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Rev. Dr. James A. Kowalski

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The Cathedral of St. John the Divine and The Value of Water

Posted: 10/04/11 12:39 PM ET

"If we are to keep our democracy, there must be one commandment: thou shalt not ration justice." -- Judge Learned Hand

"When the well is dry, we know the worth of water." -- Benjamin Franklin

"This is the moment when we must come together to save this planet. Let us resolve that we will not leave our children a world where the oceans rise and famine spreads and terrible storms devastate our lands." -- Barack Obama

Something like a sixth of the world's population does not have access to clean drinking water. And we know that more than 2 million people, most of them children, die every year from diseases directly connected to dirty water. It's not only developing countries that are suffering, as parts of the United States know firsthand from recent flooding. Pesticides, some banned by other countries, but still used in the United States, run into rivers and streams, contaminating human food harvests and land used to feed livestock.

Estimates vary predicting when California's water supply will run out - perhaps in 20 years. Drought and demand are key factors.

That's why The Water Project says: "We know that access to clean, safe water changes lives. We know that when a well is installed for a village, girls return to school. Women begin small businesses. Men are no longer too sick to work. Fields are watered and food supply becomes more reliable. Health returns and children grow up to be productive members of their community. The cycle of poverty is broken. Lives change. Access to clean, safe water isn't an end, it's a means."

And we know that water is a pressure point because it is central to life. Peter Gleick, President of the Pacific Institute developed a "Water Conflict Chronology" to understand how water resources and systems impact security and conflict within and among nations. Gleick and the Institute examine and track how state and non-state control of supplies or access creates tensions, as well as the results of using water resources and systems as a weapon or target during military actions. Water is used politically by states and ethnic or interest groups; coercively and violently by terrorists. And water disputes within and between nations can disrupt economic and social stability and development. They know their method is not precise, but no one can reasonably dispute their assertion that "the importance of water to life means that providing for water needs and demands will never be free of politics."

Last year, when I found myself at a World Water in Washington, D.C., waiting for Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to speak, I was rather modestly thinking about water. But more ideas about water and sanitation got stirred up as the Secretary stated:

...as pressing as water issues are now, they will become even more important in the near future. Experts predict ... that by 2025, just 15 years from now, nearly two-thirds of the world's countries will be water-stressed. Many sources of freshwater will be under additional strain from climate change and population growth. And 2.4 billion people will face absolute water scarcity - the point at which a lack of water threatens social and economic development.
Secretary Clinton went on to say that such efforts not only benefit individuals, but also create a future in which we are respectful of our environment and aware that water is at the core of life, whereby we would appreciate our common humanity: The water that we use today has been circulating through the earth since time began. It must sustain humanity for as long as we live on this earth. In that sense, we didn't just inherit this resource from our parents; we are truly, as many indigenous cultures remind us, borrowing it from our children. It is my hope that by making water a front-burner issue, a high priority in our national and international dialogues, we can give our children and our children's-children the future they deserve.


On September 22, the Cathedral embarked on an extensive six-month conversation titled The Value of Water. We will use liturgy, art and other forms of discourse to invite people under the roof of this holy place - encouraging each of us to be transformed into an advocate. If you visit you will see compelling works of art exhibited in dynamic ways that give special voice to the meaning and value of water.

The Cathedral is no ordinary gallery. The challenges of installing such a range of art occasion a unique engagement from anyone coming into the exhibit. That engagement is enhanced by the resources of Visual Thinking Strategies (VTS) which frame the "tours" we offer - where each person "sees" and the individual's insights are expanded by the shared experience of others brought into the conversation.

This venue is more than a canvas on which such an important conversation can be projected. Liturgy and art and other forms of discourse were always intended to be calls to action. Across cultures and faiths, and across time, we endeavor to create such arcs in much of what we do here. We reach out to and collaborate with others. And in this case we celebrate how water can be something that unites rather than divides people on this fragile planet.

To some the experience of this Cathedral as a place where art is exhibited will not be new. For others, it might be extraordinary - even shocking. Cathedrals actually have always understood the power and function of art. Art was useful in educating people who could not read and learn about their religious traditions. Art has, throughout history, expressed the experiences and dreams of its creators. Viewing it educates the imagination. Art enables us to see more clearly what is, and re-imagine what could be. Responsible citizenship requires us to have the capacity to critique the status quo while deconstructing what are always socially constructed realities.

Poignantly, the cornerstone of the Cathedral was laid in 1892, the same year that Ellis Island opened. As Ellis Island became the major gateway for that immigration wave, the Cathedral's Chapels of the Tongues, representing the diverse ethnicities populating the international city of New York, would emerge. The ongoing discourse or "great conversation" of a cathedral chartered for all people has included the themes of kinship and citizenship. Those themes have animated the Cathedral's mission and ministries for over one hundred years. Jesus responded to the question, "Who is my neighbor?" just as interfaith understandings of respect for the "other" inform moral choices with global impact. Each of us, over a lifetime, affects others, our communities, those who live elsewhere, and those who will come after our lifetime. In the Quran it is written:

And Allah has created from water every living creature: so of them, is that which walks upon its belly, and of them is that which walks upon two feet, and all of them is that which walks upon four; Allah creates what He pleases; surely Allah has power over all things. (24.45)

Is it sacrilegious to say that God's power is actually limited by what we do? Or is the truth that God depends on us to use these resources wisely, not with wanton disregard for others on the planet in our time or in the future? Across faiths people acknowledge the responsibility we have to be stewards. Although water is plentiful, only one percent of it is available as freshwater. More than one billion people already lack safe drinking water. Water shortages will also endanger thousands of animals and habitats - with the possibility that some could be lost forever.

When over 25,000 people gathered for the 5th World Water Forum in Istanbul in 2009 (it was the world's biggest water-related event), the international water community called the gathering "Bridging Divides for Water." Yet those who participated "soon realized... that there is more that unites us than divides us, above all, our fervor to provide water to those most in need."

In six months we may have thousands more people visit the Cathedral--our regular visitors and those especially drawn to The Value of Water. As Leonardo da Vinci said, "When you put your hand into a flowing stream, you touch the last that has gone before and the first of what is still to come."