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Combine the Japanese nuclear disaster with the ongoing destruction of South American rain forests. Add the deaths of thousands of birds and animals from last year’s BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
Agonizing over these environmental disasters can trigger despair or even resignation. After all, what can one person do?
“A lot,” says Sister Patricia Ryan, a Burlingame Sister of Mercy.
For the past year, Sister Patricia and two Mercy associates – Catherine Regan, a spiritual director at Mercy Center Burlingame – and Marie Brown, a staff member at the St. Vincent De Paul Society of San Mateo County’s Catherine Center – have offered hope to Bay Area residents through a new environmental symposium called “Awakening the Dreamer: Changing the Dream.”
Its premise: Industrial society must be awakened from our dream of ever-greater consumption and wealth because our habits are causing a living nightmare for most of the planet’s inhabitants.
Dreamer is the creation of Bill and Lynn Twist, co-founders of the Pachamama Alliance, a San Francisco-based nongovernmental organization that assists the Achuar, Ecuador’s indigenous rain-forest people.
The project has inspired the Mercy community nationally with its weaving of environmental sustainability, social justice and spirituality. “It puts everything together that we’ve been studying and supporting separately for years,” Sister Patricia said.
Mercy Institute’s Extended Justice Team took part in their first Dreamer symposium a year ago. Since then meetings have taken place in Rhode Island, Maine, Maryland and California, and the sisters are expanding the effort to parishes, schools, colleges and interfaith groups.
Dreamer sessions begin with guided meditations honoring the indigenous ancestors of participants’ ecological regions. They continue with videos of environmental thinkers such as the late Passionist Father Thomas Berry, Brian Swimme, Joanna Macy, Wangari Maathai, Julia Butterfly Hill and Maude Barlow.
Participants then listen to indigenous leaders and are warned, “If you are coming to help us, you are wasting your time. If you are coming because you know your liberation is bound up with ours, then let us work together.”
Next the group is shown nature scenes followed by footage of the destruction of mountaintops and forests for economic production.
Environmentalists challenge participants to rethink six assumptions of what makes for success: “More is better. We are separate from everything else in nature. Poverty is inevitable. Technology will save us. Growth equals progress. I can’t make a difference.”
The presentation also provides background on the environmental and spiritual impact of the last 200 years of the Industrial Revolution.
“There is a lot of time to allow participants to get into the level of feelings for both the beauty and suffering of the planet and its creatures,” Regan said.
Frequently, anger and tears surface, said Gail Chastain, a high school teacher in San Francisco. Chastain participated in one of the Mercy trio’s meetings last month with 60 faculty members from Mercy High School Burlingame, Mercy High School San Francisco and Salesian High School in Richmond. Her group learned that feeling anguish is healthy and that our love for the earth will pull us through the crisis.
Pachamama’s Bill Twist appears in the video with the assurance that “we are not flawed, evil people. We are misinformed. Now we have the opportunity to merge the genius of the human mind with the wisdom of the human heart.”
This merging is beginning to take shape, said Sister Patricia, who has learned that more than two million groups worldwide are working for environmental and social justice.
Catholicism is well-represented among those groups, from the Vatican to dioceses to religious orders.
Both Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI have issued major statements on the environment.
In 1990 Pope John Paul II wrote, “World peace is threatened … by a lack of due respect for nature, by the plundering of natural resources and a progressive decline in the quality of life. We cannot continue to use the goods of the earth as we have in the past.”
In 2010 Pope Benedict said that the world’s economic, food-related, environmental and social problems are related and “require us to rethink the path which we are travelling together.”
A 2001 letter by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops called for “dialogue, prudence and the common good regarding climate change.” Letters from individual bishops’ groups have discussed such concerns as the Columbia River watershed and sustainable communities in Appalachia.
Sisters of Earth, a coalition of environmentally committed women religious, includes more than 50 communities throughout the U.S. are engaged in environmental justice work through ecological learning centers, community-supported organic farms, retreat centers and investor groups.
Locally, Regan incorporates earth consciousness into every prayer day and retreat at Mercy Center. “I remind them that we are embedded in earth and interconnected with all – people, animals, plants, soil, air, water, past, present and future.”
Gail Chastain includes ecological consciousness in her Contemporary World Issues class at Mercy High in San Francisco. Students are now using metal water bottles instead of plastic ones.
Chastain’s activism doesn’t stop at the classroom door. One Christmas she gift-wrapped individual rolls of toilet paper made from recycled fiber. She presented them to family members, thanking them for saving lots of trees.
A few months ago, in a burst of chutzpah, Chastain took on a San Diego hotel for its use of Fiji water bottles. “I spoke with the manager and told her that since the hotel was billing itself as going green, they should get rid of the water-bad carbon footprint. I received a letter about 10 days later saying that they were ordering no more of it after the stock on hand was gone. I was there a few months later and they were true to their word.”
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