For the believer as well as the nonbeliever, the plagues of heat waves, droughts, wildfires, floods and storms — extreme weather events brought about by climate change — are bedeviling the environment and the lives of people all over the world.
The crisis is forcing communities to question their relationships to nature and the world around them. As environmental consciousness grows, members of faith communities are among those seeking to engage with the reality of the climate crisis.
Many are finding motivation and even direction to do so in the writings of their faiths, such as admonitions in Exodus, “… I will send the full force of my plagues against you and against your officials and your people,” and Pirkei Avot, “It is not on you to finish the work, but you are not free to desist from it.”
The Multifaith Network for Climate Justice (MNCJ) was formed in 2019 when leaders and members of communities of faith around Bellingham organized to join in acting toward climate justice, raising awareness and opening discussions within their groups.
There is a groundswell of people who are deeply concerned about the environment and may feel that’s not a priority in their congregations, said Judy Hopkinson of the MNCJ.
To address that concern and priority, the MNCJ will hold a Sacred Earth Fair in Bellingham on July 31, to engage the community in exploring ways to care for each other and the environment.
Longstanding Indigenous relationships with the environment will be represented, in presentations and performances by Lummi and Nooksack tribal members.
Different words, same message
Hopkinson said she was surprised that when people from different faiths have done presentations for MNCJ, they brought “fundamentally the same message … coming through with different words, or different tradition, or different rituals, but it’s striking how similar they all are.”
Bellingham’s Baha’i community will participate in the Sacred Earth Fair. Michael Karlberg, a member of the Baha’i faith, said the fundamental teaching of Baha’i is that humanity is moving toward a transition to learning how to live together globally.
“All the crises that we’re seeing today are the result of clinging to immature patterns of behavior,” Karlberg said. “We need to embrace the principle of the oneness of humanity and figure how to translate that into a form of civilization that can actually prove peaceful, just and sustainable on this planet.”
Within the Baha’i faith, Karlberg said the question of climate change and justice is often discussed.
“Baháʼu’lláh taught that nature is an expression of God’s will,” Karlberg said. “It serves as an environment within which we can develop our spiritual potentialities, but we need to be responsible stewards of nature, or trustees of the natural world.”
Karlberg said the Baha’i faith teaches that “we’re one with the natural world, we’re inter-dependent, we drive our well-being from the integrity of the natural world we live in, so we have a responsibility to take care of it.”
Congregation Beth Israel will also participate in the fair. Cantorial Soloist Andrea Shupack said there is a strong foundation in Judaism’s biblical texts of caring for and appreciating the Earth and understanding that we are guests on this Earth, that it is all a divine gift, and that we are to take care of the Earth.
“Those are some of the tenets and teachings within Torah and our other biblical texts,” Shupack said. “There’s a lot of mitzvoth, which are the commandments given in the Torah, that speak to environmental protection.” For example, Shupack said there’s one known as bal tashchit: “do not waste.”
“There is the idea of B’tzelem Elohim, ‘made in God’s image,’ that everything in this universe has divinity within it, is sacred, is holy and asks to treat everyone and everything, every plant, every animal, every being with that in mind so that we really appreciate and take care of and honor all of it,” Shupack said. “That’s another beautiful teaching in Judaism.”
For Hopkinson, this is “pretty fundamental stuff” that isn’t just politics or fighting about a particular strategy for solving the climate crisis.
“I think it’s time for something like this, it’s very important to have that spiritual and religious component because this really is a spiritual thing,” Hopkinson said. “It is kind of a moral, spiritual and religious issue, how we relate to the people around us and how we relate to the other living beings around us.”
Hopkinson said considering the issue of climate justice is really thinking about who we really are in relationship to ourselves, each other and our children and our future.
“It’s deeper than we’d like to think and we need to rise above the way we’ve been thinking about the environment,” Hopkinson said.
Faith and tradition as assets
For Karlberg, communities of faith can be assets in responding to the crisis but there’s a lot of work to be done.
As more communities of faith take these issues seriously, they’re going to play a very important part in enabling humanity to deal with the issues at hand, Karlberg said, “The majority of people on this planet are people of faith, so if faith communities don’t really do their part it’s going to be very hard to address these issues.”
Shupack said there are members of Congregation Beth Israel who are very active and vocal about the pressing nature of the climate crisis. “It’s slowly moving in that direction and there’s more awareness every year as this topic becomes more and more dire.”
Last year, Congregation Beth Israel formed the Environmental Havurah, a small, tightly knit group that meets to discuss actions in their personal lives, how they can support each other and inspire each other to take more steps. Shupack created a Shabbat morning service that uses the Jewish texts her congregation uses in prayer service but put more focus and emphasis on the environment.
When it comes to engaging in conversations about climate justice, whether at the fair or anywhere else, Hopkinson said it is important to remain kind.
“Be kind to each other, we’re all works in progress,” Hopkinson said. “We’re all doing our best, we all mean well and we all have to be patient with each other and sensitive to the fact that everybody’s going through something.”
A true fair
The event will take place at the Center for Spiritual Living on 2224 Yew Street Road in Bellingham, 1 to 5 p.m.
“It is going to be a different sort of event from most environmental gatherings because it really is a fair,” said Hopkinson.
There will be 39 exhibitors including 11 from different faith or wisdom traditions in the community. The rest are from environmental groups that which can offer ways to be involved and information about actions that people can take to support efforts for sustainability and environmental stewardship.
“It will be focused on exploration, people exploring their own and other people’s traditions in terms of approaches or understanding of our relationship with the Earth and also exploring ways in which we can act out our commitment to care for the Earth and each other,” Hopkinson said.
Each faith has something to bring to the table, said Shupack, and being able to share that across all the different groups is a really powerful way to come together and find inspiration from what each faith can offer.
“Our hope for the event is that it encourages growing numbers of faith communities to really examine their commitments to environmental stewardship, climate justice and all of these issues, and learn how to work together,” Karlberg said.
Karlberg said that ultimately policies and laws are important parts of these kinds of problems but changing hearts and minds is the other important element. Faith communities have historically had a great influence in doing so.
“We’re really particularly interested in children and families coming because we understand that these days children are really feeling anxious about the climate,” Hopkinson said. “It’s very important for them to see adults acknowledging the reality of the situation and exploring options to solve it.”
There will be children’s activities such as rock painting, but also community artwork for adults, along with several performers.
Among those are Swil Kanim, a violinist and storyteller who has played with the Seattle Symphony and is a Lummi Tribal member, and Tammy Cooper-Woodrich, Nooksack elder and storyteller who, accompanied by her daughter Angela Letoi, will offer stories for adults and children.
“This is really a celebration of what we’ve done so far and how we can move toward a future that’s more sustainable and more just,” Hopkinson said. “We’re doing everything we can to make this as an example of how we can move together into the future.”
— Reported by Clifford Heberden
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