Exploring the relationship of Ecology & Spirituality
Empowering individuals and faith communities
to live and work in touch with the Earth
EarthLight is a magazine published quarterly by the Unity with Nature Committee
of the Pacific Yearly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends [Quakers]
NACCE Congress, the Crisis, and the Church
by Paul Burks
[EL #24, Winter 1996-7, p 18-19]
Discerning the Signs of the Times: this is what NACCE entitled its recent, highly significant Congress of Earthkeeping Ministries. So who is NACCE? North American Conference on Christianity and Ecology, that's who, a maturing and hope-filled network of celebration, reflection, and action as it enters its eleventh year.
The place was Milwaukee, in the American heartland. The time was September 13-15, 1996. The 125 Congress attenders came from all over the US: a Presbytery exec from Florida; organizer and writer Jim Berry from North Carolina (Tom's brother); a river-keeper from Wisconsin; Eleanor Rae from Connecticut, past president of NACCE; John Surette, SJ of the SpiritEarth retreat center in New York State; Quakers from Missouri, Florida, California, and Oregon; and many midwesterners, including those associated with the Ecospirituality Ministry Center in Sinsinawa, Wisconsin.
The Congress attracted congregation members as well as those who have given up on churches and some who have never had a religious connection at all - just a deep personal spirituality.
Theologian and Cultural Historian Thomas Berry, in his words of challenge to the Congress, pointed to the evolutionary story of the universe as the primary revelatory experience. "You cannot tell the human story except by telling the universe story," he said. This means that modern cosmology must be a part of Christian education and made integral with theology.
Following Berry's lead, the Congress planners identified four 20th century movements which they feel have profound implications for communities of faith today. Plenary presentations were made in each of these areas, followed by four facilitated "town meetings." Among the three speakers on each area were: eco-theology writer Michael Dowd (cosmology); Eleanor Rae, founder and director of the Center for Women, the Earth, the Divine (eco-feminism); Jane Blewett, founder/director of of the Earth Community Center in Maryland (eco-justice); and Robert Swan, "father" of the Community Land Trust Movement (eco-economy).
The four challenging 20th century developments and the serious questions they raise were as follows.
Science and New Cosmology: How does the story of the evolution of the universe, which science has given us, provide an adequate context for changing our lifestyles to live in harmony with God's creation?
Christian Eco-feminism: How does eco-feminism, with its powerful and insightful critique of our current crisis, provide churches with the elements of a much-needed new vision as well as an ethic of care embracing all of creation?
Eco-Justice: Understanding that we are all interconnected in the web of life, what does it mean for the churches to stand in solidarity with the oppressed of all creation?
Alternative Economics: The world's economy is not working. How can churches model sustainable economics on behalf of a healthy planet? How do we move from consumer-church to eco-church?
So what came of this process of vision-sharing and dialogue? Out of the imaginative work of town meetings in each of the four areas came a document to weave eco-feminism, eco-justice, evolution, and eco-economics into a broad spirit-empowered theme, offering a perspective for action fitting the late 20th century.
In each of the four areas, the document outlines a five year vision, assesses obstacles to the vision, defines master strategies, and presents an empowering symbol and slogan: "Dance of the Universe" (new cosmology); "Share the Water of the Spirit" (eco-feminism); "Join the Dance of Life" (eco-justice); and "Catch the Local Motive" (eco-economics). This powerful document (in four parts) is now available for congregations and other organizations.
In this creative process, all agreed that churches are incredibly slow to change - "a stick in the mud." But surprisingly - after NACCE's theologically argumentative early years - all agreed that the root of the environmental crisis - the crisis of the earth - is a spiritual crisis. We, in our western, technological, consumption-driven culture, don't really know who we are, why we are here, or how we are to relate to all the rest of the God's Creation. And all agreed to commit themselves to creative, imaginative, spirit-based change, within and beyond the church, beyond anthropocentrism, beyond patriarchal.
Illustrative of the above, a long-time mainstream church activist wrote to EarthLight recently: "I don't see any hope for the faith commuities. They are clinging to a world view that does not allow them to see anymore." But she went on: "I am privileged to be in several eco-spirituality and/or new cosmology groups where possibilities are large and energizing."
In some sense, our church structures of today are dinosaurs, large and rigid denominations, dioceses, conventional congregations - the Vatican! In their shadow, like the Gazelle which was co-existent with the dinosaurs, small eco-spiritual communities are growing and adapting within the church and beyond. As in Genesis, Job, the Psalms, and Jesus' Sermon on the Mount, they see the Earth as God's "very good" creation. As with Native Americans and indigenous peoples around the world, they see the earth as sacred, our mother, and are learning to "love the earth and be healed." NACCE seeks to accelerate this process.
Early in the Congress, when the town meetings first convened, the eco-feminist group resisted the planned facilitation approach, saying they needed the time to get to know each other personally and to share their concerns. Even more dramatic, in the closing assembly on Sunday morning, the entire Congress challenged the plan to have groups present their documents, calling instead for an "open mike" time for all to share their parting concerns and their calls for action to the NACCE Board. The spirit was at work, bubbling, effervescent, creative, renewing - like new wine which bursts the old wine sacks.
Of many comments, I remember three most clearly:
a passionate call for a Congress statement to insist that congregations, in their education and worship, highlight understanding of the new cosmology;
a call for the NACCE newsletter, EarthKeeping News, and EarthLight magazine to report regularly on direct action on behalf of the beseiged earth and its creatures - people putting their bodies on the line, as in the Headwaters Forest; and
a call for another Congress in 1998, with Milwaukee attenders offering to repeat as the host city.
Information on NACCE and orders for 4-part document developed by the participants and the final Congress Report by the Board can be ordered from
PO Box 40011,
St. Paul, MN 55104;
Audio and videotapes of speakers are available from