We must begin to re-think our relationship to the earth and to its life-supporting resources. We need to re-imagine our place in the universe.
Our use of the earth as a resource of meeting our human needs and wants has brought us to a point where it is clear that the earth will not be such a fruitful resource for our children and grandchildren. We have for so long thought of ourselves as somehow different from, and superior to, all of creation. As rational creatures, with a free will, we were somehow exceptional in the universe, leading us to value our own needs and/or wants over the needs and interests of all other dimensions of creation. This has led us to a cultural and technological approach to nature which denies the value of the bio-systems that surround us.
But the Hebrew Scriptures make clear that God found all of creation to be good, indeed very good. Human beings, according to Genesis, were created last, as the final touch on the magnificent work of creation. God demanded that human beings care for creation, and with human reason and human free will, such a responsibility was a reasonable demand by the Creator God. But what does care mean? This has been a question sidestepped or simply ignored in our drive to exploit the resources of creation to meet every human desire.
For a long time, the Passionist priest and cultural historian and self-proclaimed eco-theologian Thomas Berry called for a re-imagining of our place in the universe. Nature is not primarily a resource to be exploited, home for many living and dynamic systems of life. The dynamic flaring forth of the universe from its beginning until now is the flaring forth of humanity as part and parcel of the dynamics that constitute the universe. The universe is not “other” to us, but is mother to us!
Seven years ago, at Sacred Heart Church in the Waterfront South neighborhood of Camden, 300 people gathered, and one of the emphases in ministry that the group adopted for our parish was the environment. What was clear to us, given our physical location in, arguably, one of the most environmentally devastated places on planet earth, was that we must address issues of environmental justice. We must address them not only because the lives of our children and grandchildren will depend upon it, but in response to the call of God in Genesis, that humanity care for the earth and all its abundance. Pope John Paul II, in the latter years of his papacy, increasingly yoked work for peace and justice with a renewed commitment to caring for the earth.
Out of that communal affirmation, the Center for Environmental Transformation was born. It is a non-profit organization whose mission is to educate people on issues related to environmental justice, to caring for the earth and all its inhabitants.
The Center is home to a 24-bed retreat space which opened in 2009 and has hosted two dozen groups from universities and high schools in the region. We also have a fully functioning greenhouse, where 13,000 organic heirloom seedlings are grown each year. We maintain a native plant nursery, two vegetable gardens, a fruit orchard and a tree nursery. Young people work in the garden as Junior Farmers, learning everything about food, from seed to table. We host a Farmer’s Market every Friday from 4-7 p.m. at 1729 Ferry Ave., co-hosted with Philadelphia’s GreensGrow.
In June of 2009 one of our sources of inspiration and guidance, Thomas Berry, died. In his honor we began the Thomas Berry lecture, held each October. Our first speaker was Professor Mark Graham, a member of the Theology and Religious Studies Department at Villanova University. The second speaker was Miriam MacGillis, founder of Genesis Farm in northern New Jersey. Last year we had Judy Wicks, founder of the White Dog Café in Philadelphia, and founder and current executive director of the Philadelphia Network of Sustainable Businesses.
On Oct. 7 at 3 p.m. the fourth Annual Thomas Berry lecture will feaure Dr. Mary Evelyn Tucker, professor in the School of Divinity at Yale University, also with an appointment in the School of Forestry and Environmental Science. (See sidebar.)
These lectures, the gardens and orchards and the retreat facility are the realization of that communally-generated dream in October 2005. For all of us at the Center, the grace of God has been at work in this effort since the beginning. The 21st Century will be the context for a great struggle about how we are to understand our relationship to the bounty of creation. The Center has positioned itself to do its “bit” in steering that struggle toward a more reverent and grateful celebration of God’s gift to all of us.
Mark Doorley is president of the Center for Environmental Transformation Board.