Pairing environmentalism, economic justice

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Pairing environmentalism, economic justice

The Boson Globe By Rich Barlow | April 21, 2007 It's not easy being green, unless, that is, you're a spiritual person who lives on Cape Cod. A sturdy environmentalism can be born from the marriage of religion, with its reverence for creation, and a seacoast dweller's appreciation of nature's might. John Schlee belongs to the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Falmouth, and his denomination's foundational principles include "respect for the interdependent web of all existence." He is also a scientist who retired from the US Geological Survey, and he has a long memory. Falmouth is barely 10 feet above sea level, he says, and often loses power during hurricanes and strong northeasters. Just a generation ago, few religious leaders worried about the state of the environment, said the Rev. Robert F. Murphy, the minister of the Falmouth Fellowship, who calls himself a longtime environmentalist. But the eve of the 38th annual Earth Day tomorrow marks a time of alliance between secular environmentalists and pious fellow Greens. It isn't just churches such as the famously liberal Unitarian Universalists, some of whom don't believe in a supernatural deity; conservative evangelicals have caught the eco bug, too. In a nation where most profess religious belief, secular environmentalists are tapping the power of that majority. The venerable Sierra Club employs a liaison to faith communities, for example. According to the club's website, one survey found that two-thirds of Americans care about the environment because "nature is God's Creation." The club says that almost half of its members attend religious services at least monthly. It hasn't always been a harmonious marriage, and nowhere is that more the case than on the Cape, Murphy said. Mainstream environmentalism was typically dominated by white, middle-class activists who cared about issues such as wildlife and wilderness preservation, he says. But religious believers who joined the movement insisted on attention to "who suffers because of pollution," and all too often the answer was poor people. A pivotal moment came in 1987, when the United Church of Christ published a report showing that polluting facilities were disproportionately and deliberately placed in nonwhite communities. Within the last decade or so, the phrase "environmental justice" crept into the green vocabulary, marrying the goal of protecting nature with that of promoting human rights for vulnerable people, said Bill Geise, another member of Murphy's congregation. Geise retired as a Superfund branch manager for the US Environmental Protection Agency. More recently, Hurricane Katrina and the government's failures in helping impoverished victims of the storm demonstrated how an environmental cataclysm could pulverize low-income neighborhoods. "The faith community is paramount to what we do here," said Brenda Swain, head of the Falmouth Service Center. The center, which offers assistance to poor residents, was begun two decades ago with a push from local clergy, and area congregations continue to funnel volunteers and donations to the center. The Falmouth Unitarian Fellowship and other churches distributed hundreds of fliers about fuel assistance and home weatherization programs for low-income households. As a volunteer at the center, Murphy discovered that many applicants for fuel subsidies were the working poor, holding down jobs, but struggling to avoid the "heat or eat" choice. Energy is a particular concern for Murphy's congregation. "When other people talk about energy, the first question they may raise is, how do you stop global warming or how do you build a better windmill or how do you get American energy independence?" the minister said. ". . . But the first question for environmental justice on the Cape is, how do you provide all people with adequate sources of energy that are safe, affordable, and sustainable?" A second priority is to feed the hungry and make the food organic and locally grown. The Fellowship runs two plots at the service center's community garden, and 95 percent of the tomatoes, cucumbers, green beans, peas, and squash, about two bushels' worth, goes to the center's food pantry, according to Geise. Operating on the theory that ecology, like charity, begins at home, the Falmouth Fellowship tries to keep its own meeting house green, monitoring its energy use and indoor air quality and keeping its grounds pesticide-free and planted only with native flora, says Phil Zimmerman, a member of the governing board. The Boston-based Unitarian Universalist Association says its history compels environmental responsibility. Its president, the Rev. William G. Sinkford, posted an Earth Day letter on the denomination's website. "Since the days of Emerson and Thoreau," he writes, "our faith has claimed nature as a primary source of religious inspiration."

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Acknowledgments is made possible in part by generous support from the Fahs Collaborative