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You are here: Home » GreenFaith in the Media » Press Clips » Medfield Resident Combines Faith and Environment

Medfield Resident Combines Faith and Environment

By Erin Baldassari
Medfield Press

Medfield — Shelley Dennis, director of religious education at the First Parish Unitarian Universalist Church in Medfield, said she’s always been concerned about the environment, but thought, “somebody else would take care of it.”

“Twenty years later, the problems have gotten worse,” Dennis said. “The more I learned, the more urgent I felt the problem was.”

Five years ago, Dennis decided to do something about it. Now a dual master’s degree candidate in sustainability at North Arizona University and theology at the Andover Newton School of Theology, Dennis was recently awarded a GreenFaith Fellowship. The GreenFaith Organization is the only comprehensive training program in America to prepare lay and ordained leaders from diverse religious traditions for environmental leadership.

The Rhode Island-based group is an interfaith environmental coalition whose mission is to educate and mobilize diverse religious communities for environmental leadership. Founded in 1992, the group began sponsoring fellowships in 2006, which the fellows undertake within their own communities.

Dennis said she hopes to bridge the gap between environmental activism and interfaith organizing in order to mobilize congregations of various traditions into action.

“I realized early on that my skill set lies in the ability to connect things that aren’t usually connected,” Dennis said. “I saw myself working to address my desire to teach people about how to engage in theology while also addressing my desire to work toward a more sustainable way of life.”

Churches and institutions of faith are uniquely positioned, Dennis said, to do the work of environmental stewardship and organize their members around common goals.

“There are very few institutions in our society with the expressed purpose of facilitating ethical and moral development, but churches are where we do that,” Dennis said. “In the Unitarian Universalist faith, one of our core principals is to recognize our interdependence and promote the welfare of all people.”

Institutions of faith have long been called upon to right the moral wrongs of society, said GreenFaith Executive Director Rev. Fletcher Harper.

“When you ask people how to differentiate what’s political and what’s moral about fighting hunger, I think the answers would be pretty straightforward,” Harper said. “There are so many congregations across the nation from varying faith traditions that are doing a whole range of things to fight hunger.”
It’s just that for a long time, the debate over climate change and the environment has been framed in a political and legislative framework, Harper said, rather than a moral one.
“We see, for instance, the harm caused to vulnerable populations by global climate change and we say there should be legislation to reduce greenhouse gases,” Harper said. “Well, for us, to people of faith, we’re starting that argument on the moral grounds that causing harm is wrong.”

On a practical level, Harper said GreenFaith helps leaders from differing faith traditions learn what the Koran, Vedas, Bible, or Torah have to say about environmental stewardship. For the fellowship, 25 people from five distinct faith traditions were selected to participate in the 18-month program, Harper said.

Fellows will attend monthly webinars to discuss environmental issues and receive leadership training, go on three one-week-long “toxic tours” of polluted areas across the country, and carry out a leadership project in their community.

For their capstone project, Harper said fellows have “published books, created curriculum for seminaries and universities, written op-eds in national newspapers, organized regional educational and training events and started communities gardens, among many, many other things.”

“I’m always amazed at how much the fellows have done,” Harper said. “It’s been tremendously encouraging and exciting to see what they’ve done and continue to do even after their fellowships end.”

Dennis said she is currently working on her thesis for Andover Newton Theological School, called “And Both Are True.”

“In the thesis, I talk about something called process theology, which is an idea that basically envisions God and the environment as interrelated,” Dennis said. “It’s an idea that God works through each person and emphasizes the power of relationships. In that idea, it’s implicit that God wants the welfare of all humans, not just some.”

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