Conversion comes in many forms. In religious terms, it’s usually cast as a positive, to change paths from a destructive way of living to a life-giving path closer to what God or the Divine created for us.
Humans experience change and conversion, and in some sense, so do ecosystems. Reverend Terry Gallagher has experienced change and a kind of “conversion” in his own life and in the life of the ecosystems around him. When he first started working in the chemical industry near the Detroit River in the 1960s, he questioned the wisdom and necessity of the various environmental laws and regulations that were being implemented. “As a young engineer at the time, not very savvy about ethical living at the time, I used to question these,” he remembers.
As time went by, though, he came to see the good in these laws and regulations, not only for the environment but for business as well. Along the way, he witnessed the “conversion” of human beings that created positive change on the rivers he knew, including the Cuyahoga, which flows into Lake Erie in northern Ohio, as well as the Detroit River.
"she loves to paint" - Tributary of the Cuyahoga River (photo by Steve @ the alligator farm)
A journey through Midwest industry
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s start at the beginning, where Rev. Gallagher grew up in Cleveland. “I grew up there in very heavily industrialized times,” he recounted.”So, the city of Cleveland itself, and the surrounding areas, and the waterways, and the air itself were heavily influenced by the heavy industry that was based in the city of Cleveland.”
“I remember, in growing up, my mother, like all the neighborhood women, would use the clothesline for drying clothes on a good day. But what was odd about being on the west side of Cleveland is she had to pay attention to wind direction. So, you could put your clothes up, but if the wind shifted and it started coming over from the steel mills, you’d see all the women in the neighborhood running out to recoil and pull it off, because that would turn them orange, white sheets turned orange by the steel mills.”
According to Gallagher, his family was “on the low end of the economic system.” He was the first family member to go to college, where he earned a degree in mechanical engineering. “It was a good time to graduate from college, and I had my choice of jobs, but all of them were in heavy industry,” he continued. “I had a choice between the steel mills in Cleveland and the steel mills in Pittsburgh, the rubber plants in Akron, and steel mills in Gary, Indiana, and then this chemical complex in Michigan.” He took the job in Michigan “because they paid me a whopping 25 bucks more a month than anybody else, and 25 bucks back then was actually worthy of considering.”
Change, move or perish
It was here, working at a chemical plant near the Detroit River, that he started dealing with the EPA and its regulations. “It was just starting to be the awareness of, ‘Do we really need to have all this pollution in order to have capitalism, in order to have a viable future?’” Gallagher said, “So, there were voices raising on a national basis, you know, questioning that, challenging that. And in my early industrial career, I used to poo-poo those efforts, because, of course, you know, if you want to have a good life, you got to have this kind of heavy industry.”
In a new era of environmental regulations, some plants closed up, while some moved their operations to other countries where, according to Gallagher, “there was no check on what they do. There was no longer a requirement to pay attention to what your pollution was doing.”
But the plants that continued to run, “had to become much better at what they did in order to meet the environmental rules,” he said. “Along the way, we learned, we realized that we were actually saving money by doing that… You had three legs, you know, environmental, quality, and safety. And those three together wound up being a highly efficient and a cost effective way of manufacturing.”
This change in how industry operated led to a change in the Detroit River which, Gallagher said, “became nature's habitat, once again. And the Cuyahoga was doing the same thing. Because there's now a national park on the Cuyahoga River.”
The next steps of the journey
For Rev. Gallagher, change eventually meant a change in the work he was doing. He left industry to become a minister, pastoring a couple of churches in the Downriver area of southeast Michigan. During that time, he saw the effects of factories closing, with hunger and poverty growing in that part of the state. The churches where he ministered started and supported food and housing programs to address the need.
However, “half a dozen years into local parish ministry,” Gallagher remembered, “I started wondering if I was really doing all that God was asking me to do, using all the talents that I have. And so I purposely took the role of going on immersion experiences so I could hear voices and see things I don't normally get exposed to.” Those experiences included time in Israel and Palestine, in the free trade zone in Mexico, and a stint serving with a Christian Peacemaking Team in a conflict zone in Colombia.
Seeing the damage done by consumerism to the environment and the people living in poverty, Gallagher asked himself, “How can we do what we do to the world consciously? Because our global footprint is harming the earth… so from that moment, 10 years ago, I changed my ministry path from being a local church ministry, to be in public theology, where I make presentations, I preach, I participate in discussions, I participate in marches. And occasionally I get arrested, trying to awaken people with the truth that we already know. We just refuse to talk about it.” You can learn more about Rev. Gallagher’s work at his website, Sustaining Creation.
A tale of three rivers
In his work, Gallagher focuses on a four-step process for healing our relationship with creation. “The first step is Educate,” he said. “You can't do anything until you understand, at some level, what you do. The next step of the process is to Communicate. And the third step of the process is to Cooperate, because this is not one individual, it's going to take all of us. But the fourth step, the fourth step, is Rejuvenate.”
“We absolutely need to rejuvenate, so, that's where we get back to the three rivers,” he continued. “I live on the Fox River now in Aurora, Illinois, because we're in the middle of my grandkids… and so every morning, except for sub zero, I go out for a walk along the Fox River. There's a great trail, I go right on the shore and I take a few mile walk. And in that hour, hour and a half, I reconnect with the spirituality of nature, just by walking through and observing the river and the life systems that are around that river, now that the river is healthy again.”
“There was a point in time where the Fox River was an open sewer line, just like the Cuyahoga, just like the Detroit River,” Gallagher said. “One of the benefits of rivers is they can rapidly change. If you cut off what you're flowing into them, there's so much other flow going through, they will heal themselves over time faster than most any other circumstance will.”
Healing the future
Healing rivers is one thing. Healing a future is something even larger. To heal that future means change and conversion in many parts of our society, including business. Unfortunately, we still see examples today of industry not taking care of the environment. On the other hand, some businesses have made it their business to care for the Great Lakes.
For Gallagher, the needed change in how industry operates starts with taking the long view. He lamented the “pressure for short term results… If all your focus is this day, this week, this month, this quarter, it’s really hard, really difficult to see a return on doing it differently. And so the focus needs to shift to the accountability, needs to shift to the challenge of having more than simply the cash flow of this quarter as your only result.”
“Part of my role in ministry is to challenge governments, corporations, churches, as well as people of faith in accepting what are the limits of creation, and how to live in harmony with it,” Gallagher said. “Change is possible. We're not condemned to a bleak future, we can choose a different path, and a future, for a good future for our kids and our grandkids is very possible. It's not too late. But we can't keep procrastinating. We gotta get going on this. We got to do it soon.”