United Church of Hinesburg (UCofH.org) Reflection: A Green Spiritual Practice

Sunday, June 27th, 2021 Kate and I teamed up to present and challenge the United Church of Hinesburg membership to extend their spiritual practice beyond the well-being of humanity into the natural world in which humanity resides. My presentation below was followed by a compelling call-to-action by Kate to the membership and, thanks to her, the work is ongoing.

When I was ten, a book arrived in the mail from my older cousin in New York City. Ann was a people person, often to her own detriment. A professional photographer, her only partner in life was the camera. She rode with the Freedom Riders in the South in the civil rights demonstrations, photographed Louis Armstrong and Martha Graham, anyone she felt enriched the spirit of humanity.

The book was The Family of Man. I was lost in what I saw. Having grown up in Morrisville, I saw white people and cows and had little idea of what the larger world was like.

My sense that people of color existed beyond my copy of Little Black Sambo and our school’s annual cakewalk competition was broadened somewhat by sitting on the elevated train winding its way through Harlem on my way to visit my New York grandmother.

65 years later, I still treasure “The Family of Man.” It showed me there was a world of people beyond those I knew and that, sharing a common human identity and destiny, we’re all as one. It was also the dawn of the nuclear age and the Biblical warning, “Won’t be water but the fire next time…” began to seem like a possibility for many of us.

My parochial religious upbringing never mentioned a larger world. Raised Catholic. I learned of religion from our priest, Father Omer Dufault, and from the Québécois nuns who came to Morrisville every Saturday to teach catechism.

When I ventured out into the larger world, I left my Catholic doctrine behind and struggled to understand my spiritual self. I yearned to better understand our connected humanity.

Like many among you, I’ve spent much of my life fighting that which separates us from one another and celebrating that which binds us. I find it here in our community, in the world of art, and in the eyes of strangers.  It’s an ongoing journey but thanks to my cousin, I learned early that we are all one in God’s eye – however we conceive of our God.

Sometime in midlife, I began to also understand that the world we inhabit is not the human world but a much richer universe of flora and fauna – soils, air, and waterways, and that our homocentric view of life is arrogant and ill-informed.

This idea took root in me in the ‘60s when I read Rachel Carson’s The Silent Spring and learned that our common humanity depended on the world we live in for survival, beauty, and meaning. Like most of my friends, I’d assumed it was my playground rather than my greenhouse.

My worldview changed as I realized that whatever spirituality I was cultivating needed to expand beyond humanity into nature in all its own diversity and splendor.

Coming on a mountain stream amid a profusion of ostrich ferns as it cascaded over a face of mica-sparkling granite, the sudden flash of a brook trout darting under the overgrowth, began to have the same spiritual effect on me as “The Family of Man” images had in my youth.

Picking wild blackberries on Mt. Hor on Lake Willoughby and having my dad nudge me to indicate a black bear 20 yards away doing the same, triggered fear as a child. Today, I see that bear as an equal.

Whether or not or a religion is the framework for our spirituality is, to my way of thinking, irrelevant. Religions are the various tool kits of a spiritual practice. The only one’s I judge harshly are the one’s that differentiate us from one another based on gender, race, or caste – or from the very world we live in.

Our subject today is a Green Spiritual practice. I can’t imagine a more timely or wonderful subject.

We have come to understand the wisdom and communication skills of whales, elephants, apes, and all other animals to varying degrees. We’ve even seen how trees and plants acknowledge in their growing patterns the presence of other trees. We’ve come to understand the rich fabric of life that thrives in our healthy soils. Our emerging regional food chains are dependent on the health of our soils, air, and waters, something which the consolidated industrial food chain ignores when it adds poisons and packaging to sustain our “cheap” food supply.

We must each ask ourselves how to move from appreciating the beauty of our common humanity and universe to action. Our tools will be different according to our capacities. Our only shared obligation is to do our best. For some, it will be minimizing waste, recycling, energy-efficient living, voting, and paying attention to our personal carbon footprint.

For others it will be organizing, demonstrating, lobbying, testifying, running for office, and working aggressively to nurture and protect our earthly home.

But if I’ve learned anything in my 76 years, it’s that without environmental justice, we’ll never save and heal our planet. According to the United Nations, there are some 230 million people in flight from their deteriorating environments.

Unlike the children living on mountains of our trash in Bangladesh who tear apart our old computers to find precious metals to sell to buy food for their families and don’t have time to clean up their shorelines littered with the plastic we discard from our shopping at Lantman’s and Costco, we here today are privileged. That privilege compels us to work harder to nurture a green spiritual practice and personal and practical action plan.

A spiritual practice that acknowledges, honors, and defends our larger world from human predation is the predicate for humankind’s earthly salvation and, I would argue, its heavenly one as well.

June 27, 2021