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Faith and environmentalism: common goals 

A devout Catholic, Gerry Gacioch says that humans are supposed to be stewards of the Earth. Climate change, he says, is a sign that humanity is abusing what God has given it.

The remainder of 2015 is crucial for acting on climate change, he says. For one, world leaders will gather in Paris at the end of the year to negotiate a new climate treaty. The pact would replace the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, which was intended to drive down global carbon emissions — but hasn't. (The protocol was never ratified by the US Congress, either.)

But Gacioch is also excited about two important events leading up to the negotiations, both involving his Catholic faith. As early as June, Pope Francis will release a message to Catholics — an encyclical — explaining the urgency and moral importance of addressing climate change. And during a September visit to the United States, the pope will address Congress and a United Nations assembly — he's expected to touch on climate change in those remarks.

"There is definitely a feel that if there's ever going to be movement on this issue — which there's a lot of powerful forces against movement — this is going to be a really crucial six months," says Gacioch, a Fairport resident and parishioner at Church of the Transfiguration in Pittsford.

Gacioch is also one of 30 Catholic climate ambassadors in the United States. American Catholic bishops started the ambassadors program to spread a message through parishes about the seriousness of climate change.

Climate change and other environmental issues are often framed around economies, politics, science, and even recreation. But they're inherently moral matters — a fact that's often overlooked.

For a growing group of the faithful, environmental protection is a natural fit with their religions. They say that efforts to address environmental problems are a way to honor creation, and to live out the teachings of their churches, synagogues, and mosques.

"All of the major religions share this at their core, no matter how they express it, and that is, care for one's neighbor and transcendence of one's self and own self-interest," says the Rev. Ruth Ferguson, rector of Christ Church, an Episcopal congregation in Rochester.

Many environmental issues, especially climate change, have disproportionately impacted poor and vulnerable populations. Globally, people have abandoned their homes due to sea-level rise, drought, and natural disasters — all influenced by shifts in climate.

Domestically, the poor are at greater risk for health problems or death during heatwaves — many can't afford air conditioners or the cost to run them.

In its first few decades, the modern environmental movement lacked a sense of social justice. Activists and organizations instead focused on protecting natural areas, wildlife, and water sources.

But poorer communities, especially communities of color, have often been targeted for dumps, incinerators, chemical plants, and other polluting or nuisance industrial operations.

"Even when the concerns for the environment might have been at face really valid, because they were not linked to the concerns for the survival of people, many people in the African-American community could not get with it," says the Rev. Dr. James Evans, a systematic theology professor at Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School. "People who are trying to feed their children and put roofs over their heads see that at least as important as preserving a forest."

The disproportionate impact on poor and minority communities ultimately gave birth to the environmental justice movement. But even before that, African American church leaders had been involved in fights to keep polluters out of neighborhoods — showing that clergy have a place in environmental movements.

Faith leaders should be aware that the members of their congregations are impacted by environmental issues, Evans says.

"We can't look at this as somebody else's issue," says Evans, who is senior pastor at St. Luke Tabernacle Community Church in the Maplewood neighborhood.

And even in city neighborhoods where polluting activities have slowed or stopped, old contamination continues to be an issue. Members of Temple Sinai, a Reform Jewish congregation in Brighton, often work with neighborhoods to set up community gardens, says Jackie Ebner, a congregation member and former chair of its environmental committee. But they often can't use the soil at the garden sites, she says, because it's contaminated from past uses.

Gacioch and Ebner say that they want their churches' leaders and peers engaged on environmental and climate issues.

In his role as a climate ambassador, Gacioch visits Catholic parishes to talk about the settled science of climate change and the moral aspects of the issue. He stresses the importance of acting now to protect future generations, he says.

"I think that's where religion actually helps out, because the church talks in terms of eternity, where realistically most people are sort of paycheck to paycheck," he says. "They are looking at survival for themselves; they're really not looking down the road."

Ebner is a certified Jewish environmental educator. She says that she's always felt a strong connection to Judaism, and as she became more interested in the environment, she began investigating what her faith said on the subject. Jewish scripture says a lot about conservation, animal rights, and respect for the natural world, she says.

"Faith's job is really to guide us through things like this," Ebner says.

Christ Church's Ferguson say that she wants to set an example for her congregation. She'd love to be seen biking around the community in her clerical collar, she says, which could encourage others to bike more and reduce their fossil fuel use.

Ferguson has had a couple of minor bumps with cars, however, and she says that she worries about her safety biking around the city. To her, bike-friendly streets are a justice issue, since many of the city's poorer residents rely on bicycles to get around. Clergy should be looking for ways to work with city and county officials to make improvements, she says.

Evans's church has its own way of connecting congregation members with nature. Each year, youth participating in a summer program plant and keep up a small garden. It may not sound like much, he says, but it teaches that with respect and care, the Earth can provide humanity with sustenance and beauty.

Ferguson and Evans also say that clergy have opportunities to reach their congregations through prayer, sermons, and by joining parishioners who speak out on environmental and climate issues. That could mean marching through the streets with them, or writing and calling lawmakers on important issues.

"We certainly know that we have a responsibility to speak up," Evans says.

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