Five Months Later: Upstream on The James

An Eco-Steward Reflection

by Alex Haney, Eco-Stewards Alum & Program Host

Half a year since Eco-Stewards Richmond, I can still recall many vivid scenes from our Journeying Toward Justice Along the James River program last June.

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.

The Eco-Stewards Richmond group walks with Beth Roach in a “simulated” Walk for Unity along the James River.
Beth’s water bottle, a symbol for the water the women carried in the Walk for Unity.

 

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.

View of The James River near Rockbridge-Amherst County Line. Taken on my commute home from Eco-Stewards Richmond (June 2017).
The view looking east from The Appalachian Trail, three miles north of Foot Bridge near Snowden Dam (January 2017).
View looking west toward Glasgow, near Rockbridge-Amherst County Line (November 2017).

Close-up shots of the confluence of the Maury River and the James River at a park in Glasgow. James River Association helped sponsor construction projects at the park. I did not know about the park until I started exploring the weekend after the EcoStewards Richmond Program (June 2017).
James River Foot Bridge (Named in Memory of William T. Foot) Looking west from the south side of the river (November 2017).

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”

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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!

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.