The Road to Empowerment
In the Field with Faith-based Environmentalists
Belinda Thomas, wife of the minister, cleans up one of the five gardens at Empowering Believers Church of the Apostolic Faith in Glen Burnie, Maryland. Photograph, Michael W. Fincham
Rain gardens need weeding, so Belinda Thomas, wife of the minister, cleans up one of the five gardens at Empowering Believers Church of the Apostolic Faith in Glen Burnie, Maryland. Photograph, Michael W. Fincham

JODI ROSE FOUND HER CALLING AT A RED LIGHT. She was on the road that morning driving to work, when she decided work wasn't driving her soul.

Her job at the time was running environmental site assessments of inner-city properties in Indianapolis, Indiana. She was managing soil and groundwater remediation projects and handling due-diligence property research, and her clients were usually lawyers and bankers and real estate developers who wanted to buy or flip or develop properties in depressed neighborhoods. Were there any problems with these sites? Were there buried tanks, groundwater contamination, soil contamination, confused title records? Were there any economic liabilities attached to the site, any costs and cleanup problems left over from earlier owners or industries? It was her job to find out.

On this watershed morning she braked to a stop at a red light at an inner-city intersection, and while she was waiting for the light to change she watched an elderly African American man wobble slowly across the street in front of her car. He was clearly disheveled, struggling with his cane. She could see his balance was shaky, she guessed he was homeless, she thought he didn't know where he was going. She watched, staring out the window. And then she began to cry.

She was, she knew, weeping for herself. During her weekends she was volunteering for Catholic projects focused on social and environmental justice. During her workweek she was analyzing property problems for real estate deals that did little to fix these neighborhoods. She was working in neighborhoods full of struggling people, so many of them looking lost and forgotten in the midst of urban decay and environmental degradation. And nothing she was doing was going to improve their lives, she realized: none of her site assessments, none of the deals by the bankers and developers.

And none of this fit her own sense of who she was and what her mission in life should be. I'm working for the wrong people, she thought. I'm done, she told herself.

Seven years later, another lifetime later, Rose is on the road again on a bright muggy Sunday in Maryland, but she knows exactly where she's going today: to three ceremonies at three separate churches. Believers will gather to talk and pray and conduct blessings for the rain gardens and rain barrels and cisterns they helped plan and install on their church property — all in hopes of helping restore the creeks and rivers and mainstem of the Chesapeake Bay.

Jodi Rose. Photograph, Michael W. Fincham
Jodi Rose got the job she wanted: Executive Director for the Interfaith Partners for the Chesapeake, a religious environmental group that recruits churches into the ongoing effort to restore the Chesapeake Bay. Photograph, Michael W. Fincham

Rose has another kind of job now. She's executive director for an organization called the Interfaith Partners for the Chesapeake (IPC). She works with Catholics and Protestants, Evangelicals and Pentecostals, Jews and Muslims and Buddhists. Her job is recruiting and educating faith congregations who want to do a better job of protecting the environment and restoring the Chesapeake Bay. Groups like IPC are part of a religious environmental movement that arrived late in the Chesapeake region but hopes to energize the 33-year effort to restore the country's largest estuary.

The first stop for Rose on today's road trip will be the Empowering Believers Church of the Apostolic Faith. The religion is Pentecostal, the congregation is African American, and their church is located on Marley Neck, a swath of land southeast of Baltimore that's bracketed by two large creeks and one wide river, the Patapsco. The north side of this wide neck is where the mouth of the river meets the mainstem of the Chesapeake Bay. The church is struggling with frequent flooding from stormwater runoff.

Her group, the Interfaith Partners for the Chesapeake, began with a small band of activists, environmentalists, and scientists, many of them connected with progressive churches in the Towson area (see The Third Wave). "They all felt 'Here we are, planted near this awesome national treasure in the Chesapeake watershed,'" says Rose, "'and our preachers and our churches aren't talking about this at all.'"

The new group started talking and kept talking for several years, meeting sometimes in churches, sometimes at a restaurant outside of Baltimore. They set up a steering committee, gave themselves a name, then another name. During a year-long strategic planning process, they came to a crossroads of sorts and decided to brand themselves as the Interfaith Partners for the Chesapeake.

Jodi Rose already knew what you do at a crossroads: you take the road less traveled. When she applied to the Interfaith Partners for the job of tree program manager, the trustees told her that job would have to wait while they found a new executive director. As she had at the stoplight years earlier, Rose recognized a watershed moment. "If you are going to follow your heart, you've got to be willing to go down those unclear byways and pathways," she says. At this intersection she saw a green light. To the trustees looking for a director, she said, "Well, you should interview me."

"The rest is history," she likes to say, but the rest would be hard work. She had the job that fit her spiritual journey, but it came with a tiny staff, an uncertain funding base, and an ambitious mission. How do you go about planting and growing faith-based environmentalism in an arena dominated by large, long-standing secular environmental organizations?

Apparently you hit the road. Rose and her three staff members spend a lot of time driving the roads as environmental missionaries to faith communities. Their primary job is recruiting churches into the cause of Bay restoration — and then educating them about what that means. They create and deliver talks and guest sermons, workshops, and toolkits — all designed with two goals in mind: to review the problems facing the Chesapeake and to re-examine religious concepts about stewardship and the human responsibility to care for Creation.

But that's not the hardest work. When Rose and her staff are not driving the roads or writing talks and sermons, they have to work on finding funding. That means donor research, networking, proposal writing, and grants management. Without the funds, most cash-strapped churches cannot afford to embark on any ambitious environmental restoration projects.

That's where her experience in the world of environmental consulting probably helped Rose get hired. In her job interview she came across as Catholic, passionate, articulate — and practical, says Rabbi Nina Beth Cardin, who was then chairing the board of trustees. "She can talk the God talk — she does that movingly — and she can crunch the numbers," says Cardin. "And we needed that."

Flooding would follow most major storm. Photograph, Interfaith Partners for the Chesapeake
Bishop Larry Lee Thomas. Photograph, Michael W. Fincham
Flooding would follow most major storms, shutting down services at the Empowering Believers Church. The solution included a trench drain, cisterns, and five rain gardens like the one behind Bishop Larry Lee Thomas. "They transformed this place," says the bishop, who has recruited other churches into restoration work. "Now we have a story to tell." Photographs, Interfaith Partners for the Chesapeake (above, top); Michael W. Fincham (above, bottom)

The Empowering Believers Church clearly needed the number crunching and the fund-raising. Without it there would be no gathering of churchgoers waiting at Marley Neck to share some faith talk with Rose and celebrate their rain gardens and rain barrels and drainage ditches.

As she drives into the parking lot, Rose sees a church that's been struggling and surviving and growing for 53 years. It was born back in 1963 when a small wooden barracks was hauled here from the nearby Fort Meade army base and then set up as a house of worship in a country-like setting. The old barracks structure still stands, but now it's connected to the large, red-brick main church that the growing congregation was later able to build. The two buildings, the old and the new, the frame and the brick, stand linked together on low-lying, largely flat land in what's now a somewhat suburban neighborhood dotted with modest, one-story ranch houses set on bright green lawns.

The church lot, stretching between two roads, may look flat and level, but it has a recent history of flooding dramatically during large rain storms. Whenever a major storm would pass through, Bishop Larry Lee Thomas would walk out of his small frame house and find a lake sitting between him and his church. Several feet of water would be covering the parking lot, the green lawns, the sidewalks. "Sometimes it would flood so high we could not get into our church," he says. His wife, Belinda, is more emphatic: "You almost needed a boat to get on the property."

The congregation tried prayers and it tried petitioning the county government — and it soon learned that stormwater fixes would cost more than the congregation could afford. The church had to find its own solution — and it did. Whenever the floodwaters rose, Bishop Thomas would cancel church services, borrow hoses from the fire department, and pump all the water off the lot and down into a nearby storm drain.

Stormwater runoff is a problem for a lot of churches — but for the Interfaith Partners it's an opportunity, a chance for the group to recruit new congregations into faith-based environmentalism. Bishop Thomas, for example, was willing to sign up for workshops on caring for Creation when the Interfaith Partners told him they could get the money to solve his flooding problem. "That's when they put the meat on the bones," he says.

Funding was available because stormwater runoff is one of the major threats to ecosystem restoration in the Chesapeake, and churches are known to be sources for frequent runoff. As rainwater slips off their steeples and slanted rooftops, it slides across their large, paved parking lots, sucking up leaf debris and roof debris, oil drippings and automobile fluids, fertilizers and pesticides, sediment and pet wastes. Runoff from churches sweeps these and other pollutants into the county storm drains that connect with the creeks that connect with the rivers that connect with the mainstem of the Chesapeake Bay.

At the Empowering Believers Church, a lot of technical expertise would have to go into solving its stormwater flooding. Any design for stormwater control had to do double duty: keep runoff from the roads from flooding the church and keep runoff from the church from flowing off the property and into storm drains and creeks. All this site work would not be cheap. A lot of fund-raising expertise would be needed before the first shovel moved the first pile of dirt.

To participate in projects like this, Rose has the IPC connect and collaborate with a number of other players in the interconnected world of secular environmentalism. Their key partner, the Alliance for Chesapeake Bay, did "the heavy lifting" for fund-raising, says Rose, by creating a program called Riverwise Congregations that will help 22 churches in Anne Arundel County.

Other partners participating in these projects would include the Anne Arundel County Watershed Stewards Academy, and the Maryland Sea Grant Extension Program, groups which bring grant-writing savvy, teaching skill, technical expertise, local connections, and outreach experience. Together they would win grants from programs within the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, the Chesapeake Bay Trust, and the Anne Arundel County government.

All those connections would be needed. The final solution for Empowering Believers would be a nine-part retrofit: a trench drain by one road, a raised planting along the church, an overflow zone by the parking lot, two cisterns, and five large, sponge-like rain gardens strategically sited to gather, hold, and absorb runoff. All this engineering will not only cut flooding, it will also reduce the stormwater management fee (or "rain tax") that the county charges to properties that create large runoff surges.

What the Interfaith Partners group brings to interconnected projects like this is a combination of skills: an expressed commitment to religious values, familiarity with faith rituals and traditions, and an ability to communicate with congregations through the language of faith. As a former consultant Rose can talk the money talk and the technical talk that professional environmentalists are comfortable with. And she can talk the other talk, what Rabbi Cardin calls "the God talk," the conversations that resonate so powerfully with faith congregations.

For Lou Etgen the benefits of collaborating with Rose and the Interfaith Partners were obvious. He is the Maryland state director for the Alliance for Chesapeake Bay, a group focused on reaching out to 17.5 million people living in the Chesapeake watershed — many of whom go to church. Getting an environmental message to the churches seemed a good way of getting a message to their members. And it's a message that could stick. "In essence, it's environmentalism from the pulpit," says Etgen. "When your spiritual leader says you need to take care of the earth, it's a pretty powerful thing."

Lou Etgen of the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay checks the solution he helped set up for St. Luke's Lutheran Church. Photograph, Michael W. Fincham
Workers at the Empowering Believers Church putting in a rain garden. Photograph, Interfaith Partners for the Chesapeake
Large churches have large parking lots, creating strong stormwater runoff. Lou Etgen of the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay checks the solution he helped set up for St. Luke's Lutheran Church (left): a drainage ditch topped with cobble rocks to slow down rushing water. Workers at the Empowering Believers Church (right) use a different solution: a series of rain gardens to absorb runoff. Photographs, Michael W. Fincham (left) and Interfaith Partners for the Chesapeake (right)

It certainly seems a powerful thing at Empowering Believers on this Sunday afternoon as Bishop Thomas gathers church members around him on their green, unflooded lawn. Leading them through a blessing of their rain gardens and rain barrels and cisterns, the bishop launches a call-and-response prayer. "God says to Isaiah, 'See I am doing a new thing,'" And his congregation responds, "We are doing a new thing, we are called to restore Creation."

There are prayers and there are speeches from the key players: Lou Etgen, who supervised all the earth-moving work for the Alliance for Chesapeake Bay; Suzanne Etgen, who ran the Watershed Stewards Academy that trained two members of the congregation; and Jodi Rose, who organized the workshops in caring for Creation.

It's clear from the speeches and the prayers that there are two payoffs from all the fund-raising and earth moving. For the Bay there will be a reduction in runoff pumped into storm drains. And for this faith community there will be a refocusing on the Biblical command to care for the environment.

The bishop explains later that he has begun a new ministry designed to focus his flock on maintaining all these repairs to their piece of the Bay watershed. With his broad shoulders and barrel chest, he looks like a minister a congregation will follow. "We call it the Eden Ministry," he says, "because in the Garden of Eden, God gave instructions to Adam to take care of the earth. This is what we call a lifelong ministry."

For Rose and her partners, the pattern is set for the rest of the afternoon. Two more road trips, two more tours of rain gardens and drainage ditches, then more speeches, more prayers, two more churches committed to "doing a new thing."

At the second church, St. John's Lutheran in Linthicum Heights, the problem was out behind the church: a large, paved parking lot slants back to a fence and then tilts downhill, creating a perfect funnel for channeling stormwater straight at a roadside storm drain. The solutions here are simpler: two rain gardens and a long trench topped with rock cobble and lined with soils to filter the water it catches.

At the third church for the day, the Ark and the Dove Presbyterian, the parking lot was also the problem. It tilts downhill towards the church, sliding water towards the front door of the building and then down along the entrance drive and into the nearest street drain. The solutions: a rain barrel, a rain garden, and a long cobble-filled trench to trap water running off the hillside above the church.

When Rose and her partners arrive at the Ark and the Dove, twenty people are waiting by the front door with cookies and lemonade. The prayers here are the same, and so are most of the speeches. And the end result is another example of the unusual and upbeat melding of religious and secular environmentalism that may become a more familiar part of Chesapeake Bay restoration efforts.

In his speech Lou Etgen from the Alliance tells the congregation that there are 22 churches in the county trying to do what the Ark and Dove is doing: cut down the runoff from their lands. When he adds up all the rain barrels and gardens and trenches at all those churches, he estimates these retrofits are handling and absorbing the runoff and pollutants from 27.6 acres of hard-packed parking surface.

Deal Island church and graveyard. Photograph, Sky Swanson
Photograph, Sky Swanson
Letter from the Eastern Shore
Faith Flies in the
Face of Facts
BELOW IS AN EXCERPT FROM A LETTER about religion and environmentalism jointly written by Andrew Webster, a devout Methodist and a resident of an Eastern Shore community near Deal Island, Maryland, and Michael Paolisso, an anthropologist at the University of Maryland College Park. You can read the complete letter at:
Today, we find faith and religion to be essential to the future and survival of the communities and environment of the Deal Island peninsula. The problems we face include changes in the community and in the environment. The local economy and demographics are shifting with fewer young people becoming watermen and more retirees and second-home owners moving into the region. At the same time, sea levels are rising and the land is subsiding, bringing increased erosion and more frequent flooding. How do we handle these issues?

Does the road to Bay restoration run through churches like Empowering Believers and St. John's Lutheran and the Ark and the Dove?

It might. If a lot of churches hear the call to try a new thing and if they respond as these churches have. These faith-based projects, small and scattered, do have measurable impact. In Anne Arundel County these stormwater projects at 22 churches will keep 47 pounds of phosphorus, 228 pounds of nitrogen, and 27 tons of sediment out of the creeks and rivers of the estuary every year.

What if you could multiply those numbers by a thousand? By two thousand? It's a wild guess what the future impact of faith-based environmentalism could be, but there are some seductive numbers: more than 5,300 houses of worship are listed in Maryland alone, more than 25,000 in the watershed.

To reach all those people in the pews, you have to reach all the ministers and rabbis in the pulpits. Today the Interfaith Partnership for the Chesapeake is working with the Alliance to recruit churches into restoration work; the Chesapeake Interfaith Environmental Group is trying to do the same in the Annapolis area, working with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. Ten years ago there were no multi-faith organizations like this in the region, and the large secular organizations had yet to reach out aggressively to all those faith communities.

As he finishes his speech at the Ark and the Dove, Lou Etgen from the Alliance tries to offer hope about the future. Tall and broad-faced, he delivers his message in a strong, friendly voice. "It takes actions like this — on these small scales — everywhere on the whole Chesapeake watershed," he says, "if we are going to have a clean Bay to live around and be a part of."

It's a message of hope that's actually a message of faith. Etgen is offering the classic faith of the secular environmentalist: if politicians make all the right policy decisions, if more people make the right personal decisions, if farms reduce their nutrient runoff, if cities reduce their stormwater runoff — then perhaps we can restore the Chesapeake Bay.

But what if those "ifs" don't work out? In her speech Jodi Rose offers the faith of the religious environmentalist. "Is all this really making a difference?" she asks, calling up the existential doubt that can haunt any environmentalist. And she answers with lines from a Catholic prayer honoring a recent martyr, "We can only do what is our part in this magnificent enterprise that is God's world, God's kingdom. And we trust that is what we are called to do."

She ends by thanking the congregation for doing their part, for hearing the call and responding, perhaps remembering her own call-and-response moment years ago at a stoplight in Indianapolis. To live as a Christian is to act as an environmentalist.

Perhaps this is what faith-based fervor can add to secular environmentalism: it turns environmental issues into moral issues. And saving the Bay becomes part of saving your soul.

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