Stewarding your Church “Property” as an Earth Community

David Rhoads

I recently participated in the spring convocation at the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Gettysburg (April, 2012). The convocation centered on the theme of “Getting Green Faithfully,” and it included such notable speakers as Gil Waldkoenig (Professor of Church in Society at Gettysburg), Cynthia Moe-Lobeda (Professor of Environmental Studies, Theology, and Religious Studies at Seattle University), and Fletcher Harper (Executive Director of GreenFaith). All of the lectures, workshops, and worship were meaningful and invigorating. I was challenged by all of them.

The reflections that follow were stimulated by Gil Waldkoenig—as a way to begin to extend his conceptual reflection on land use among churches with some practical suggestions. His lecture (see the Fall, 2012 Cross Currents issue devoted to eco-theology)  was called “From Commodity to Community: Churches and the Land They Own.” In this presentation, he challenged the ELCA “to affirm greening that has been taking root in its congregations, to reorient to creation, and to join the public efforts for environmental restoration and wilderness participation.” He outlined a number of steps to take as means to think ecologically and theologically about land that belongs to congregations (and other church organizations) and how that land might be assessed and stewarded in wise ways.

I want to begin by honoring the folks in every parish who serve on the committee that cares for the (building and) grounds. Often it is a thankless job, with hard work that needs to be done on a regular or seasonal basis—mowing, raking, shoveling, sowing, weeding, harvesting, trimming, clearing, cleaning, among many other things. Many of these folks have specialized skills and use them wisely in their commitment to their congregational vocation and their exercise of good stewardship. They see their work on the grounds of the church as a sacred trust, and they take pride in their work.

Generally speaking, however, we are all caught up in a treatment of land that comes from the culture rather than from our theological traditions. As Gil’s title suggests, we see our land as a commodity. We look at church “sites for development.” We consider its commercial value. We talk about “owning” the land, and we have “Property” Committees. We “maintain” the property based on various cultural values of attractiveness—which lead us often to treat the lawn with weed-killing toxins and to plant non-native trees and shrubbery based on appearance alone.

Now we need to “reorient” our views, as Gil says, in order to see ourselves as stewards of land that is God’s good Earth. In the biblical creation stories, God made the land and called it good before creating humans. Creation was valued for its own sake, apart from human use of it. God created humans last to exercise responsibility for Earth, and God commissioned humans “to serve and to protect” creation. Our Lutheran theology affirms the goodness of the material world. We claim that the movement of God is toward becoming incarnate in, with, and under creation. We consider God to be present and creating in an ongoing way by “working for good in all things.” As such, God is earthbound, and the Earth is filled with God’s glory. We Lutherans have a sacramental theology affirming that the “finite can bear the infinite.” Our sacraments witness to the conviction that since Christ is present in such ordinary elements as grapes and grain and water, then we can be sure that Christ is present everywhere—in all places, in all things, and on all occasions. And our theology claims that the Holy Spirit is the giver and sustainer of life.

The consequence of these convictions is that we see our church land and all living things that share this space together as sacred. Land is not simply the measured square footage with 8 inches of topsoil dirt. Land is not soil apart from the microbes, worms, grubs, beetles, that inhabit it, the trees, shrubs, flowers, and grasses that are rooted in it, the insects, birds, small mammals, and rodents sustained by it—including the humans who depend on the soil and on all that lives out of the soil for sustenance, beauty, and breath itself.  This is an Earth community, and we are part of it.

Because all of it is sacred, we who share this space are enjoined to treat the land of our congregations with reverence and to care for it in such a way that all of life thrives there. Our reverence for the land is the right basis for our use of that land. We need to have knowledge of the plants and animals on the land and to understand our impact on their habitat. We need to be aware of the impact of our choices on other humans, especially the vulnerable in our society and in the world. We need to understand the principles and actions of conservation and preservation. And we need to see our relationship with life around us as one of kinship and communion.

Furthermore, we are called to pray to God and give praise to God in accompaniment with the soil and the elm trees and the rhododendrons and the tulips and the grackles and the raccoons and the mice that share this land with us. Just as the Bible calls all living things to worship by thriving in their space, so too we are commanded to worship together with them: “Let all creation praise the Lord” or “All creation! Praise the Lord!” Such a reorientation in our relationship to life around us will lead us to echo the words of Jacob when he wrestled with the angel: “Surely God was in this place and I did not know it.” Now we know!

Gil affirms the importance of place when he lifts up the question God asks Adam and Eve in the garden: “Where are you?” Our answer to that question is this: Here we are—an integral and inextricable part of this garden Earth. Ecological thinking affirms such a reorientation toward the land. Everything is connected to and interrelated with everything else. We share a common heritage in the universe. We are all made up of stardust. We share similar DNA with other higher primates. We have an intimate communion of interrelationships with all things, whether we are aware of it or not.  Beyond our commonalities, each church community holds a particular time and place in this larger system of things. We can see ourselves and the life immediately around us as a small piece of Earth community in which we acknowledge ourselves as mammals and embrace our kinship with all other creatures. We can recognize our human dependence on the land for food and on the life of the land for oxygen that enables breath itself.

This perspective leaves us with a deep sense of place. The mandate is this:  Know the region of which you are a part, learn its geological and natural history, and understand how your land relates to and inter-acts with the larger terrain around and how it is part in the local watershed. Know the ecosystem of your church land—its native trees and other plants, the insects, birds and other small animals that share this sacred space with you. Draw on local experts to get an assessment of the land and soil and native species as a basis for making decisions that impact the land. Consider land use around the church in its urban, suburban or rural context. Be aware of the green spaces around you—or the lack of them! Assess your proximity to corporate or industrial processes that affect the land in your neighborhood and city.

This entire reorientation means that we are part of an Earth Community that shares our land together and that we know this land as the true sanctuary in which we gather and worship. One congregation includes pictures of trees and birds and small mammals from their land as part of their church directory of “members.” Another church took pictures of their trees, enlarged them, and framed them as artwork for the church—so that people would notice their trees as creations of beauty. Churches can cultivate an awareness of and a love for all things natural around them.

So what practical actions might a congregation take to show reverence for the land and all its flora and fauna and to serve and protect it with humility, gratitude, and grace? Here are some ideas to consider.

1. Know your space: Learn all that you can about the land, its plants and animals, and its make-up and history.

2. Preserve and restore the natural state of the land. Identify the native plants, and protect and nourish them. Planting trees or shrubs or flowers or grass for appearance sake alone does not foster the life of the native eco-system. A Japanese flowering tree draws virtually no native life to its vicinity. By contrast, Douglas Tallamy of the University of Delaware estimates that a native oak tree will attract 252 native species of insects, birds, mammals, rodents, and other plants!

·         Plant a prairie area: Many churches have taken a segment of their land and turned it into prairie. This requires careful planning and some maintenance, but it restores the land and reminds us that life will thrive everywhere when there are wild places somewhere.

·         Design a beautiful landscape of native trees, shrubs, flowers, and grass. This will create a rich eco-system to celebrate. Planting native does not mean that the results are wild or unruly looking. People thrive in the midst of natural beauty.

·         Plant appropriate trees to clean the air by absorbing carbon dioxide and producing oxygen.

3. Serve and protect your lawn. There are many resources available to build an attractive lawn in Earth-friendly ways.

·         Native grasses will root deeper, stay longer, require less water, and need less mowing.

·         Avoid pesticides or herbicides or toxic weed killers

·         Learn and use Earth-friendly techniques of sowing and natural fertilizing for developing a healthy and attractive lawn.

·         Consider Earth-wise driveways and parking areas: Install permeable cover, use gravel, or space some islands of trees and drainage areas throughout the parking areas.

4. Gardens

·         Vegetable garden. Practice organic gardening. Share produce with food pantries. Local movements that focus on food and gardening will provide plenty of master gardeners to teach you. Engage the entire congregation, the neighbors, and especially the youth in the garden work. Partner with a church that has little access to land. Where possible, plant seasonally. Even a small garden bears a witness to good land use. Treat the land with reverence so that it will be nourished and re-nourished. Let the land lie fallow every seven years!

·         Flower gardens of native species. To enhance beauty. For selling to raise money for a food bank or giving to shut-ins. To decorate the altar rather than getting flowers that have been shipped from a distance and preserved with refrigeration. Put potted flowers throughout the church.

·         Plant an orchard, small or large: A story goes that Martin Luther was once asked what he would do if he knew that the world would end tomorrow. He reportedly replied: Plant an apple tree.” Now there’s an investment in the future! Again, this is for the hunger needs in your community.

·         Roof top gardens: depending on your roof and access to it, consider rooftop gardens to make the most of the space and to moderate building temperatures in all seasons.

·         Container gardens. If you have unused blacktop, consider small plastic swimming pools or wood frame containers along with intense gardening techniques to give members or provide neighbors with a space to plant some food for their tables.

·         Greenhouses. Churches are beginning to extend their growing season and maximize their garden productivity with greenhouses.

·         Rain gardens: Rain gardens are small, strategically-placed areas (often near roof run-off) in which native plants with deep roots are clustered. They absorb water deep into the ground so that the water is cleansed by nature—rather than carrying toxins on the surface into the local watershed. Rain gardens also serve to minimize the accumulation of water in flood plains. Local environmental organizations or universities can assist in setting these up, providing plants, and even perhaps offering a grant.

·         Specialized natural spaces. Some churches have set up space with selected native plants to serve as a butterfly garden or as a way-station for certain migratory birds.

·         Peace garden. Many churches are setting up small or large peace gardens with lovely native trees and plants to form a kind of sanctuary with benches for small-group worship or personal meditation. Sometimes they include a labyrinth as a guided walking meditation.

·         Memorial garden. This may be a way to maintain a cemetery. Some churches have places for the burial of ashes or simply an inscribed brick or plaque to commemorate a loved one. Soon churches will be setting space aside for natural (green) burials.

5. Best Practices.

·         Local foods. When you have coffee hour with healthy snacks and potlucks, seek to encourage the offering of fruit or dishes made from foods grown locally. These can sometimes be accompanied by recipes designed to encourage seasonal cooking with locally grown foods. Also, consider wine for communion from a regional winery and bread from grain grown in the area.

·         Compost. Some churches provide compost for their garden from lawn clippings, leaves, and food scraps. One church has a very large worm compost area for members to bring food scraps for composting.

·         Rain barrels. Rain barrels strategically placed under downspouts can collect a large amount of water for use on gardens and church lawns. They are not expensive and can be installed easily.

·         Church schools, kindergartens, child and adult day care programs. Incorporate and teach Earth-friendly perspectives and practices in the programs you sponsor as a congregation.

6. Extend your commitment beyond church land

·         Farmers market: My own church has such a large garden that they began a farmers market, badly needed on our side of town. Now seven or more vendors come to our parking lot each Thursday afternoon in the summer months. In addition to selling produce, church members make baked good and crafts for sale. Much of the proceeds go to a food bank. Again, a farmers market encourages eating locally grown foods.

·         Community Supported Agriculture. Supporting local farmers and the eating of locally grown foods are both outcomes of the Community Supported Agriculture programs, which match individuals, cooperatives, and organizations with local farmers. Your church may serve as a weekly drop-off point.

·         Urban food production. Some churches are working together to transform vacant lots into community gardens, raising vegetables in an hydroponic context indoors, and raising fish in indoor pools.

·         Gardens and lawns at home. Sponsor classes or workshops for members and the local community that teach organic gardening for home gardens and lawn care. Develop a pledge for members to make—a “covenant with creation”—that solidifies their efforts to carry out best practices for their yards and gardens.

·         Local projects: Engage members with opportunities to restore natural habitats, carry out reforestation, or plant trees in the city. Support your community in becoming a Bird City or a Tree City. Cooperate with local environmental organizations in the effort to strengthen the Earth community in your larger neighborhood.

·         Avoid unnecessary waste in the local landfill. Reduce, reuse, and recycle as thoroughly as possible. Use ceramic plates and utensils or purchase ones that decompose (and do not discard them in sealed plastic garbage bags!) Avoid the use of toxic cleaning products in the church that will go into the landfill or watershed. Avoid use of or properly dispose of all dangerous products.

·         Throughout the ELCA. Work to extend the practices you have developed so that they may be used on the land of other organizations and institutions of the church—colleges and universities, outdoor ministry camps and retreat centers, social ministry organizations, synod offices, and so on. 

·         Spread the word. As opportunities arise, let your commitments and practices be known throughout the larger community through news outlets and word of mouth.

7. Land trust: Consider placing your property in a permanent land trust, whereby it will be preserved from development in perpetuity.

8. Public Witness:

·         Local Advocacy: If your church or community is near mining industries or fracking sites or land development or agribusiness sites or logging or brown fields, consider leading or joining conversations or protests that work toward safe environmental practices. Be especially aware of the human cost in ecological injustice and environmental racism.

·         National advocacy: Connect your efforts to be good stewards of your land with efforts to support laws and policies that maintain national parks, preserve wilderness areas from development, protect endangered species, and support efforts on behalf of clean air, pure water, and fertile land.

·         Global advocacy. Become aware of the problems created on lands around the world from global climate change, degradation of land from agribusiness, stripping of rain forests, and use of toxic spray to enhance food production.

·         Places of moral deliberation: Where controversy exists, seek to have your congregation become a place where the issues can be discussed in respectful and constructive ways.

9. Cultivate a relationship with nature. God made nature for God’s own delight. When we despoil nature, we diminish the capacity for nature to praise God by thriving. When we restore nature we magnify God’s pleasure.

·         Enhance health. A relationship with nature improves the health of mind, body, and soul. Blood pressure goes down, recovery from illness quickens, and depression can lift in the time spent in natural settings.  See a relationship with nature as part of the church’s ministry.

·         Enjoy nature. Love it for its own sake. Worship outside. Display a nature map of your land and make an inventory of all that is on it. Encourage members to learn the trees and plants so that they can appreciate them and worship with them. Have a naturalist give your members a walking tour around your land or your neighborhood.

·         Celebrate your gardening. With a sowing celebration in the spring and a harvest festival in the fall. Have a meal, provide activities, and invite the community. Raise funds and gifts of food for the poor.

·         Bring nature into the church building and the worship space. Trees and plants purify the air and delight the senses. Consider an aquarium or gerbil cages.

·         Go to local green spaces: organize outings to local nature preserves or parks or the zoo. Talk about your experience. Hold a council or congregational retreat in a natural setting.

10. Learn about nature. Martin Luther said there were two books of revelation, the Bible and nature. In the 16th century reformation, Luther put the Bible into the hands of the laity. Now it is time to put nature into the hands of all of us.

·         Educational programs. Incorporate a relationship to the land in the educational program of the church for all ages: adult forums, Bible study, book groups, youth activities, and vacation church school.

·         Stewardship. Revise your vision of stewardship to see care for creation not as an add-on but as the larger conceptual framework in which all other stewardship takes place. Incorporate care of creation into annual stewardship programs.

·         Church library and reading groups. Stock the library with books and videos that explain our eco-systems on Earth and inspire us to action. See the list brief below.

In sum, we need the conceptual theological framework that teachers like Gil Waldkoenig are providing us as a theological basis for our care of the land. We also need some practical ideas to carry out the mandates that arise from such reflections. In all of this, the goal is to create an ethos of Earth-care embedded in the identity and mission of the whole congregation—such that members are able to say: “This is who we are. And this is what we do!”

Selected List of articles, books, and videos

See the article: “Means and Scenes of Grace” by Gilson Waldkoenig in Dialog: A Journal of Theology (Winter, 2011) http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1540-6385.2011.00633.x/abstract. The issue is dedicated to eco-theology and includes articles by Norma Wirzba, Christopher Chapple and Whitney Bauman. A follow-up article to “Scenes and Means,” tentatively entitled “From Commodity to Community: Churches and the Land They Own,” will appear in the forthcoming Cross Currents Fall 2012, which will also be dedicated to eco-theology.

Norman Habel, David Rhoads, and Paul Santmire. The Season of Creation: A Preaching Commentary (Fortress, 2011)

Ben Stewart, A Watered Garden: Christian Worship and Earth’s Ecology (Augsburg Fortress, 2011)

Douglas Tallamy. Bringing Nature Home: How You Can Sustain Wildlife with Native Plants [latest edition} (Timber Press, 2007).

Anthony Westin, Back to Earth: The Environmental Movement in the Twenty-first Century (Temple University Press, 1994).

Jeff Wild and Peter Bakken. Church on Earth: Grounding Your Ministry in a Sense of Place (Fortress, 2009). See also their website www.yourplacematters.net, which also includes a Garden Curriculum for children.

Norman Wirzba. Food and Faith: A Theology of Eating (Cambridge University Press, 2011)

David Rhoads, ed. Earth and Word: Classic Sermons on Saving the Planet (Continuum, 2007). Contains a number of sermons directly dealing with our relationship with the land.

 “Dirt! The Movie.” Narrated by Jamie Lee Curtis, this movie explores the soil beneath our feet. Interviews with Wangari Maathai, Vandana Shiva, Wes Jackson, Alice Waters, Majora Carter, and others trace connections between dirt, food, community, spirituality, social justice, and environmental sustainability.

 

 “The Journey of the Universe” An epic story of cosmic, earth and Human transformation. For information, go to www.journeyoftheuniverse.org.

“Earthbound: Created and Called to Care for Creation” (2009).Earthbound is a six-part series on DVD that looks at Christians’ complex relationship with God’s creation. Many Lutheran voices and case studies of the greening of Lutheran Institutions.  The series is available from Seraphim Communications http://store.seracomm.com/.

“Urban Roots” (2011). Directed by Mark MacInnis, this film tells the uplifting story of dedicated and diverse citizens, allied with environmental and academic groups, who are reclaiming post-industrial Detroit by growing food and cultivating community.