish tree.

Kathleen Murphy is from the great city of Richmond, Virginia where she works for the Center for Healthy Communities at Virginia Poverty Law Center. She currently attends Second Presbyterian Church and has become active with their young adult group. When she’s not working she loves to cook, garden, spend time outside, and go to various festivals and events around Richmond. She is an alum of the Eco-Stewards Seattle Program and the Boston Food Justice YAV Program.

Alex Haney is a graduate of James Madison University and has taught all kinds of nature-related things at camps in Virginia, Massachusetts, Arkansas, and Tennessee.  He loves being able to call the Appalachian region his home for its rich culture and history. He currently works as a solar panel installer with a construction company in Central Virginia and describes himself a rookie guitar player who gets excited about wild edible and medicinal plants. He is an alum of the Eco-Stewards Seattle Program and the Boston Food Justice YAV Program.

Colleen Earp is serves the Presbytery of  The James as the Director of Youth, Environment, and Service Ministries at Camp Hanover, and is an M.Div. student at Union Presbyterian Seminary. She is a geographer with interests in natural resource conservation and education.  Colleen lives in Richmond, VA with her spouse and two cats, but will always love her home state, New Jersey, more than anyone else in the world possibly could. She is an alum of Eco-Stewards Gainesville and of the YAV Program in New Orleans.

Vickie Machado is a third generation South Floridian. While pursuing her masters, she lived and worked at the Gainesville Catholic Worker house and later helped to host the EcoStewards Gainesville trip. Upon graduation, she worked as a an environmental organizer, pushing for a ban on fracking. She is currently a graduate student at the University of Florida, studying Religion & Nature. Vickie is still passionate about water issues and loves being in the ocean. She is an alum of the Eco-Stewards Montana, Boston/Vermont and Portland programs and served as a program leader for Eco-Steward Seattle.

Becky W. Evans is a New England Presbyterian with a passion for storytelling. She’s worked as an environmental reporter for The Standard-Times of New Bedford, Mass., a communications writing professor at Boston University, and an ESL instructor for adult immigrants at the Community Learning Center in Cambridge. Currently, she serves as a food justice educator for the Boston Food Justice Young Adult Volunteer Program. She loves her role as storytelling mentor and communications coordinator for The Eco-Stewards Program.

Help Us Recruit for our 2017 Richmond, VA Program!

Dear Eco-Stewards Community,

We need your help recruiting young adult leaders to explore the James River Watershed with us this June 5-10 for our 2017 Eco-Stewards Richmond, Virginia Program.  Virginia residents and Eco-Stewards alums Kathleen Murphy, Alex Haney and Colleen Earp have helped our planning team put together an amazing program around the theme of “Water is Life: Journeying Toward Justice on the James River.” The deadline for our second round of applications is May 1, 2017.

How can you help? Please make a direct invitation to a young adult (age 20-30) who cares about the intersection of faith and the environment. Or share the information with pastors, professors, teachers, camp directors, mentors and others you know who work with young adults. Also, download and print our beautiful promotional poster here and post it on church, camp, college and coffee shop bulletin boards as well as your social media communities.

What impact can our week-long, place-based Eco-Stewards Programs have on young adult lives? A lot! Find out by reading these Eco-Stewards alumni testimonies published recently in Presbyterians for Earth Care’s February EARTH newsletter:

Alex Haney, 2015 Seattle Eco-Steward

Six months ago, I was wonderfully privileged to join the Eco Stewards Seattle Program. Gifted with just a week among fellow young, ambitious, passionate Eco-Stewards I gained more than enough zeal and love of God, God’s people, and God’s natural world to empower my faith for years to come. It was worth the long trip for simply the fellowship and study of Pope Francis’ encyclical Ladauto Si. In addition to spending time with Josh, Ashley, Kathleen, Vickie, Kelsey, Melissa, Caroline, Liz, Becky, Rowen, Rob and Dawn, we spent time with several Seattle-based environmental activist groups, including the Sightline Institute and the Backbone Campaign, who are fighting fossil fuel extraction, transport and export activities in the Pacific Northwest.

Jake Lawlor, 2014 Gainesville Eco-Steward

This program both introduced me to loads of new people, experiences, and opportunities, and also helped me more fully conceptualize the true connection of food and faith. Furthermore, the broader connection of people and place. Connections like these will become increasingly important in coming years considering obstacles like urbanization, water shortages, and climate change. This one week spent analyzing food systems in Northern Florida won’t save it all, but it’s certainly a place to start.

 

Colleen Earp, 2014 Gainesville Eco-Steward

It was a really amazing week to come together with other people interested in the relationship between faith and environmental work. As we all reflected on how awesome the Eco-Stewards Program was, and how good it was to connect with this sort of building-less church that the program has created, it came up that these kinds of great experiences kind of carry us for a while. A week like this is fleeting, but so deeply moving. And in the face of the church being a complicated place for many young adults, it’s kind of important to find these beautiful things to sustain us while we sort out the tough stuff and figure it out for ourselves.

 

Nina Spengler, 2013 Portland Eco-Steward

Needless to say, the entire week was a loaded adventure.  Riding bikes in “pods” allowed us to group up and take different courses to get to our destinations.  That is how we all got to Eco-Stewards in the first place; our different journeys led us to Portland to be together for a week and sent us out with a renewed mind and a story to share.  Eco-Stewards allowed me to delve into the lives of others, live in a community living for a purpose, and form strong relationships.  It is surprising that we felt so unified in a week’s time.

Vickie Machado, 2011 Montana, 2012 Boston, and 2013 Portland Eco-Steward

I found Eco-Stewards Portland to be a breath of fresh air in a world that tends to place faith and environmental issues in two separate categories. During the week, I experienced first hand these two aspects of life break away from their boxes and amalgamate into the realm of the Columbia River Watershed. We packed a LOT into our week: meeting with a coffee roaster who delivers all of his beans on bike, a visit to Oregon Museum of Science and Industry (OMSI) to talk about sustainability, weeding garden beds at Zenger Farms, talks on gentrification and issues of race, pulling invasive ivy inside the country’s largest urban, forested park, a full day of biking, dinner with our hosts, the Earth Care congregates of First Presbyterian Church of Portland, chats with co-housing groups and a meditating labyrinth walk at Menucha Camp & Conference Center, just to name a few.  It was through these adventures (which took us all over Portland) that I recognized how individuals and the groups we met manifested their respect for the earth and our Creator in distinct ways. They fulfilled their own ecological niche, acting as stewards of their area and care-givers to the people around them.

Kathi Pogorelov, 2011 Montana Eco-Steward

As our mission in Montana strengthened thanks to a shared ideology (and love of farm food!), we unexpectedly began to form our very own ‘social ecosphere’. Similar to the community of the Crow Reservation, we too created a ‘tribal family’ during our time spent together. Congregating into circles, storytelling, gathering over hearty meals, car drive conversations and other bonding events were among the many activities that revealed the group’s great synergy. In effect, a ‘safe place’ between Eco-Stewards had been birthed into existence. By fostering a nourishing environment of acceptance, openness, mutual care and support, we had effectively planted the seeds for a tribe of gardeners. Our united knowledge and interactive collaboration had grown into something beyond ourselves, nurturing and empowering us in ways that could not have been accomplished alone. Each one of us, with our natural light, had burned a hole into an otherwise ordinary slab of wood, etching a piece of art that only Crow portrait artist Jon Beartusk could challenge.

Gerard Miller, 2011 Montana Eco-Steward

Looking back on our week of active learning in Eastern Montana, the one thing that comes to mind as a theme, or overarching idea, is the voice. All week, we sat or stood in conversation with one another, sharing our ideas of God and the world and lending our personal insights to each other’s queries and assertions. This was most true on Saturday, our second day at Greenwood Farm in Hardin. We had gone to sleep the night before under a clear, star-strewn sky like nothing I’d ever seen. Gathered around the campfire, we’d lifted our voices in song, submitting our favorites as requests to be sung by the group. The songs we chose told something about each of us, and about what we thought of the group. It was a great time for fellowship, with any lingering nervousness or anxiety covered by the inky blackness that surrounded the dancing flames.

Explorations and Connections of Eco-Stewards
by Becky Evans

Seven years ago, I found myself singing and driving the “country roads” of West Virginia in the company of eight inspiring young adults whose deep faith and love for Creation led them on a week-long Eco-Stewards Program adventure exploring the complex issue of mountaintop removal coal mining. In each mountain hollow, we found tight-knit communities who welcomed us with Christian hospitality, good music and rich stories of living with and from the land in southern Appalachia. As a group, we shared our own stories of family, faith, environmental stewardship and vocational discernment while sitting around picnic tables and campfires or riding in passenger vans and whitewater rafts. My role as The Eco-Stewards Program’s multimedia storytelling coach quickly morphed into that of mentor, friend, and even peer.

The conversations and connections started on those country roads in West Virginia (and later in Massachusetts, Vermont, Florida, Montana, Oregon and Washington) continue today through texts, Facebook messages, blog posts and Christmas cards—and they are a huge part of why I continue to serve as a volunteer on The Eco-Stewards Program Leadership Team. Our experiential education model connects young adults who care about faith and environmental stewardship and inspires them through the stories of Christian communities around the country who are acting in faith to defend Creation. Our growing diaspora of Eco-Stewards alumni fills me with hope as I watch how their learning from these place-based experiences shapes their thinking, spirituality, and vocational discernment. It’s even shaped my own vocational thinking: I’m taking a break from the hallowed halls of academia to visit farms and food pantries as a Food Justice Educator for the Boston Food Justice Young Adult Volunteer Program.

We’re currently looking for candidates for our June 5-10 program, Eco-Stewards Richmond, Virginia: Water is Life, Journeying Toward Justice on the James River. Please spread the word to young adult leaders in your midst!

Becky W. Evans is an environmental journalist, educator and ESOL teacher who enjoys mentoring young adults through experiential education. She lives in Boston with her toddler son, Rowen, and Presbyterian pastor husband, Rev. Rob Mark.