The Yoga of Ecology: Ironbound to Green Faith and Environmental Justice

As an aspiring eco-theologian/activist/citizen, I am very grateful and fortunate to be part of the GreenFaith Fellowship Class of 2014. GreenFaith is an ecumenical/interfaith organization building bridges between the worlds of environmental justice, eco-theology, and stewardship.

The executive director of GreenFaith is Rev. Fletcher Harper, who is a Union alumnus and a good friend of many people here in our community. The Fellowship is a wonderful opportunity for like-minded and like-hearted souls from across the spectrum of faith to join with each other to create a green-rooted momentum to overcome inertia and create ecological inspiration in our faith communities.

I came upon the Fellowship when Fletcher spoke about GreenFaith in eco-theological courses I took last year with Dr. Chung Hyun Kyung and with Dr. Larry Rasmussen. I was impressed with both the competency and clarity of GreenFaith’s work in relation to the many myriad ways in which traditions of faith can serve the global environmental movement. GreenFaith was and is able to see, and act upon, how the local pictures of environmental justice work in dialogue with the larger systemic issues of our economic, cultural, and theological misconceptions in relation to how we live on the planet.

The Fellowship is an immersion experience in GreenFaith’s inclusive and expansive vision. Along with monthly webinars, guided readings, and chances to write and discern our own ecological biography, identity, and theology, the highlight of the Fellowship are three retreats where we join our Fellows in intimate community.

The first of these retreats happened recently (Nov 11-14) in Newark, New Jersey. We focused on the issues and realities of environmental justice (EJ), and it was an emotionally intense and challenging experience. Our Fellowship class was a diverse blend of Christian ministers and lay folk, agnostics and seekers, Muslims and Hindus (including myself). We came from Finland, from the Midwest, from Harlem, but in large part few of us had extensive experience dealing with issues of environmental justice. I know that my own budding ecological identity struggles to find a sense of cause and place in the realm of EJ. This retreat was a step forward for me and for many of us in helping to move beyond just thinking and theorizing about environmental justice towards feeling what this injustice is like.

On the first day we took a tour of the industrial areas around the port and airport of Newark, led by the Ironbound Community Corporation, a local EJ collective. The gray weather combined with the images, visages, sights, and smells of the pollution we were taking in created the sense we were in some kind of Limbo or Purgatory. This was an area that had been industrial since colonial times, and was now becoming a post-industrial landscape of empty shipping containers, piles of scrap heap, dioxin-infected Superfund sites (with small pine trees growing out of the top for “atmosphere”), ruined high-school football stadiums, and areas still affected by sewage-steeped flooding from Superstorm Sandy.

One image stood out for me: a eternal line of trucks attempting to enter into the port area. We could not see where this line of trucks began or ended. We could see the angry frustrations of the drivers, truly stuck in limbo. We were confronted with the truth that even if we have the privilege of being able to leave this hellish place, these drivers, and the people living in very close proximity to all of this pollution, do not have the luxury to leave this place, physically, emotionally, and economically.

How many times in our lives, even as we drive our Prius, as we compost our food, as we avoid GMOs, shop organic, conserve electricity, vote Green, and participate in GreenFaith Fellowships, do we ignore environments like this, the people who live in them, and the injustice which permeates and supports the whole rancid edifice? This tour of the Newark port, at the beginning of our retreat, was a prayer to us and from us that we should learn to no longer ignore these kinds of realities if we have the privilege to do so.

After the tour, we stopped at the Greater Newark Conservancy to absorb a healing, hopeful, and sensual urban garden experience. The Conservancy didn’t dull our outrage and disgust, but it showed us that people in the Newark community did not think their situation was hopeless, and that we could learn a great deal from their faith, grit, and determination.

The other confrontational experience of the retreat was a talk done by John Pajak, a leader in the Local 78 union who works in the Newark oil refinery. John talked about his experiences dealing with toxic exposures and safety regulations in his work, and how he constantly has to fight against decisions by management to shortchange these regulations in the name of profit. John considered his work to make sure the refinery ran as ethically and environmentally sound as possible his way of stewardship. Yet, when asked about alternative energies and his union participating in “just transitions” away from the work of the refinery, he was adamant that this was not a realistic possibility. He was frank that his livelihood and the livelihood of his fellow workers was of primary importance, and if people were to insist on advocating for the abolition of fossil-fuel energy, he would fight against it.

For me, it was yet another experience of being forced and compelled to see through the eyes of those who don’t share the instincts and misconceptions of my privilege. It is easy for those of us who don’t work in such an oil refinery to demand that such “monstrosities” be condemned from the face of the Earth. How often do we understand that such condemnation is also a condemnation of the honest efforts of the workers, many of whom are much more acutely aware of the justice issues surrounding their work than we give them credit for. There are no easy answers to the ethical and environmental dilemmas that places like the Newark oil refinery present to us, but there will be no answers at all if we don’t listen to those immersed in these realities, and how their experiences can qualify our naiveté.

Our first retreat together was a not-so-gentle reminder that to stand up for the planet, and the living beings that we share this planet with, as people of faith is no easy undertaking. We experienced the depth of reality not only in the deep undersides of Newark, but also in the wealth of wisdom in the multiplicity of our faith traditions. We took in perspectives on faith and ecology in the Hindu tradition from Dr. Ved Chaudhary and from the Jewish tradition from Rabbi Larry Troster, GreenFaith Rabbinic Scholar in Residence. Rabbi Troster shared with us a call from eco-theologian Mary Evelyn Tucker to retrieve, reinterpret, and reconstruct the substance of our personal faith and of our faith traditions in order to relevantly, compassionately, and justly apply that wisdom to our existential ecological crisis.

I will continue to share my journey into the GreenFaith Fellowship here on the Union in Dialogue, the Union Forum, and the Union Voice.