What do you think effective faith-based actions consist of?
Recently Hope for Creation communications assistant Tanai Dawson sat down with Cybelle Shattuck, WMU faculty and author of Faith, Hope, and Sustainability: The Greening of US Faith Communities, to learn more about her story. Cybelle is an Associate Professor with a joint position in the Institute of the Environment and Sustainability and the Department of Comparative Religion at Western Michigan University. We'll share segments of her interview over the next few days, in anticipation of her talk on February 18.
There's not one simple answer to that. If you want to build a movement that's durable so people can continue doing the actions, one of the things you really need to do is to take time to really think about how caring for the environment connects to your religion. Why do we do this here, in a faith community? There's plenty of secular environmental organizations you can join, like the Kalamazoo Climate Crisis Coalition. If you're going to do it in church, in a synagogue, in a temple, in a mosque, why there? You need to take time to really look at those connections. And then, that study can be super helpful for doing outreach to the rest of the congregation to say, “This is why we think our community needs to be involved in this, because it is actually an expression of our religious values.” Another thing is getting the pastor on board. Most of the groups that I studied, it wasn't the pastor who was leading the project, but having their support was the difference between people seeing this as the activity of a small group of environmentalists vs. seeing it as the activity of their whole congregation. The moral support of the pastor is also affirming for the green group, it signals that what they're doing matters because it’s an expression of their religious beliefs and their faith community’s values.
Figuring out how the environmental activities actually fit the strengths of a faith community is also important, so people are not inventing some whole new activity where they need a whole new volunteer group. Usually, there’s very little volunteer capacity that's unassigned in the congregation, so how do you connect with what they're already doing? Looking at the religious education program, can we add some lessons for the kids into that curriculum? Not creating separate activities, but working environmental topics into what they're already doing. If we do social justice work, can we add the environment into that? Drawing on the knowledge that already exists is helpful. For example, if your green team is mostly younger people, they can maybe recruit an experienced elder who knows all about how their church runs, how their mosque runs, to be a co-leader to help really get a new environmental program started. Elders know things, right? They've got that institutional knowledge, that community knowledge, and they've got social networks. That can really help. So all of those things really help a green team to get started and be effective.
One of the things that's hard to predict is if you can get a big enough group so you can prevent burnout. Knowing what your capacities are as a group, in terms of time and energy is important, but also really connecting to the community to get more people involved. What kind of projects will the congregation support? That way, the green team members are not wearing themselves out trying to do the wrong kind of project, which means more work for a small number of people. There's a tendency to assume people have to already be interested in the environment to be on the green team, but what I find when I talk to people is that the biggest motivation to do environmental work in congregations is concern about one's children and grandchildren. So recruit beyond the people who garden, recruit beyond the people that you know are environmentalists. There might be a lot of people who really want to see that kind of work done, who don't think of themselves as environmentalists.
Find out more from Cybelle Shattuck in her compelling interview on faith and sustainability daily in anticipation for her event on February 18th!