From Farm Fields to the Great Lakes: a Conversation with Rev. John Helt
Reverend John Helt and I have something in common. We both grew up in farm country, and later in life we discovered our connection to the Great Lakes. I spent my childhood in northern Indiana, while Rev. Helt grew up in Iowa, but the affect was the same... our relationship with this watershed developed later in life.
The Great Lakes are “the heart of North America,” Rev. Helt said. “We've just taken undue advantage of it, dumping garbage into it, and siphoning it off, and tunneling under it for pipelines. And, yeah, we have to recognize the sacredness of it, I think, before we can fully be careful about it.”
Farm in Door County, Wisconsin - Photo by Dan Robinson
Like for many of us, recognizing the sacredness of not just the Lakes but all of creation has been a lifelong journey for Rev. Helt.
“I grew up on a farm in Iowa, and it wasn't till toward the end of my almost 40 years of ministry that I sort of discovered the connection between my roots and an appreciation for the land and nature and my faith,” he said.
To be clear, Helt has known the relationship between his faith and caring for the environment – even without a connection to his roots – for some time.
“I really believe that the connections between human life and other forms of life are much more direct than what we've ever imagined before, and that we need to take care of one another. My wife and I have been mostly vegetarian for 45 years, I guess. And growing up on a farm that was kind of confusing to family members. But I read Francis Moore Lappe’s Diet for a Small Planet way back when," Helt recounted, "and that kind of pushed us over the edge at that time. So, it's been a pilgrimage since then of understanding the connections between faith and care for the earth.”
Maybe it’s the big open spaces of farm fields in the Midwest that creates a heart for the large vistas of the Lakes. I’m not sure, but, someone once said to me that everyone they knew who cared about the Great Lakes grew up around them, either living near the shore, staying at a family cabin near one of the Lakes, or camping each year “up north.” For Rev. Helt and I, though, it perhaps start in the open sky over a farm field.
Later in his career, Rev. Helt’s care for creation took him to a spot on the Board for Wisconsin’s Interfaith Power and Light group, which works across religious traditions to combat climate change. He eventually served as the Board’s President.
“I have to admit, I spent my entire 40 years of ministry without a lot of contact with Muslim friends,” Helt said. “Huda Alkaff was our president (then), and she's been the founder of the Green Muslims. And through her that just became an important connection for me, that interfaith aspect. And then we've had Jewish board members as well, and there developed some lasting friendships that have been very important to me that weren't really a part of the majority of my life prior to the last 10 years. So the interfaith aspect of that has been very important.”
During his time with Wisconsin Interfaith Power and Light, and even afterwards, Rev. Helt’s faith has motivated him to work on many different environmental issues within the Great Lakes watershed and collaborating with a number of groups, like the Sierra Club, the Citizens’ Climate Lobby, and the Clean Power Coalition of Southeast Wisconsin, which works to "educate the public about the dangers of burning coal on the health of those who live and work in the vicinty of WE Energies' South Oak Creek and Elm Road Power Plants" (from their mission statement).
Now, Rev. Helt calls the shores of Lake Michigan home, with his house just a few blocks from the water. “My first church that I served after ordination,” he said. “was in Milwaukee. And we've loved the state of Wisconsin ever since. And even though we haven't lived in Milwaukee proper all the time, it's always kind of been a center for us. And the most important natural resource of Milwaukee is Lake Michigan, I think, and the three rivers that flow into it and around Milwaukee harbor. It's just a great blessing for us to be living so close to it now.”
The Great Lakes are a little different from the farm fields of the Midwest, but I think for myself, and perhaps for Rev. Helt as well, those two places share a little kinship in spirit.