What Difference Could a Spirituality of the Great Lakes Make?
Updated: Oct 11
This is the third in a series of pieces drawn from a recent on-line presentation for St. Philip Lutheran Church in Trenton, MI titled “Healing Waters: Growing Into a Spirituality of the Great Lakes.” The first piece dealt with the core themes of water, place, relationships, and environmental justice, while the second piece covered supporting supporting themes of Responsibility, Science & Spirituality, Grief & Hope, and Interfaith Work.
So what practical difference could a spirituality of the Great Lakes make? Could articulating and living out such a spirituality help address the many threats to the Great Lakes Basin, like invasive species and climate change, lack of equitable access to clean drinking water and pollution run-off, PFAs and algal blooms, and more?
Cave Point County Park, WI (Photo by Dan Robinson)
Certainly spiritual communities and individuals might approach these problems in a variety of ways, from implementing environmentally-sustainable practices like using non-fossil fuel energy sources and reducing waste, to more systemic actions like legislative advocacy.
One approach that I would like to suggest is using what I call the “Prophetic Circle,” a framework for how to approach these concerns from a spiritual perspective. This framework is my adaptation of the work done by Dr. Walter Brueggemann in his book, The Prophetic Imagination.
The Prophetic Circle
In his book, Dr. Breuggemann writes that the job of the prophet in the Hebrew and Christians scriptures, from Moses through Jeremiah to Jesus, was to:
look at the dominant culture in which they lived, to see how it was damaging and killing people (particularly those who are poor or oppressed);
grieve over that oppression and loss of life;
critique that culture; and
offer an alternative vision and energy to the dominant culture, a vision of justice and compassion based on the radical love and freedom of God.
In our own times, one can see these prophetic actions happening in response to the killings of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and so many other Black men and women. Last summer, for example, individuals and communities responded to what they were witnessing – the violent racial oppression of Black, Indigenous and People of Color. They expressed public grief and anger for the violence, and critiqued the systems and actions that led to that violence. In the forms of various social movements, they offered alternatives to the dominant culture and systems of racial oppression and white supremacy. Finally, these visions were starting to be lived out in successful actions, like the voter outreach that took place in Georgia during last fall’s elections. Actions such as these can create hope that encourages further work to address systemic racism.
A framework like the Prophetic Circle can also help guide the work of spiritual individuals and communities as they address the problems facing the Great Lakes Basin.
Grief is necessary if we’re to take an honest look at the problems facing the Great Lakes Basin. In my conversation with Dr. Margaret Wooster, she discussed the grief she felt over the continued deterioration of a place she cared about, the Oxbow along the Buffalo River in western New York State. Ched Myers, during his interview, talked about the condition that ecopsychologists call “Solastalgia,” or “the condition of being homesick in one’s own home place because of all the degradation.” If we’re not willing to grieve over what we’ve lost, we can never do an honest assessment of our current situation.
So, how could the spiritual communities and traditions help the people of the Great Lakes Basin acknowledge and grieve, for example, over the damage that’s been done to the water, air and land, or to the indigenous communities of the Great Lakes?
In an earlier post I wrote about the TED Talk given by Kelsey Leonard, a member of the Shinnecock Nation and also a member of the Great Lakes Water Quality Board of the International Joint Commission. In her talk, she critiqued the American legal system by asking, if that system can grant personhood to corporations, then why not the Great Lakes? She goes on to contrast the American legal system with Indigenous legal systems. “Our Indigenous legal systems have a foundational principle of understanding our non-human relations as being living and protected under our laws.”
What would a critique of our current dominant culture and mode of living in the Great Lakes look like, especially when communicated in spiritual or religious terms? Does stewardship of the water question or critique our culture of over-consumption? Can we dismantle a culture of White supremacy that devalues the inherent dignity of each person by shoving our most polluting industries into low income communities and communities of color?
Visioning and Energizing
This is where the core themes I wrote about earlier come into play: the idea that water is sacred, the importance of a sense of place, a mutually healing relationship with nature, and environmental justice. All these themes provide a vision for what we can become, and they help energize us to move forward in healing the Great Lakes Basin and all who depend on these waters.
So, how can individuals and spiritual and religious communities point us towards a different way of living that is based on such spiritual values like respect for the dignity of all people and all creation, self-sacrifice, responsibility to a higher power, etc.? Can those in leadership or with a public voice put forth a vision of how to be in a healthier relationship to the Great Lakes Basin ecosystem, but do so in religious and spiritual terms that will speak to their community members?
Here is where the supporting themes I wrote about in an earlier post – science and spirituality, a sense of responsibility, and interfaith work – come in, because these are tools we can use to create a new reality.
Jerry Jondreau and Katy Brisette are living out one example of creating a new reality. Members of the Ojibwe Nation, they are developing their Dynamite Hill Farms based on Ojibwe values that respects the land, water, and all the life there as brothers and sisters.
The Perennial Waters Project at St. Philip Church serves as an example of a spiritual or religious community creating practical efforts to care for their slice of the Great Lakes ecosystem. The Project sponsors a series of presentations that address caring for the Great Lakes, and it creates practical projects at the Church like rain and pollinator gardens.
What role, then, can spiritual and religious communities play in projects that are not typically thought of as efforts by these communities? Can they support alternative energy sources that serve the wider community, like a solar garden? Could they share information from Great Lakes scientists about studies being conducted and the conclusions being drawn? Could they advocate for government policy combatting invasive species?
And back again...
All that work of creating a new reality feeds upon itself and creates hope for the future, but it also creates the potential for grief as well. You could argue that there’s a flow and a process to all this, but I didn’t put arrows on the diagram because life is messy. Events and the work don’t always go in a predictable fashion. The circle is imperfect because we are imperfect. Life and all of us are a work in progress.
What we rely on, in the end, is our love of the waters, people, land, creatures, and air of the Great Lakes Basin. That love helps us to persevere in this important work of healing. I’m reminded of this quote from the Senegalese environmentalist Baba Dioum, which I first heard from Ched Myers during our conversation:
“In the end we will conserve only what we love, we will love only what we understand, and we will understand only what we are taught.” - Baba Dioum
My hope for the Great Lakes Spirituality Project is to be a small part of helping all of us learn more about the Great Lakes, and in learning more we can know them better, and in knowing them better we can truly love them and all the life that depends on them.