The Third Wave
An Environmental Movement Reaches the Chesapeake
Two Presbyterians began recruiting members of many faiths into an environmental campaign that became the Interfaith Partners for the Chesapeake. Bob Breakey (above, top), a psychiatrist, was an active member of Maryland Presbyterian Church. Charlie Conklin (above, bottom), an environmentalist, was active with the Towson United Presbyterian Church. Photographs, Michael W. Fincham
IF YOU HAD TO PICK TWO APOSTLES to spread the gospel of faith-based environmentalism in the Chesapeake Bay region, you might not think of putting Charlie Conklin on the same team with Bill Breakey.
They seem at first glance an unlikely duo. One was an activist, the other an academic. But over a dozen years the two would recruit a band of like-minded colleagues and together they would try to insert a new brand of environmentalism into the region. The result of their work would be an organization now called the Interfaith Partners for the Chesapeake.
There are now 80 regional faith-based environmental groups like this around the country, according to sociologist Stephen Ellingson. Many of them are struggling to survive with small staffs and shaky funding, he says, but taken together they add up to a religious environmental movement.
This movement was late in arriving. Environmentalism in America, according to the historians, went through two major growth periods — without much input from the religious community. The progressive era (1890-1920) saw the creation of conservationist organizations like the Audubon Society and the Sierra Club. And the 1960s and 1970s brought a second wave of new organizations such as the Environmental Defense Fund, the Natural Resources Defense Council, and Greenpeace — all formed to protest environmental degradation.
It was the 1990s before a "third wave," a surge of faith-based environmentalism, began (see Crisis of Faith). And it was 2004 before that began to focus on the Chesapeake. That's when Charlie Conklin and Bill Breakey, two Presbyterians, showed up at a Methodist church for a meeting that changed their lives.
Conklin was the activist, a long-time environmental volunteer whose passion was working with the Alliance for Chesapeake Bay and the Gunpowder Valley Conservancy. He comes across so naturally and consistently and enthusiastically gregarious that Breakey calls him "a connector." He seems to know nearly everybody in the region's religious and environmental communities.
Breakey was the academic, an emeritus professor from Johns Hopkins University, a psychiatrist trained to observe sharply and to quietly deliver precise observations in a precise diction that still echoes the accents of his Northern Ireland upbringing. At his church Breakey's passion was leading environmental ministries; at his work his focus was investigating and analyzing mental illness and poverty problems among people who were homeless in Maryland.
What the two men shared were their Presbyterianism, their passion about the environment, and personal qualities of resilience and persistence. They would need all those traits. They had some hard lessons to learn.
The life-altering meeting they attended was called the Holy Waters Conference. It was staged at Calvary United Methodist near Annapolis, a red-bricked, white-steepled house of worship perched above a scenic creek leading out to the Chesapeake Bay. The organizer, Cassandra Carmichael of the National Council of Churches, invited some 50 clergy and lay activists from local congregations to listen to an ecologist and a theologian. The ecologist gave a scientific overview of the problems facing the Bay and the theologian spoke about religious environmentalism. Carmichael thought the faith community could bring something that was missing from Chesapeake Bay restoration: moral passion.
Cassandra Carmichael inspired Breakey and Conklin to focus their environmental energies on Chesapeake Bay restoration. Photograph, Michael W. Fincham
The conference lasted a day, but its impact would last for years, launching the activist and academic on a long crusade to get churches to focus on Chesapeake Bay restoration. "It really inspired me," says Conklin. "The question was, 'What was the next step?'"
Conklin knew that new steps and new attitudes were needed after working for three decades at the huge plant that Bethlehem Steel once operated at Sparrow's Point at the mouth of the Patapsco River. "At Bethlehem Steel, we cared about one thing: how many tons we made that month," he says. "If crap went out in the water, crap went out in the water."
Breakey, the academic, believed environmentalism is "a moral issue and should be part of our faith practices." He also saw that the Bay could be a unifying focus for religious environmentalism. "For people in the central Maryland region," he says, "the Chesapeake Bay is above anything else the symbol of what is good and what is wrong about our environmental stewardship."
But how do you bring together churches of different faiths? "If a Presbyterian goes over and tells a Baptist what to do," says Conklin, "he is not going to listen to him."
The first step for Conklin and Breakey was setting up a private session with Carmichael to get advice on tactics. The next step was pulling together a loose group of like-minded church-goers who wanted to take action to restore the Bay. During its early stages their ad-hoc group included a retired minister, an educator from the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, and other activists. They were joined later by other scientists from Johns Hopkins University, including astronomer William Blair and geologist George Fisher.
It was an impressive band of apostles and a persistent one. They met at irregular intervals, sometimes at a restaurant, sometimes at churches, occasionally at weekend conferences that drew in 40 people. As enthusiasm began building, the group gave themselves a name, the Chesapeake Covenant Congregations, and began to get some churches to sign an Earth Charter pledging to promote a Creation-care ethic in their worship and their personal lives.
After that surge, came the plateau. As the years were going by, new churches were slow to sign up, and the group found itself still struggling to figure out a vision and a structure. Those early years taught the first hard lesson: they needed help.
A community rabbi and author Nina Beth Cardin has helped found or lead a number of environmental organizations, including the Baltimore Jewish Environmental Network, the Baltimore Orchard Project, and the Interfaith Partners for the Chesapeake. Photograph, Michael W. Fincham
Five years into their campaign, the Chesapeake Covenant group launched a strategic planning process, and Conklin, "the connector," got advice from a number of leaders already savvy about setting up organizations. Their advisors included Fran Flanigan, former head of the Alliance for Chesapeake Bay, Jim Gracie of Trout Unlimited, and Nina Beth Cardin, a well-known community rabbi.
In Cardin they got an activist for women's rights and environmental causes who'd already learned some lessons about setbacks. In New York she founded the Jewish Women's Resource Center as early as 1978, but had to wait another decade before the Jewish Theological Seminary agreed to graduate Cardin and other women from its rabbi ordination program. In 2006 she founded the Baltimore Jewish Environmental Network, only to learn that religious environmentalism can also be slow to catch on. "I just thought that if I told people about it and how it was essentially part of the Jewish theology — that it would happen," she says. "And, huh? It didn't happen."
Progress began to happen for this largely Christian group after it finished its strategic planning, rebranded itself as the Interfaith Partners for the Chesapeake (IPC), and shortly thereafter made Rabbi Cardin chair of the board of trustees. "It was under the leadership of Nina that we really expanded," says Conklin. The group went looking more aggressively for funding and won support from a number of sources. "We found funds, hired staff, so we built our ground game," says Cardin. "We had people go out and meet with congregations, bringing them ideas, resources, and money."
On June 22, 2010, the re-organized group gave itself a coming-out party. It sent out invitations and drew an estimated 60 supporters to the Bolton Street Synagogue in Baltimore to witness a ceremony of their own design: the joint signing of a pledge document titled "Covenanting for Creation." It echoed the language and themes of Biblical prophecy, asserting that much of our material prosperity was achieved by abusing the gifts of earth, water, air and energy.
What the covenant said was probably less important than who signed it. To build their brand, the covenant group recruited local and state-wide leaders from the Catholic, Episcopalian, Presbyterian, Baptist, Methodist, Quaker, Muslim, and Jewish faith communities.
One of the signers was Eugene Sutton, the first African American to be elected Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland. His appearance at the ceremony was "a huge deal" for the new covenant group, says Rabbi Cardin, who personally recruited the bishop. The cleric was on the board of trustees for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, and as the first black Episcopal bishop he was already well known for saying "I want to be known as the first green bishop." With his public standing, says Cardin, Sutton helped legitimize the idea that the faith community could work with the environmental community.
That was a new idea at the time. A 1991 survey of the Maryland environmental movement had found little connection between the environmental and religious communities, a disconnect that represented a missed opportunity for encouraging environmental activism. "It's important to appeal to the values of different kinds of people," says Verna Harrison, who helped send seed money to the Interfaith Partners when she was executive director of the Campbell Foundation. "Sometimes facts aren't what make people change behavior."
About five years ago, Cardin noticed "a sea change" of sorts. "The environmental community looked askance at the faith community," says Cardin. "Then all of a sudden everybody in the environmental community was saying, 'We've been at this for 20 or 30 years already, and we are just not getting anywhere. We need new partners, new advocates, new constituents.'"
Sensing opportunity, Cardin helped the group go looking for new partners. To connect with the secular environmental movement, it launched new projects with the Alliance for Chesapeake Bay and collaborated with groups like Bluewater Baltimore, the Watershed Stewards Academy of Anne Arundel County, and the Maryland Sea Grant Extension Program (see Watershed Stewardship: An Ethic in Action). "In an ecosystem where there are others already working," says Cardin, "the greatest way to thrive is to partner with others in your ecosystem."
Maryland religious leaders gathered at Baltimore's Bolton Street Synagogue on June 22, 2010 to sign a pledge document called Covenanting for Creation, recommitting themselves to the causes of social justice and environmental restoration. The signers included (from left to right) the Reverend Heber Brown III of Pleasant Hope Baptist Church; the Reverend Peter Nord of the Presbytery of Baltimore; Albert Scharbach of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Baltimore; Imam Earl El-Amin of the Muslim Community Cultural Center of Baltimore; Bishop Eugene Sutton of the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland; Gary Gillespie of the American Friends Service Committee; Rabbi Amy Scheinerman, President of the Baltimore Board of Rabbis; and the Reverend Jack Sharp of the Central Maryland Ecumenical Council. Photograph, Interfaith Partners for the Chesapeake
The founders for Interfaith Partners had another lesson to learn. Many of their churches, they discovered, were initially more interested in fixing their properties than in reviving their faith practices through environmental activism. Breakey, who still serves on the board of trustees, puts it this way: "It is easier to engage people by saying we would like to help you improve your church property, so you won't have to pay this stormwater fee." It is, he says, less persuasive "to say we would like you to examine your faith and consider God's role in your life and your connection to the universe."
But practicality can lead to spiritual payoffs. Those grant dollars and tax savings open a church door that the Interfaith Partners can walk through, carrying a message about Creation care (see The Road to Empowering). The church projects — digging and planting and maintaining trees and rain gardens, rain barrels and cisterns — help church members take responsibility for their slice of the environment. "We tell them, 'We don't make the rain,'" says Rose, "'but we do make the runoff.'" Taking responsibility and taking action are, at the very least, the beginning of an environmental ethic, a faith-based ethic that may over time make a difference that matters at church and at home.
Reaching out: Koyla Braun-Greiner, a program manager for the Interfaith Partners, sets out educational materials for a Creation care workshop at the Church of the Redeemer, an Episcopal church in Baltimore. The workshop will offer tools and strategies for church leaders interested in developing an earthcare ministry or environmental stewardship program Photographs, Michael W. Fincham
It took a while, but the faith-based environmental movement, a small but growing wave of new groups, has now seeped into the largely secular world of Chesapeake Bay environmentalism.
The idea that became the Interfaith Partners for the Chesapeake began with two men, an activist and an academic, but it now exists as a professionally staffed organization, a group that has set up workshops, tree plantings, and stormwater projects with more than 80 churches.
Both founding apostles are still at work. Bill Breakey serves on the Board of Trustees for the Interfaith Partners. And Charlie Conklin is now president of the Gun Valley Conservancy, the cause that first activated his environmentalism.
Now other faith-based groups are also active in Bay restoration. Interfaith Power and Light (IPL), a long-established national organization, helps churches in Maryland, Washington, D.C., and Northern Virginia reduce their energy needs. The Chesapeake Interfaith Environmental Group (CIEG), organized by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, connects churches in the Annapolis area. Around D.C., newer, smaller groups like Green Muslims and Eco-Sikh are starting to organize.
“They are certainly having an impact,” says Nick DiPasquale. As director of the six-state Chesapeake Bay Program for the Environmental Protection Agency, he is a big fan of faith-based environmentalism. “This is a previously untapped resource,” he says. “It mobilizes a workforce that can actually get projects done.” County governments are now counting church projects in stormwater reductions toward the water improvement goals the counties are required to meet under the new Bay pollution diet.
The greatest impact of these church projects, however, is not in reducing runoff, but in raising interest in restoration among the faithful. “It capitalizes on their interest in stewardship theology,” says DiPasquale, “that whole idea that we have to take care of this planet.”
Whether all these new religious groups will go forth and multiply is not clear. But their potential is obvious, both to DiPasquale and to Cassandra Carmichael, the woman who first inspired Conklin and Breakey back in 2004. Now executive director for the National Religious Partnership for the Environment, she points to polls that say half the people in America go to church. “I am biased,” says Carmichael, “but in my view the secular environmental movement — they might be able to put a finger in the dike here and there — but they are never going to make the changes they envision without the faith community.”