Religious leaders work toward preservation of world’s water supply
By Michelle Minkoff | Medill News Service
Vietnamese Catholics in New Orleans are one religious group of many throughout the United States that try to protect water — rivers, lakes and oceans — because, they say, their faith calls them to take care of the planet.
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NEW ORLEANS — The green movement is going blue for many groups of different faiths that consider it a religious duty to protect the world’s bodies of waters.
While water advocacy is a fairly recent phenomenon for some religious groups across the U.S., environmental activism as a matter of faith is a longstanding tradition for the Mary Queen of Vietnam Catholic Church in East New Orleans.
“This is part of the work of being a steward of creation,” said the Rev. Vien Nguyen, the church’s pastor. “We are commissioned to this by none other than God himself and the church.”
For years, Nguyen and his congregation have been fighting the pollution of the Chef Menteur landfill, located a little more than a mile from the church. Runoff from the landfill leaches into wetlands that border the Naxent Canal, which in turn feeds into the Naxent Lagoon in the heart of Village de L’Est, a neighborhood primarily occupied by members of Nguyen’s church.
“We rely on the seafood industry,” he said. “When the water is contaminated, our livelihood is threatened.”
But it’s not just about their jobs. The Vietnamese Catholics say their faith calls them to take care of all aspects of the planet, especially along the southern coast of the United States.
The landfill had been closed, but was reopened after Hurricane Katrina to accommodate construction debris, said Lauren Butz, the church’s environmental justice coordinator. Because the landfill wasn’t lined, it couldn’t handle toxic waste, and as houses were gutted, the landfill collected “anything you might find in your garage,” she said. Even though Chef Menteur was closed in late 2006, the debris was merely covered up, and continued to seep into the water.
Nguyen’s congregation went to court to move the landfill to a location designed that can accommodate toxic materials, but a decision has not yet been issued. Although his congregation has to travel 90 miles to testify at the court hearings – a hardship for some older parishioners – they are steadfast in pursuing the case, he said.
WATER: A cleansing rebirth
Nearly every major religion uses water for ritual cleansing, whether believers are readying a loved one for burial or preparing to enter sacred spaces. Some religions believe that water derived from a particular source, such as the Zamzam Well in Mecca, has healing properties. Others, like Catholics, believe that holy water sanctified by priests can confer blessings and even ward off evil.
For most Christians, water plays a particularly important role as the vehicle through which new members are baptized into the faith. Baptists, Catholics, and Eastern Orthodox believers may never agree on when and how proselytes should be submerged or sprinkled, but all agree that water is the essential element for washing away sins and saving souls.
“It isn’t just cleansing,” said the Rev. Russell Haitch, a United Methodist and associate professor of Christian education at Bethany Theological Seminary in Indiana, “it’s a way of being incorporated into the death and resurrection of Jesus. It symbolizes the total transformation of one’s life.”
When Christians are baptized, they are following the example of Jesus, who the Bible says was baptized by his cousin John the Baptist in the Jordan River. If Jesus hadn’t been baptized, it’s not likely that the ritual would have survived, said Haitch, author of “From Exorcism to Ecstasy: Eight Views of Baptism.”
At the time, John’s baptisms symbolized a moral cleansing and a turning of one’s life to God. John may have been following the example of contemporary Jews who baptized converts as “new persons” and used water extensively for cleansing rituals. After Jesus, baptism began to take on new meanings, however.
According to Genesis, “the face of the waters” was the first thing God formed on earth; for many Christians, water was the first element of the world redeemed by Jesus when he stepped in the River Jordan.
“This is the first step of taking back ground, as it were, from the enemy,” Haitch said. “The water of the Jordan is being reclaimed as a means of union with God.”
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“This is the first time they’ve been allowed to rebuild in peace since after the (Vietnam) war, so they have thrown everything into it,” he said.
Butz’s passion lies in reducing water used in sustainability plans and works closely with the Vietnamese community – a textbook example of collaboration between environmentalists and religious groups working together to achieve the same goal.
Issues of water preservation are so important to Mary Queen of Vietnam that the church launched a Community Development Corporation in May 2006 that’s designed specifically to work on environmental and water-related issues.
The group’s central project is working to redesign local gardens to minimize the water needed to grow and harvest organic plants. In the past, the gardens were far enough away from the water that they had to be irrigated, a process that introduces additional toxins and dirt into the local water supply.
Another Catholic group in Des Moines, Iowa, is also advocating for clean water, but with slightly different goals.
Many members of the National Catholic Rural Life Conference are concerned about polluted water killing off livestock in their area. “We are to protect the animals we have dominion over, according to the Bible,” said Tim Kautza, the water coordinator for the council. “And we need to do that by reducing pollutants in the water, so that they can be healthy again.”
Kautza added that every human being deserves protection, the right to be sustained by food and the ability to earn a living. In rural communities, because so many people depend on the natural ecosystem for work and livelihood, advocating for laws to protect livestock is directly related to the community’s survival.
“It is said we have a religious responsibility to be stewards of the land. But in rural areas, and all over, the land is powered by and relies on water. And if nothing is being done, it’s up to us to step in,” said Kautza.
This religious duty to protect water extends beyond just Catholics. Leaders representing many of the world’s religions met in New Orleans in October to discuss the importance of preserving global water supplies.
The Anglican bishop of London, Richard Chartres, said he felt progress was being hampered by many people in the church who are still “in denial” about the urgency of threats to the environment.
“We need to build a truly transforming community of the future,” he said. “But to do that, it is absolutely crucial that we remain positive.”
Arctic tribes, for one, depend on water and fishing for their survival, and believe in a sacred quality of water and nature. “We’re seeing less wildlife in the water. It’s not good for us, and it’s not good for this world,” said Patricia Cochran, chair of the Inuit Circumpolar Council.
Margaret Barker, a biblical scholar, argued that saving the world’s water supply is an imperative bound up in humanity’s covenant with God that is detailed in the Bible.
When religious scholars discuss the covenant, it is often seen through the lens of Abraham’s covenant with God. But in fact the covenant Barker was referring to is older – the story of Noah and the pact he made with God after the storied flood.
It was, Barker said, a “system of bonds to keep the whole creation together in one system, and bind it to the Creator, the source of its life.” Sin was considered anything that disrupts the covenant, including the sin of environmental degradation.
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“Water is the source of life, and so while it is absolutely imperative that we protect the creation as a whole,” Barker said, “water is of particular concern.”
At the New Orleans summit, the spiritual leader of the world’s 250 million Orthodox Christians, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, argued that humans have a special religious duty to protect the waters because they often are the cause of the pollution.
“Even the smallest human intervention, even the minutest change in the natural order brought about by human action can have – and does have – long-term devastating effects on the planet,” said Bartholomew, who’s earned the unofficial title of “Green Patriarch” for his environmental activism.
Bartholomew bemoaned the depletion of the world’s rainforests, which act as sponges for the world’s waters and help maintain balance in the ecosystem. He also expressed concern for the stress modern irrigation had placed on the waters.
“Irrigation for agriculture takes 70 percent of global demand for water, and – almost unimaginably – some of the world’s greatest rivers are so depleted by the influence of humans that they no longer flow to the sea,” he said. “And those that do, carry in their waters all the chemical fertilizers, herbicides, insecticides and waste materials they have collected along their course.”
In early November, the Festival of Faiths in Louisville, Ky., brought together more than 60 religious and nonprofit groups concerned about preserving water. Co-chair Christina Lee Brown said her organization is working to bring environmental and religious groups together to preserve an element that has long been used as a sacred tool of cleansing and purification.
“The conversation’s not over yet,” Brown said. “In fact, this is just the beginning … What is extremely important is that we find a way for our communities of faith to connect their actual faith beliefs with the preservation and care for water.”