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  • Writer's pictureDan Robinson

Igniting the Power of Faith Communities

Updated: Aug 5, 2021

Inspiration can strike from many different directions, sometimes from inside us and sometimes from far away. I was thinking about inspiration when I had a chance recently to talk with Ms. Jodi Rose, Executive Director of Interfaith Partners for the Chesapeake or IPC. The group’s mission is “to ignite the power of faith communities in the Chesapeake region to honor all of Creation by working together to protect and restore our shared watershed.” Sounds like a pretty good mission statement to me; one that could even be adapted for the Great Lakes Basin.

Sunset on Lake Michigan (Photo by Dan Robinson)

There’s something very profound about understanding where you live in your watershed.” – Jodi Rose

Just a quick primer on the Chesapeake Bay watershed. The Bay itself is an estuary, where fresh and salt water mix, and it is the third largest estuary in the world. Stretching about 200 miles long, the Bay has over 11,000 miles of shoreline and covers over 4,400 square miles with an average depth of just 21 feet. The Chesapeake watershed drains about 64,000 square miles in six states and all of Washington, D.C., serving as a home for more than 18 million people.

Just for comparison, the five Great Lakes have over 10,000 miles of shoreline and cover over 94,000 square miles with an average depth of 481 feet. The home of 21% of the world’s fresh water, the Lakes touch eight states of the U.S. plus Canada’s Ontario Province, providing drinking water for over 40 million people. The Great Lakes Basin covers over 295,000 square miles.

So, the Lakes are much larger in most ways, but the two water systems share many traits, including multi-jurisdictional oversight, a location surrounding major population centers, the home of economic activity for millions of people, and of course, a lot of water.

The Chesapeake and the Great Lakes also share another characteristic... a central place in the culture and affection of the people who live around these bodies of water. “Here in the Chesapeake there's water everywhere,” Rose said. “In my neighborhood, I have a creek right here that we take our dog down by all the time. So, I think people just in this neck of the woods have a more regular connection with water. It's where they grew up... or they have their picnics for their neighborhood near it. I mean, it's just really a big part of their life. And then the closer and closer you get to the bay itself, the more and more that is a big piece of the culture. So there's that. There's just the sense of place, but then there is the spiritual aspect. And we talk a lot about being in a watershed community.”

You have an entire watershed of so many different people, different faiths, different demographics connected together.” – Jodi Rose

In an age where it seems so much separates us, the idea of people from different religions and faiths coming together for a common purpose may seem unusual. Yet, that union of purpose seems to me to be the source of power for IPC’s work, which includes Muslim, Jewish, Sikh, and Christian communities.

“IPC works with congregations of any faith to engage them in watershed education and restoration. We're really trying to harness the collective impact that these private landowners can have on reducing stormwater pollution to the Bay, as well as increasing tree canopy and native plantings,” Rose said. “But then also helping them change the hearts and minds of their own members. You know, there's only so many people on our staff, but if we are working with congregations, every one of those points of contact represent hundreds and potentially thousands of people that might be learning about stormwater and watershed stewardship for the first time and what is causing some of the problems in the Bay.”

“That's the beauty of framing things in a watershed and taking action to really restore your watershed as you walk that place you treasure, that place you love.” – Jodi Rose

Love is at the heart of spirituality, but the trick is to put that love into practical action. IPC has helped spiritual communities throughout the Chesapeake watershed reduce stormwater run-off through the creation of rain gardens or the use of rain barrels, so that the pollution coming off roofs, roads, and parking lots doesn’t make it into the watershed. “We are often asked to come out, or at least help somebody write a liturgy together, for a blessing of a cistern, or a blessing of a rain barrel, or a rain garden. That happens a lot. We've got lots of great pictures of all sorts of spiritual leaders in their garb,” Rose said, “out there with their community, not only blessing the practice, but then teaching them how the practice works.”

IPC also helps religious communities start Green Teams to promote protection of the Chesapeake in their congregation and with its members. The Green Team leadership signs a pledge committing them to that work, but one community took that commitment even further.

“A congregation last weekend did, in pandemic times, a drive-by signing of their pledge,” Rose said. “We hadn't thought about encouraging them to get other members of their congregation to also sign it. And they did a beautiful thing where they put the pledge on a very large mat, and everybody kind of drove up, got out of the car, signed their name, and drove on. And I thought that was a really wonderful ritual to embody that commitment into the culture of the entire community, not just that one green team, or that one ministry that was going to take that work forward.”

We often know what we need to do, but understanding the bigger picture and feeling support from the community to do something can help push us into taking action. “Sometimes what we've done, when we could be back in person and we're really trying to, maybe, bless an entire community that isn't all of the same faith,” Rose said, “(is) honoring some joint projects that they've been doing together, or the fact that they're all part of the watershed together,” Rose said.

“So we did this a couple years ago with a part of Baltimore called the Jones Falls Watershed.” Rose added that the Watershed includes “some of the more affluent parts of Baltimore County, and Jones Falls in Baltimore Harbor, and obviously passes through parts of Baltimore City that are not nearly as affluent as parts of Baltimore County. So you have an entire watershed of so many different people, different faiths, different demographics connected together. And we did this kind of ritual blessing of that, and you know, there was a pledge signing. And then the other thing we do is we'll get little glass water bottles and ask people to bring water from where they're at. And we combine that, and as a community, allow everybody to take a little bit of that home. And they're part of that entire watershed together.”

“I did kind of have a watershed moment.” – Jodi Rose

For Rose, this work has not only been important, but it’s also been personal, even from an early age. She grew up in a family that spent a lot of times outdoors, and she was in school at a time when recycling and other practices to protect the environment were taught. So, she eventually got into the environmental field, often working as a consultant on projects. It was on her way to one such project that she had what she calls a “watershed moment.”

“I just was sitting at a stoplight waiting to go through and I'm in a very poor neighborhood and I know that no matter what I do with this project I'm working on for this consultant, none of that money that's going to change hands is going to help this neighborhood, is going to heal anything that I see around me,” she said. “And I see this old man walk in front of me with his cane and disheveled and who knows the last time he ate and I just sat there and cried. And you know, my God just said, ‘This is not what I have in mind for you. I need you somewhere else.’ And I just thought to myself, I really want to work for Him. I don't want to be working for the big corporations. I just wanted to work for the people that are suffering from lack of access to green space and lack of clean water.”

She began that next step in her journey by volunteering at her Roman Catholic parish, helping start a community garden, feeding people who had immigrated to the U.S. from the garden’s bounty, and holding an environmental fair. Through that volunteer work, she “realized that at heart, I was a community organizer, I really just wanted to be out there with people.” Those next steps eventually led to Interfaith Partners for the Chesapeake.

“What's at the heart of it is relationships.” – Jodi Rose

So, how does the story of IPC connect to the Great Lakes? Given the similarities between the two watersheds, could IPC be a witness or an inspiration for the work of protecting the Great Lakes? What’s interesting to me is that the first time I contacted Jodi about an interview and asking these questions, she told me she had just been contacted by someone in Washington State who had these very same questions.

Rose said that this work could certainly be done in other watersheds like the Great Lakes Basin, but that it’s important to start small and focus on building relationships. “I think this is really about relationship building. Our outreach coordinators will tell me that, yes, they can go out to informational community events and have their informational table and try to get the word out about all the work that they do. But really, it's spending the 20 minutes on the phone with elder So-and-So and having that conversation and just really building up that relationship and that trust that makes a difference. And that's a long game. And we just have to all be prepared, and our funders and our supporters and our donors need to be prepared, that this is a long game.”

“We can still teach people about this, and I think it just really gives people a sense of ownership of the things that they can control. I think there are so many environmental challenges,” Rose added. “We are constantly reminded of our existential threats, and it can be really overwhelming. And I think one of the things we try to do in our conversations with people is remind people, you can't save the whole planet, but you can save your corner of it... If you don't, it's irresponsible. So you do have to step up and you have to do something in your little corner of the world. And if everybody did it, then we're gonna be okay. And so just reminding people of their own circle of influence.”

One of the blessings for me, with the Great Lakes Spirituality Project, is that I get to talk to folks doing just that, creating sustainable change in their own circle of influence in the Great Lakes. Perhaps we can see inspiration in the work of IPC to grow those circles in the Basin even more.

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