Thomas Merton Center: Environmental Justice

The Thomas Merton Pittsburgh’s Peace and Social Justice Center continues to do the good work. The center started 40 years ago focuses on social justice based on the non-violent resistance.

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They serve the Pittsburgh community and beyond in the areas of economic justice, anti-war, and prisoner’s right. Just recently, the center launched another committee on environmental justice based in part on faith and spirituality. Wanda Guthrie, one of the Thomas Merton board members, was central in launching this new committee. Many thanks for her hard work along with the other committee members present at the first meeting.

Photos by Dianne Glave

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Frederick Douglass’ “The Meaning of July Fourth for the Negro:” An Environmental Perspective

I am blessed with the inalienable rights of “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” described in The Declaration of Independence. Thanks to race leaders like Frederick Douglass, I am free to spend my Fourth of July weekend any way I please: sitting in Overton Park in Memphis, typing my thoughts on my computer; going to the hair salon; visiting Graceland, walking down Beale Street, and more. I am black and a I am woman. I am free.  

Frederick Douglass

Frederick Douglass gave his famous “The Meaning of the July Fourth for the Negro Speech” on July 5, 1852 at Corinthian Hall in Rochester, New York. As a backdrop to his speech, the United States was decades beyond the American Revolution and the signing of the Declaration of Independence during the 18th century. Yet African Americans were still enslaved, most in the American South until 1865 at the end of the Civil War. Most were neither free in the South or independent even in the North with the threat of being captured, forcibly relocated, and enslaved in the South. This was the setting for Douglass’ famous speech that decried enslavement and in racial equality.   

He introduced the speech, saying, “He who could address this audience without a quailing sensation, has stronger nerves than I have. I do not remember ever to have appeared as a speaker before any assembly more shrinkingly, nor with greater distrust of my ability, than I do this day. A feeling has crept over me, quite unfavorable to the exercise of my limited powers of speech. The task before me is one which requires much previous thought and study for its proper performance. I know that apologies of this sort are generally considered flat and unmeaning. I trust, however, that mine will not be so considered. Should I seem at ease, my appearance would much misrepresent me. The little experience I have had in addressing public meetings, in country school houses, avails me nothing on the present occasion.” (Douglass)    

Later in the speech, Douglass quoted the bible pointing to nature, imagery, and place: “By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down. Yea! we wept when we remembered Zion. We hanged our harps upon the willows in the midst thereof. For there, they that carried us away captive, required of us a song; and they who wasted us required of us mirth, saying, Sing us one of the songs of Zion. How can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land? If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning. If I do not remember thee, let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth.” (Douglass)    

Quoting scripture, he referenced two places, Babylon and Jerusalem, two very different places with different meanings. Babylonian conquest meant subjugation of the Hebrews much like enslavement in the American South. Returning to Zion literally represented freedom and home for the Hebrews; in much the same way Jerusalem was freedom for people of African descent where whites subjugated and oppressed African Americans.  

The imagery of harps hanging in the willows reinforced the focus on place. Willows represented a strength in the midst of sorrow in Babylon. The harps or the music from the harps represented beauty even in the lament, something to cling to in the midst of sorrow as the Babylonians forced Israelites to leave Jerusalem. The metaphors ring true for both the Hebrews and African Americans.    

Douglass was hopeful towards the end of his speech: “Allow me to say, in conclusion, notwithstanding the dark picture I have this day presented of the state of the nation, I do not despair of this country. There are forces in operation, which must inevitably work The downfall of slavery. “’The arm of the Lord is not shortened,” and the doom of slavery is certain. I, therefore, leave off where I began, with hope.” (Douglass) Enslavement of the Hebrews and enslavement had to end!    

I believe much work remains as racial inequality, and that includes environmental racism, still exists in the United States. Yet and still, I am grateful for all Frederick Douglass sacrificed for each American, black or white, for the sake of “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” more than a century ago.  

Image From http://www.nps.gov/history/museum/exhibits/frdo/visionary.html

Can a Year on a Farm Based on Animal, Vegetable, Miracle Work?

Barbara Kingsolver with Steve L. Hopp and Camille Kingsolver. Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year in Food. HarperCollinsPublishers. 2007.    

Barbara Kingsolver says in Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year in Food, “Our culture is not acquainted with the idea of food as a spiritually loaded commodity. We’re just particular about which spiritual arguments we’ll accept as valid for declining certain food. Generally unacceptable reasons: environmental destruction, energy waste, the poisoning of workers. Acceptable: it’s prohibited by a holy text.” (p. 67). I say both our land and the food produced on that land must be treated as unequivocally holy! 

 As I began to read Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, I felt that the spirituality and holiness she describes is at odds with who does and doesn’t have accessibility to green places including farms. Certainly, the upper middle- or upper classes could pull off living off the land as an experiment.

I had another response to the book: I realized I shared some of Kingsolver’s ideological and practical concerns about American foodways. Louisiana Voices defines foodways as, “obtaining, preparing, serving food and stories and beliefs about food.”  Perhaps considering some of these concerns could be a bridge to the spiritual and holy when it comes to land and produce.  

Stepping back a bit, Kingsolver describes the purpose of her family’s foodways journey and book: “We wanted to live in a place that could feed us: where rain falls, crops grow, and drinking water bubbles right up out of the ground. (p. 3). She got away from a life in Tuscon where distributors ship in food from far-away places and water is running so low that in the near future it will not support the existing population. Here are the costs: fuel must be purchased to ship the food and when water is diverted to desert places like Arizona someone else has diminished access to water.     

Kingsolver and her family moved from Arizona to the southern Appalachia to live off the fruits of their labor on a farm and limit their purchases to local farmers. The Kingsolver clan made it sound relatively simple: relocate and then experiment on the land for a year.   

 Let’s think it through. “A Year of Food” requires resources, which includes money for expenses, and comfortably owning or renting a working arable farm. Before actually arriving at a farm, the average working- to middle-class family would have to turn on the utilities in a new home–that would be the farm–which could be a challenge. One might ask: Can they afford the gas for the car to make the move? What about motels and food on the way? Can they pay the start-up for some of the utilities? Will they have to physically go and pay with cash or a money order to turn on utilities because of a poor credit rating that does not allow for easy transactions by phone, mail, or the internet? These are real questions and concerns for people living pay check to pay check. Forget actually getting to the point of owning a farm. Most people are not privileged. Kingsolver and her family already own a farm.   

Class is a factor. So too is ethnicity. The farm families around her were probably predominantly white though she is not explicit concerning this point. There is a tension here for me. I grew up in Queens, New York in Rosedale, a working class neighborhood of people of African descent. Later as an adult, I lived in Lawndale, California in a working class Latino neighborhood. I’m not sure if many of the people in either ethic group would readily relate to Kingsolver’s agricultural experiment. Some who work the land to survive might see it as a working holiday. The ethnic disconnect and lack of diversity was problematic, typical of broader environmentalism, including the foodway movements.    

With that said, Kingsolver gives the reader much to think about through her beautifully written prose. Many of her suggestions are achievable without going through the financial duress of relocating and purchasing a farm. Consider two ways or reconfiguring Kingsolver’s experiment for regular folks with finite resources.    

Green tomatoes: it's only June.

  • Farmers Markets: Kingsolver does rely on and support the local farmers market near her farm. You too can do the same since these markets are in many cities across the US. The other benefits are eating local organic foods, and diminishing the fuel used to transport produce. Right now I am in Tennessee and plan to visit the Memphis Farmer’s Market downtown.
  • Indoor Plants and Gardens: The author had a flower garden that was part of the farm. This is not an option for many people live in apartments in cities or townhouses in the suburbs. In both types of housing, keep indoor plants, some that flower for the aesthetics. Consider growing herbs in a box on a window ledge. When I lived in Los Angeles I kept orchids, African violets, and a bonsai. Plants, particularly flowering plants, bring a bit of nature’s beauty indoors, which I find soothing spiritually. Tending, watering, re-potting, and fertilizing plants is a break from hectic modern life. Community gardens in cities are another option working side by side with others or carving out a plot of your own. There are benefits to the physical labor of turning over the soil and weeding the rows of plants. At the end of the season, you can enjoy the produce, the fruits of your labor.

So there is a bridge between Kingsolver’s experiment and incorporating nature into the daily lives of regular people. 

Going a step further, I feel a connection with Kingsolver because of my own environmental concerns. I worry about the planet. I worry about the limits and our dependence on fossil fuels. I worry about how many Americans are disconnected from the land and don’t understand how plants actually get to the supermarket. 

Kingsolver develops a parallel argument: when the oil runs dry, and we have to return small-scale agriculture to sustain ourselves, we will not have the skills to produce much needed food in rural settings. 

Perhaps if we resolve to treat the land and our food as edible holy objects, we can save the planet for our children. 

Photos by Dianne Glave Except the Book Cover 

Eat, Pray, Love: A Reflection on Health, Spirituality, and Geography

Elizabeth Gilbert, Eat, Pray, Love: One Woman’s Search for Everything Across Italy, India and Indonesia. Penguin Press, 2006.        

But it is my understanding that the health of the planet is affected by the health of every individual on it. As long as even two souls are locked in conflict, the whole world is contaminated by it. Similarly, if even one or two souls can be free from discord, this will increase the general health of the whole world, the way a few healthy cells in a body can increase the general health of the body.    

A Prayer to God by Elizabeth Gilbert (pp. 32-33)              

My Brother in Rome

 Thinking back to my trip to Italy as I read Eat, Pray, Love: African American brother and sister on a journey. My travels to Rome to Florence, and finally Milan with train rides connecting the three cities flooded my mind and spirit with endearing images and sacred moments, some of which you can see in my photos taken in 2004.             

Milan

Elizabeth’s–I will use her first name throughout my reflection because she takes the reader on such a personal intimate journey–non-fiction book is a travelogue. The book is much like 19th century travelogues or journals I remember reading by Europeans traveling through and living in the American South. I am thinking specifically of the actress Fanny Kemble’s journals that decried the atrocities of enslavement in the sea islands off Georgia.       

Elizabeth travels and journals in reverse leaving the US, to see parts of the world beyond the borders of her home in New York. In traveling, Eat, Pray, Love becomes an exploration in geography and spiritual mapping by God that helps Elizabeth towards spiritual, mental, and physical wholeness and fulfillment. The journey takes her to Italy, India, and Indonesia. I was drawn to the first leg of her journey as I remember my own trip to Italy.          

Spiritually and geographically, Elizabeth describes herself culturally as a Christian. She insists “that Christ is not the only path to God.” (p. 14) The path and by extension the many paths are a spiritual metaphor that extends from literally traversing across terrain, part of geography. She begins to trace and even reconfigure her spiritual map: “When you’re traveling in India–especially through holy sites and Ashrams–you see a lot of people wearing beads around their necks.” (p. 1)           

Elizabeth takes us with her to Italy where she falls in “supplication” to the floor in prayer in English and Italian thanking the universe and God. You see she is grateful to be alone in her hotel room without a paramour, a young lover in tow. (p. 9) Perhaps she offered a prayer of thanks because three years earlier she left a marriage and the possibility of a child. This might sound strange to some. Yet she left her marriage–her husband was emotionally remote–choosing to be alone without a husband or child. returning to the young Italian man she left behind in a restaurant, she decided to be alone. But really she wasn’t alone. She sought God and found him, found her.              

Exterior of Coliseum, Rome

 During her time in Italy, Elizabeth also battles depression and loneliness. She eats and eats and eats, a panacea at least in part to what ails her body and soul. She puts on weight; yet when she glimpses herself in the mirror she sees a friend in better mental, spiritual, and physical health. This is thanks to the people called Italians and the geography, the country called Italy.        

Elizabeth is flawed just like the rest of us, making mistakes and experiencing revelations along the way. I recommend reading this book though you may not share her beliefs or understand her choices.    By the close of the book, you could be looking at your own reflection. I did as I remembered wandering the streets of Milan alone without a map, fearless and happy with what little Italian I knew. I spent a short time with people who treated me with love even when I couldn’t count change. Yes, Elizabeth does without a map in Rome!   

  

Parthenon, Rome

          Follow Elizabeth from beginning to end, from sorrow to sorrow, from revelation to revelation, reading beyond my take of her time in Italy, and beginning fresh with India and Indonesia through health, spirituality and geography.          

 

 Photos by Dianne Glave Except the Book Cover            

The Body and the Tree: Excerpts From a Sermon

Blogged by special request from a member at Warren United Methodist Church in Pittsburgh.

Title: The Weakest Link?

Scripture: I Corinthians 12:22 (NIV): On the contrary, those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable.

Fellowship Day, Warren United Methodist Church, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

Sunday, May 16, 2010

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Do you remember the game show “The Weakest Link”? Let’s go down memory lane. “The Weakest Link” has been on British television for the longest with variations of the show all around the word. The game crossed the pond and was on prime time television for less than a year back in 2001 initially to high ratings in the United States.

Visualize the stage brightly lit with multi-colored strobes lights flashing as the contestants stand in the half round behind podiums blinking as they face the cameras. In the center stands the stern frightening game show host with a British accent. She says, “Let’s play the weakest link.” She peers at the contestants over her reading glasses asking questions and making quips. Each contestant strives to answer as many questions consecutively for ever-increasing dollar amounts. At the end of each round, the contestants vote on the weakest link based on how poorly each contestant answered the questions. Or how threatening a competitor might be in blocking other players from winning the game. When someone is voted out by the majority, the host says, “You are the weakest link, goodbye! The weakest link steps away from the podium taking “The Walk of Shame.” The goal to end the show as the last contestant standing winning the pot of money collected by the winner.

Why has the show been so popular, particularly in Britain? I think in part the show reflects the tendency of our modern global society to deal ruthlessly marginalizing the weakest people or groups often made invisible in our midst.

On Fellowship Day, here at Warren, let us consider how the Apostle Paul admonished the ancient Corinthians function as a community and treat one another as equals in fellowship. I Corinthians 6:15 says, “Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ?” In being parts of the body or church—a finger, liver, skin, brain, heart that’s all of us, me, you, and you—through Paul, God has given us a holy mandate of equality. Jouette M. Bassler describes the connection between Christ and the body: “This spiritual union makes the deeds (I emphasize DEEDs) of the body more—not less—important, for what is done with the physical body is mapped onto the body of Christ.” Such deeds include advocating for equality; when we treat people unjustly as inferior or conversely as our equals, our deeds are mapped onto the holy body of Christ our Lord, that’s the Church, the body of Christ is the church. As African Americans who have experienced or learned about the Civil Rights Movement, we are well aware of the disparity caused by racism, segregation and violence. With such experience and knowledge, can we live with ourselves if someone in the body of Christ is being treated as the weakest link? We are equals.

Let’s go back to I Corinthians 12:22, our core scripture, which is part of a longer passage from verse 12 to 25 (NIV). Please follow along in your bulletin or bible as I read. In the passage, the apostle Paul is letting the church of Corinth have it concerning inequity.  Is there inequality in the modern church? You decide.

In Paul’s letters, he admonished the church of Corinth for some bad behavior including elevating themselves. But first a backdrop to Paul’s reprimand. He founded this congregation in 51 CE in the ancient capital city of the Roman province of Achaia  in what is now Western Greece. Much like cities here in the Northeastern US, Achaia was an urban center that was ethnically, religiously, and culturally diverse. Paul responded to the people in the church of Corinth in the city who struggled with personal relationships. Some congregants at Corinth thought they were better than other members!n Hard to believe. Can you imagine? People in United Methodist Church like those in so many other modern denominations and churches are guilty of doing the same thing. Just goes to show you that bias and inequity remains timeless across the centuries.

So Paul built on the metaphor of the body of Christ to make his point. The body is made of parts. They all are meant to function together. There is no defecting. Sounds draconian no? Thefoot cannot and does not detach itself, leave and pitch a tent on its own. In verse  15, “If the foot should say, ‘Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,’ it would not for that reason cease to be part of the body.” Taking the metaphor even further, one part is not better than the other. And we cannot do without a part, no matter how insignificant it might SEEM. Verse 22 says, “On the contrary, those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable.”

And so it is with those of us in the church. We are members of the church. We are called to work and serve with one another. This is a life-long commitment so no cutting and running from the church when things get rough. We cannot do without one another; we need that fellowship for spiritual health like we need water, air and food for our bodies to survive. And I cannot emphasize this enough: we are all equals; you are not better that anyone in the church; no one is the weakest link;  we all play equal and important role. That means that Pastor Emma Smith is no more or no less than you; the same is true for though I stand here physically elevated before you. The church mother who willingly and happily makes sure the bathroom stays tidy before, during, and after service is equal to the member who meticulously and ably chairs the church finance committee.

Paul had his metaphors and so do I. Consider an old oak tree. Its bark and branches brown, its leaves green, and the roots sunk deep in the earth. Without the leaves photosynthesis—the process of using the energy of the sun to transform carbon dioxide or CO2 into oxygen or O2 to fuel the tree—would never happen. Without the branches the energy drawn from CO2 pulled by the leaves would not travel to sustain the trunk and roots. Without the water and nutrients drawn by the roots the energy created by the sun and CO2 would be useless. So you see ALL the parts of tree work in tandem. One part cannot do without the other. The leaf is not better than roots. Not one part is the weakest link.

All sermons must come to an end as was true of all of Paul’s letters in the New Testament. We are called to love one another as members of the church,at  this congregation called Warren United Methodist Church.We must break bread at same table, drink the same fruit punch in this low Original Hot Dog Shop, otherwise known as Dirty O’s or O’s of life.  I ask each of you to treat one another as equals in fellowship, rejecting how the world measures people as the weakest link often setting people like the handicapped and elderly adrift. We are called by God to be better than that. Let us accept the call, always remembering the “parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable.”

This mandate extends from one another in this church to those in the Methodist church around the world to the rest of the world. Prayerfully through our efforts we can transform the world. We join together with each other to be the church. Go even further by joining with those across the street, across town, across the state, across the country, and around the world!

PHOTOS BY DIANNE GLAVE