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.