Wednesday, April 23, 2014

The Deep Tradition of Celebrating Earth

written by our Program Intern, Michaela Wolf

April 22nd of 1970 is the spring day that President Jimmy Carter and First Lady Rosalynn Carter dedicated to celebrating the Earth. This dedication came at a time when the growth of industry and consumption in the United States far outmatched awareness for the environment. The EPA was also born in 1970.  Although there are lengths that we as a culture, and I know myself as an individual, have yet to travel in order to live more in balance with the environment, this federal organization sets policies and standards to help us recognize and care for the elements on which we rely.

Earth Day is an important holiday to celebrate and brings up concepts I think we should consider more than one out of every 365 days. I also think Earth Day provides a great opportunity to observe the variety of cultures, religions, beliefs and experiences that exist in America. We come from all different places and traditions, each with unique ways of honoring and celebrating Mother Earth, for our environment is truly what sustains us all and what we all do share.

Paul Pajak, senior Fish and Wildlife Biologist of the Northeast Region’s Fisheries Program, describes that although only one out of five Americans are anglers, or people who fish for pleasure, spiritual values may be the thing “that will help people transition toward a more sustainable society” and care for the surface waters and watersheds on which we depend. An Episcopal Diocese in Massachusetts put this into practice when they renamed their congregations for the watersheds in which they resided. Following this, canoe trips were held on the rivers for which each diocese was named.  These events included talks about ecological and spiritual matters and raised awareness about both watershed appreciation and sacred functions of water such as mikvah and baptism, to name just two. The events were reported by organizers as the most successful of those they had conducted and brought together many generations from parishes both urban and rural.

Many Hindi hymns praise rivers, and the Ganges River is considered a goddess. Doshi Professor of Indic and Comparitive Theology at Marmount Univesrity, Dr. Christopher Chapple says that Hinduism’s spiritual and intangible focus, (such as in Advaita Vedanta) has often removed it from physical and material concerns, like Earth (viewing them as illusion or maya). However, many Hindu tenets do highly revere physical life and also environmental conditions. In South Asia these principles are motivating many to understand ahimsa and dharma in ways that more closely involve the ecological community. As all faiths include some consideration for the respect of our natural environment, many may also contain elements that challenge us to recognize the importance of environmental awareness among various spiritual concerns. It is imperative that we make these considerations though, as this space we walk in is shared and our behaviors are not without consequence.  Issues like climate change and water insecurity are very real and are changing lives presently.  To honor the living and those who will live we must address and not evade such challenges.

In the Jewish faith, humans are viewed as tenants and not owners of the Earth. According to a Jewish earth ethic, humans are acknowledged for their unique ability to benefit from the Earth’s bounty but all living creatures are seen as having intrinsic value and created by G-d. Although in this post I cannot recognize so many of the ways religions around the globe and throughout history revere nature in their texts, devotions and actions, I do believe it comes through in so many traditions because our environment is what we cannot live without and what has given and gives us life. Respect for environment is a pillar in spiritual health recognized in many religions and spiritual traditions. This wealth of knowledge and tradition is of huge benefit to humans today and should be embraced by communities and individuals in order to help preserve and maintain life and spirit.

Pajak explains that the ecological crisis is a moral and not a technical problem.  Every individual has their own rules that guide them. Some of these may come from religious or spiritual traditions. Through these rules we discover in the environments of our own lives, we impact our social and natural environments. World religions have many striking images to influence and inform us on the role of the natural world and our place as humans within it. Such powerful and beautiful explanations not only illuminate the glory of life and our dependence on natures reserves, but also the opportunities we have to find ways to collectively and creatively honor such valuable resources.

Michaela Wolf is the program intern at Project Interfaith. She holds a bachelor’s degree in Environmental Studies with a focus in Biology and a minor in Sociology from the University of Nebraska- Lincoln. She currently attends Clarkson College, pursuing a Bachelor’s of Science in Nursing. Her interests include reading, writing, running, the outdoors and art.



1)    Chapple, C.. Hinduism, Jainism, and Ecology. Earth Ethics, 10.
2)    Fink, D. B. . Judaism and Ecology: A Theology of Creation. Earth Ethics, 10.
3)    Siemer, W., & Hitzhusen, G. (). Revisiting the Stewardship Concept: Faith Based Opportunities to Bridge From Principles to Practice. American Fisheries Society, 55.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Stand Up

written by Project Interfaith's Resource Development Intern, Bethany Walter

"Most people think,
Great God will come from the skies,
Take away everything
And make everybody feel high.
But if you know what life is worth,
You will look for yours on earth:
And now you see the light,
You stand up for your rights. Jah!"

~ Bob Marley and the Wailers (“Get Up, Stand Up”)

When I was only 15, my parents put me on a plane to Africa all by myself.  After 20 hours of being squished up against a plane window, I finally arrived in Zambia, where I would be living with my aunt and uncle for the next three months. Going to Africa is an experience I am very grateful for; it is one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen in my life. However, I learned something about myself while I was there that changed my life for both the good and the bad.

You see, my aunt and uncle are Christian missionaries. I cannot deny that they do great things for the people in Zambia, including having started an orphanage in the last few years. However, while I was there I found I was expected to “share the gospel” with the “unsaved.” I found out quickly that I didn’t want to. I just ended up asking the questions instead. I wanted to know what they believed and I didn’t feel like it was necessary to convince them otherwise. Besides, they were people too. What made me any more correct than they were?

This realization has led me down a difficult road with my all-Christian family. I love my family very much, but I cannot sit here and truthfully tell you that there has been no pain. Since before I was even born, my life had been decided for me – what I was supposed to believe religiously and politically, how I was supposed to dress, even exactly what type of man I was supposed to marry. I was told to be myself only as long as it fit into the box that had already been drawn around my life. As you may have guessed already, I didn’t fit all that nicely. One of my favorite books, “The Tao of Pooh,” by Benjamin Hoffman says -
 “You'd be surprised how many people violate this simple principle every day of their lives and try to fit square pegs into round holes, ignoring the clear reality that Things Are As They Are.” Growing up this way came with it’s own set of challenges. There didn’t seem to exist any middle ground for me – either I was for them or I was against them. Black and white. This made it very difficult for me to figure out who I was and what I stood for until early into my adult life. I still struggle with many of these issues today.

My spirituality is rather simple actually. However, I have found that many people don’t quite understand not having any religion at all. The closest thing I have found to how I feel about this life is Philosophical Taoism, although I do not identify myself as a Taoist. I have always questioned the need for a middleman in creation. In other words, if God can be self-created, why can nature not be? For this reason, I find evolution to be the most satisfying answer to the question of why we are here. I do not view myself as being separate from this universe; rather, I am one with it. I see humanity as being the universe’s way of evolving to self-awareness, and I strongly believe there is other consciousness out there. Many have questioned me on the grounds that I have no higher purpose to live for or no moral system to live by. My higher purpose
is my existence, which I do not see as insignificant, and my morality comes from knowing in my heart that I should never maliciously harm any other living being.

Like Bob Marley wisely said, once you see the light you should stand up for your rights (Jah!). I am here at Project Interfaith to stand up for myself and for others. Besides being a great opportunity to gain professional experience on my resume with a non-profit organization while in college, it is also an opportunity for me to empower myself by standing up for what I believe instead of allowing others continuously tell me how to think. Second, I am here to stand up for the rights of others around the world and in my own community to be free from intolerance as well. I know that my story is not a unique one, and I have a great desire to be part of a positive change towards religious understanding because I know what a struggle it can be to not be accepted for who you are.

Bethany is Project Interfaith’s Resource Development intern. Bethany was raised in Papillion, Nebraska and is currently a junior at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. Her major is International Studies with a concentration in Business Marketing and Eastern European Studies. She hopes that her Russian language skills will be useful one day.
She joined Project Interfaith because she believes strongly in every person’s right to be empowered and free from intolerance of any kind. Traveling to several different countries – including Russia, England, St. Vincent and a number of African countries – has given her a passion for learning and understanding people of every culture and faith.
In her spare time, Bethany loves to spend quality time with those close to her, play video games and spoil her two cats. She is not sure exactly where life is taking her yet, but she knows that she wants to do something to help people.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Opening Up

written by our Project Consultant, Philip Lomneth

Openness.  People talk about its importance often, about keeping an open mind when trying to learn something new or entering into a controversial conversation, but do we really know what being open means?  Do we grasp all that it entails?  For if we are open, are we like a door swung wide, letting in all sorts of insects and critters as well as the summer breeze?  Or can we still be open even while screening out the things we want not?  Moreover, if we are open to new ideas and experiences, what must we let go of, what must we empty out, in order to have the room for the new?

I ask these questions because I seek a deeper understanding of what it means to be open.  In interfaith work in particular, having a rich understanding of openness helps one intentionally enter conversations recognizing one's own assumptions and limits

So, what deeper meaning do I seek?  I seek an understanding of openness affirming the need for vulnerability.  Openness means letting go of one's desire to be right, to listen especially when you believe the person talking is wrong.  It is expecting surprises rather than anticipating people's motions or preparing for one's own next move.  To be open is to let your guard down and feel an attack.  We should absolutely reject disrespect, yet if one is open, one does not expect an insult.  Being open means sharing yourself beyond what is comfortable or normal.

I seek an understanding of openness affirming our status as partially filled creatures.  Though we may be ever changing, we have ideas, beliefs, convictions, experiences, and more that have formed us, that have somehow filled us.  They are not burdens to cast off, rather they make up that which we share with the people around us.  What's more, because we are at least partially full, openness encourages us to challenge or question what we find confusing, misguided, or simply wrong.  If being open means to share what is within us, then we ought to also share what we disagree with.  Furthermore, because we can be hurt, openness carries with it the responsibility to care for each other and reject what is harmful.  Understanding is critical, but I do not believe we are simply bodies and minds to be roughly rocked about in order to gain some modicum of deeper understanding.

If we live out some deeper meaning of openness beyond the cliché, I believe our interactions with others will be more authentic as we understand the risks and limits of our own openness.  We will learn to be comfortable setting boundaries in what to share and where we can to divulge more.  Disagreements will not simply appear as attacks or denials of one's perspective but genuine ways of sharing one's perspective and showing deep listening.  If we understand that openness abolishes neither our right to be treated with dignity nor our responsibility to treat others the same, we can enter dialogue knowing that we will hold each other accountable if anyone transgresses those rights.  If we seek richer interactions with the people around us, a fuller understanding of openness is one way to start.

These are just a few of my still forming ideas on what it means to be open, but what do you think?  Why does being open matter?  What does it even mean?  How is being open important in your encounters with people of different faiths, beliefs, or cultures from your own?
Philip Lomneth is a Project Consultant with Project Interfaith.  He graduated from St. Olaf College with a Bachelor's degree in Religion and Ethnic Studies.  Philip's fascination with the many ways identity and belief influences people's lives led him to start volunteering with Project Interfaith in 2008.  He kept returning throughout the years, and is currently developing curricula and other resources at Project Interfaith.  In the fall, he plans to head back to school, pursuing a Master of Divinity.