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Top 10 Religious Environmental Saints

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What do Saint Francis of Assisi and the New Orleans Saints have in common? Goggle the term "saints" to find out.

An online search for "saints" first reveals the official site of the football team that won this year's Super Bowl and then a site for religious saints recognized by the Catholic Church.

These sacred and secular saints do have one thing in common: Saint Francis, the patron saint of animals and the environment, and the New Orleans Saints share a strong connection to place.

Today, stewardship of place has brought together diverse religious leaders -- Muslims, Jews, Christians -- who are playing on the same team to protect the earth, despite their differing religious beliefs. These faith leaders are standing in solidarity, united by a moral imperative to care for God's creation.

In his book Making Saints, Kenneth Woodward defines a saint as "someone through whom we catch a glimpse of what God is like -- and what we are called to be." From mosques to monasteries, these saints are revealing a new world where hopeful environmental action happens on an individual, congregational, and community level.

In that spirit of hope, I present a roster of 10 religious-environmental saints. The first five have gained national and even international recognition, while the second list features spiritual leaders encountered in my own daily life. All 10 saints offer lessons for a new world, where congregations model the principles and practices of sustainable communities.

Five Saints of the World

The familiar tune "When the Saints Go Marching In" calls for a new day: "Oh, when the new world is revealed, oh, when the new world is revealed, Lord, I want to be in that number, when the new world is revealed." These five saints have influenced my own belief that we must respond through faith to environmental degradation here on earth, rather than wait for heaven at St. Peter's gates.

  1. Rev. Sally Bingham: As a stay-at-home mom, the Rev. Sally Bingham questioned why clergy in her Episcopal church were not talking about faith and the environment. As an ordained priest, she now serves as the founder and director of the Regeneration Project and Interfaith Power and Light (IPL) Campaign, which provides a religious response to global warming. With IPL affiliates in 38 states, this campaign has become a powerful interfaith force to address climate change.
  2. Wangari Maathi: Awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004, Wangari Maathi's work resulted in 20 million trees planted on farms, church compounds, and gardens in Kenya. The founder of the Green Belt Movement, Maathi began planting trees as a grassroots initiative to improve the lives of women and conserve the environment. She was the first woman in East and Central Africa to earn her doctorate degree and credits the Benedictine sisters with promoting her love of science.
  3. The Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew: The leader of the Orthodox Church, the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew has earned the title of "the Green Patriarch." He brought together scientists, religious leaders, and government officials for visits to major bodies of water in the world, including the Danube, the Amazon, and the Arctic, to integrate scientific and spiritual understandings of water.
  4. Wendell Berry: From his farm near Port Royal, KY, Wendell Berry writes as a farmer and activist, challenging people of faith to practice their convictions. Berry, who attends a local Baptist church, has criticized Christians as complacent about an economy that destroys the environment. His writings urge a "home economy" of raising food and animals through a life rooted in one place.
  5. Rev. Mitch Hescox: When oil poured in the Gulf of Mexico this summer, the Rev. Mitch Hescox decided to walk from Waveland, Miss. to Venice, La. and pray with Gulf Coast residents affected by the spill. In 2009, he became president/CEO of the Evangelical Environmental Network. This year, he also organized an 18-day walk from West Virginia to Washington, DC to bear witness to mountaintop removal sites and pray for victims of climate change.

Five Saints in my Life

"I Sing a Song of the Saints of God" was one of my grandmother's favorite hymns: "And one was a doctor and one was a queen, and one was a shepherdess on the green. They were all of them saints of God and I mean, God helping, to be one too."

Religious-environmental saints are acting with conviction to conserve the places I love. One is a writer, and one is a priest, and one is a mother, just like me. If I can find these saints in my small circles, these natural saints are among us all.

  1. LeeAnne Beres: "A thousand acts of kindness can be wiped away with a single act of Congress," says LeeAnne Beres, executive director of Earth Ministries in Washington State. Among its many programs, Earth Ministries provides training in environmental advocacy skills for congregations. This organization has brought together interfaith religious leaders and legislators in a campaign to transition the state from coal to clean energy by 2015.
  2. Rev. John Rausch: In his work with the Catholic Committee on Appalachia, Father John Rausch has led countless tours of mountaintop removal sites for seminarians, community members, and interfaith groups. This Sept. 11, Rev. Rausch will lead an interfaith prayer service facing a mountaintop removal site to pray for jobs that build a just society and steward creation. He often ends these services by giving wildflower seeds to participants to scatter amid the rubble as a sign of hopeful action.
  3. Jill Rios: Jill Rios and her daughter Aja worship at La Capilla de Santa Maria, where her husband is the priest for this Episcopal parish that ministers to Latino immigrants. With her leadership, La Capilla has weatherized the sanctuary, planted a garden, and built a cob oven as a microenterprise for parishioners. As the former director of North Carolina Interfaith Power and Light, she also created a program to weatherize 300 low-income homes and provide climate justice tours for congregations.
  4. Rabbi Larry Troster: Rabbi Larry Troster fosters the next generation of religious-environmental saints through his leadership with the GreenFaith Fellowship program. This training builds the skills of interfaith leaders to care for creation using a framework of justice, spirituality, and stewardship. Based in New Jersey, GreenFaith also promotes initiatives such as solar panels on sanctuaries and an environmental certification program for congregations.
  5. Will Harlan: A practicing Buddhist and environmental writer, Will Harlan lives off the grid with his wife and son on their farm in Western North Carolina. His spirituality connects him to the earth and to his avocation as an elite ultramarathoner in places like the Appalachian Mountains and Cooper Canyon, Mexico. Last year, Harlan completed a 72-mile run in the Smoky Mountains to raise awareness about mountaintop removal.

Fans of the New Orleans Saints chant this song with a religious fervor: "Who dat? Who dat? Who dat say gonna beat dem Saints?" The call and response creates a power greater than the individual voices in the stadium. Likewise, believers are creating collective momentum from individual acts: one cob oven built, one interfaith service organized, one church garden tilled, one piece of legislation passed.

Together, these people of faith represent a communion of saints rooted in God's earth, but moving forward, one step at a time. And I mean to be one too.

Around the Web

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The Greening of Evangelicals (washingtonpost.com)

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