Each year, our cousin organization, Michigan Interfaith Power & Light, promotes an Earth Day sermon contest. This year, I set out to craft a sermon to submit, but couldn't finish it by Earth Day. So, here is the sermon I would have preached on Earth Day if I had the chance. Please note: I am a member of a conservative Christian denomination, so the language of this sermon would fit the audience to whom I would preach it. So, for example, the use of male pronouns for God would be normal in that context. If you're coming from another point of view, I hope you'll not see these things as distractions, but as cues specific to another culture. In the end, I hope this sermon blesses you no matter what your faith background. Grace and peace, BT Irwin
This year, I found out how awkward it can be when Earth Day falls during Christian Easter and Jewish Passover.
VEJ, being a faith-based mission organization that helps communities of faith care for creation, wanted to host an interfaith prayer breakfast on Earth Day. It just made sense.
But, as I said, Earth Day this year landed the day after Easter Sunday. That happens to be the day a lot of Christian pastors take off for vacation after working overtime during Holy Week. So, Earth Day wouldn't work.
So, we looked at the Thursday or Friday after Earth Day.
One of our Jewish friends, however, pointed out that both of those days fall during Passover. She made a joke about how Matzo for breakfast didn't sound too appealing.
So, we ended up moving what was supposed to be our Earth Day prayer breakfast to the next week and scheduled it for the National Day of Prayer (May 2).
All this to say: How can I get into the pulpit on Easter Sunday--the most important Sunday of the whole year for Christians--and not preach an Easter sermon?
An Earth Day sermon on Easter! Where I come from, that could get you fired (or worse).
But, wait a minute.
Let's stop and think.
What if it's not such a stretch to preach an Earth Day sermon on Easter Sunday?
What if the spirit of the Easter story is not so far from the spirit of Earth Day?
What if an Earth Day sermon actually works as an Easter sermon?
Since you're here, why don't we give it a try?
I grew up in a Christian tribe that, among other beliefs, held these two:
The first is that the death of Jesus Christ is more important than his resurrection. I know this because we spent 99 percent of our time talking about the cross of Christ.
Think about that. If you spend 99 percent of the time at the cross of Christ, you are spending 99 percent of your thoughts on sin, punishment, and death.
This suited us just fine because, well, we were fundamentalists. And nothing gets a fundamentalist's pulse racing like suffering and wrath.
So, the Christian tribe that raised me taught that our faith was about life, but most of our language and stories and symbols were about death.
The second belief is that the "material world" is bad and the "spiritual world" is good.
You could say that we believed that matter doesn't matter to God and neither should it matter to us. We can take this another step: If matter doesn't matter to God, it must be opposed to God. Therefore, matter is evil and sinful in and of itself. Matter applies to our bodies (where fundamentalists believe nothing good can dwell). Matter also means Earth and all earthly things.
When you take this point of view of Earth--that, at best, it is disposable and, at worst, it is evil--you will not blink or blush when it comes time to exploit it. As I once wrote during my fundamentalist years: "God is going to burn it all up anyway."
By the grace of God (and the good Earth, I might add), I grew and matured in my faith.
Here is what I learned over the years:
First, the ancient Christians--the first people to believe that Jesus of Nazareth was the Christ from God--talked and thought mostly about the resurrection of Jesus--not his death. They were busy anticipating and preparing for kingdom come. They believed the resurrected Christ was the "firstborn" or "first fruits" of the age to come--the age for which all human beings are longing (1 Corinthians 15:20).
In short, the defining belief, the theme of ancient Christianity, was Resurrection.
Believing in resurrection as they did, those ancient Christians turned the world upside down with their selfless acts of generosity and kindness and mercy. They felt no need to attack or exploit or hoard or oppress. When you believe resurrection is coming to you, you are free to give and give and give some more.
But their belief in resurrection went far beyond their own souls in the "sweet by and by."
Those ancient Christians believed that God meant Resurrection for all things.
The apostle Paul wrote in his letter to the church of Christ in Rome:
."..creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God" (Romans 8:21).
My old fundamentalist way of thinking was: Jesus died to pay for the sins of humankind. He died so that people who follow the right rules could go to heaven when they die.
But the Good News--us Christians call it the Gospel--is that Jesus was raised from the dead. Not only because God is making it known that he intends to raise us all from the dead, but that God intends to raise all creation from the dead, too (Romans 8:21).
What does that mean?
It means you matter to God. You matter so much so that God laid down his own life and then took it back up again to start a chain reaction that ends with your own resurrection. God's will is for you to live. Really live. For him, that's what this is all about.
And it means that all of creation matters to God. Jesus Christ himself told his people to "go into all the world and proclaim the Good News to all creation" (Mark 16:15).
What is the Good News? That the love of God is imminent, unconditional, universal. The sign of that love is redemption from all that enslaves us and resurrection to a life of pure and unending love. And that Good News is not only for humanity; it is clear that God means it for "all creation."
This changes things.
"Every man for himself" becomes "every person for all others, every person for all things." Just as Jesus Christ was for all things.
When you're afraid of death, when you don't believe there is love for you in the universe, you will do moral things out of fear, out of obligation. This is fundamentalism.
But when you believe in Resurrection, when you believe that love is unconditional, universal, you do good as a free-flowing expression of joy, peace, and thanks.
Earth Day, then, is not a call to be pious or progressive; it is a call to come home. It is a call to return to right relationship with the world God so loves. And we come into right relationship with it, not in a spirit of fear, but in a spirit of great joy and thanksgiving.
Because God, in love, raises the dead. God makes everything new.
It is for you. It is for me. It is for everyone. It is for everything.
Easter and Earth Day. Earth Day and Easter.
Grace and peace.
VEJ Youth Club is back for summer, making ecology fun and hands-on for kids K-5.
The club meets at Hope House & Gardens, 15894 Greydale Street, Detroit, every Thursday from 1:30 p.m. to 3 p.m. until August 15. All kids kindergarten through fifth grade are welcome. The program is free. A parent or guardian must sign a waiver and stay on site during the program.
"[Garden program leader] L'Oreal [Hawkes-Williams] leads a fun class that gets the kids really involved in using all five of their senses to learn about ecology," said VEJ executive director BT Irwin. "You know it's good when kids from down the street come by every day asking if it's 'Youth Club Day."
For more information, call (313) 355-6042 or email firstname.lastname@example.org
The last week of June, about two-dozen Catholic teens came from places like Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, and Wisconsin to learn and serve at VEJ's Hope House & Gardens.
The teens came as participants in two annual Catholic youth service weeks in Detroit: Catholic Heart Work Camp and Young Neighbors in Action.
"Hosting these teens for a week each summer at Hope House & Gardens is one of the highlights of our year," said VEJ executive director BT Irwin. "It is really special to get to see how they grow as people over the course of the week."
Irwin said it is also a big blessing to VEJ and the Hope Park neighborhood. The teen volunteers get a lot of important work done at Hope House & Gardens while spending a lot of time with neighbors on Greydale Street.
Projects the Catholic Heart and Young Neighbors volunteers got done at Hope House & Gardens this year, included:
Irwin said his favorite part of the week was watching how the teen volunteers included the children who live around Hope House.
"You could see how the neighbor kids and the teens were bonding as they worked together. It was a beautiful thing to witness," said Irwin. "The neighbor kids were learning that love is there for them even from total strangers and the teens were learning how much love they have to give and what a difference it makes."
In addition to working with their hands, the teens also put their hearts and minds to work. VEJ garden leader L'Oreal Hawkes-Williams added classes, demonstrations, meditations, and reflections to the daily schedule.
At the end of the week, teens filled out anonymous surveys about their experience. Comments included things like:
Irwin said that if there was one drawback to the experience, it was that none of the teens who volunteered is likely to return any time soon.
"We can do this with local groups just as well as we can do it with groups from out of state," said Irwin. "We can do this with groups of any age, any education level, any faith background. When we host groups from metro Detroit, it creates opportunities for lasting learning and relationships that can build over time with repetition."
If you would like to come learn and serve at Hope House & Gardens--either on your own or with a group from your club, company, house of worship, or school--please call (313) 355-6052 or email BT Irwin at email@example.com.
VEJ's friends recently set several records for supporting VEJ's mission and organization.
Friends of VEJ gave a record 192 gifts in the fiscal year that started July 1, 2018, and ended June 30, 2019. That more than doubles the old record of 80 gifts (2017 - 2018).
Friends of VEJ also set a record for non-grant unrestricted gifts, meaning gifts that did not come from foundations and could be used to meet any financial need. Gifts of this kind added up to $33,657, beating the old record of $22,262 set in 2015 - 2016.
"Our donor friends deserve so many thanks for their accomplishment," said VEJ executive director BT Irwin. "Donors do as much heavy lifting as if they were doing VEJ's hands-on work themselves. They are a big, big part of the mission and when they give more, they accomplish a lot more."
In addition to "unrestricted" gifts that came to VEJ from businesses, houses of worship, and persons, major "restricted" gifts of $36,000 came to VEJ as well. Those funds are set aside to support programs like Community Dinners, Organic Sustainable Gardening, and Wonder Walks.
Irwin said that donors are one of the "vital signs" that help measure VEJ's health, strength, and sustainability as a mission organization.
"There's this line in 'The Muppet Christmas Carol' where Ebenezer Scrooge, after he changes his life, sings: 'If you want to know the value of a man, you simply count his friends,'" said Irwin. "That holds true for VEJ, too. If you want to know the value of VEJ's mission and work, simply look at who is making it their own by giving their energy, money, and time. These friends are just as much part of VEJ as any board or staff member."
Looking ahead, Irwin said the goal is not so much to raise more money, but to include and serve more people in the VEJ community.
"When you're doing good and meeting real needs, the money takes care of itself," said Irwin. "Of course we think about the funds we'll need to do everything we want to do over the next year. But our real focus is on who we're going to do it for and who is going to do it with us. This is how we know that next year is going to be even better than this year."
To join the VEJ community and partner in the mission as a donor, click here.
Community Dinners at Hope House & Gardens, a new VEJ program for 2019, are proving to be popular with both neighbors and visitors to the neighborhood.
Both Community Dinners on the 2019 calendar so far (May and June) filled up to capacity.
"People seem to really like the Community Dinner program, from the food to the guests to the setting to the speakers," said VEJ executive director BT Irwin. "That's really exciting because it means people are finding something that helps them make Earth justice a little more part of their lives, relationships, and work."
VEJ garden program leader L'Oreal Hawkes-Williams came up with the idea for Community Dinners and manages the program.
Each Community Dinner takes place at VEJ's Hope House & Gardens at James T. Hope Park in northwest Detroit. A local chef prepares a meal using as many ingredients as he or she can from VEJ's neighborhood garden and other neighborhood sources. A speaker brings a discussion topic that relates to VEJ's Earth justice mission, usually relating it to the people who live in the Hope Park neighborhood itself.
At the first Community Dinner in May, Tommie Obioha of Detroit Sustainability Partners gave a talk on the City of Detroit's sustainability program for residents.
In June, Shakara Tyler of Michigan State University's Regional Food Policy center led a discussion on African American agriculture in urban centers like Detroit.
"We are blessed to have a donor who made this entire program possible, from the hours L'Oreal and our staff put into to organizing it, down to the honorarium we give the presenter and what we pay the local chefs to prepare the meal," said Irwin.
Along with Eco-Eating Tours, hosting the neighborhood First Fridays Film Series, the Organic Sustainable Gardening program, Wonder Walks, and other programs, Community Dinners are an important part of how VEJ is growing a community around its mission of "prayer, education, and action for Earth."
"We hope people can see what we're up to here," said Irwin. "Our most important work at VEJ is growing a community of people who are from different backgrounds, but who come together to pray, learn, and take action for Earth justice. And nothing is more important to forming a community than breaking bread together. That's what this is all about."
The next Community Dinner takes place on Sunday, July 7, and will feature a discussion on the "interfaith table." Sign up here.
After a year of full-time volunteer service at VEJ, Julia Hall is moving on to her next adventure in life.
Hall, a member of Christ the King Service Corps, recently finished one year of placement at VEJ, spanning from June 2018 to the end of May 2019. She came to VEJ just weeks after graduating from the University of Dayton in Dayton, Ohio.
"Julia is and was a gift straight from God," said VEJ executive director BT Irwin. "Along with [garden program leader] L'Oreal [Hawkes-Williams], Julia was the heart and soul of VEJ's presence in the Hope House neighborhood and VEJ's programs across the region."
As part of the Christ the King Service Corps, Hall lived in a common house with other service corps members at Christ the King Catholic Church, just a short walk from Hope House & Gardens. As a service corps member, Julia volunteered 40 hours (and sometimes more) each week at VEJ.
"Julia was our only full-time person on staff and our only staff person who lived in the Hope House neighborhood itself," said Irwin. "What showed to everyone is that her greatest joy was in relating to her neighbors here. She really loved them!"
In addition to helping VEJ connect to its neighbors in Detroit's Brightmoor and Old Redford neighborhoods, Hall helped create and run other programs as well, including Eco-Eating Tours and Wonder Walks. She was a big part of helping Hawkes-Williams design and lead VEJ's Organic Sustainable Gardening program.
This summer, Hall will move to Oregon, where she will attend graduate school at Oregon State University in Corvallis. She will study women, gender, and sexuality on full scholarship as a teaching assistant.
"This year has been one of fun, excitement, and learning," said Hall about her placement at VEJ. "My growth, professionally and personally, through working at Voices for Earth Justice has meant so very much to me."
A going-away party is in the works and details will be announced soon.
If you're reading this, I bet you also read up a lot on things like climate change.
I mean, come on: You're reading a blog post on a website with the address "voices4earth.org." Unless you're my mom (Hi, Mom!), what other reason do you have to be here if you're not someone who cares deeply about Earth justice?
So...do I win that bet? Do you keep track of things like climate change?
At the risk of sounding like I have a gambling problem, here's another bet I'm sure I can win: Most everyone cares about the environment. Some more than others, but I'm pretty sure that most everyone--Democrat and Republican, old and young, rural and urban, rich and poor, religious and non-religious--care about the health of Earth.
Yes, yes. Some are passionate while others are just passive.
Some make Earth justice their full-time hobby or profession. More make do with buying Seventh Generation brand products at Meijer and rolling their blue container to the curb once a week.
I think most people, though, settle for saying they'll get around to Earth justice.
If you're the kind of person who puts energy, money, and time into Earth justice every day, those people who "make do" or settle for "someday" may drive you crazy.
Alarm bells are clanging in your head as you look up from the latest climate change headlines in this morning's New York Times.
"We're almost out of time!" you say. "People need to wake up and get with it!"
And you're right. You're right.
"Yes! I'm right! Damn right!" you say. "Why can't people see that Earth is in our hands?"
Huh. Now there's a question.
"Why can't people see that Earth is in our hands?"
Yes. Why can't they?
First of all, I will say again that I think they can.
But one little word in your question makes a big difference to what happens next:
There is a big difference between "Earth is in our hands" and "Earth is in my hands."
Do you agree?
It is true that Earth is in our hands. Few will disagree with that.
But just who is part of that word "our"?
If you're an American consumer or voter, you could take that "our" to mean the 327 million people who live in this country. The fact is, among the nations of the world, only China pollutes more than the United States. So, indeed, Earth is in "our" American hands.
Or, you could take "our" to mean the 7.53 billion people who live on Earth. Nobody can deny that that many human beings makes a huge impact on the planet.
But the word "our," while accurate, is neither encouraging nor inspiring. And it is unclear. The word does nothing to nudge people to take action. In fact, I think the word does the opposite.
Here's what I mean:
First of all, being part of an "our"--especially an "our" as big as the population of the United States or the world--allows individuals to make excuses:
"Somebody else will do it."
"What's the point? I'm just one of 327 million or 7.53 billion. What difference can I make?"
You see, as long as Earth is in our hands, I don't have to get around to saying that it is in my hands. As long as Earth is in our hands, I can always say that it is somebody else's problem to solve: The government, multinational corporations, nonprofit organizations, scientists...whoever!
And so the size of the problem (world destruction!) and the fact that the solution is in our 7.53 billion pairs of hands makes me feel like little old me is helpless! I am dis-couraged from even thinking about it let alone doing something about it. I settle for making myself believe that someone else will do something.
Now, here I want to say that Earth justice has to be our problem to solve. Something as big as Earth justice demands all of us working together. We have to find a way to change big things like economies and public policy. There is simply no way around it.
But big things like economies and public policy are made up of many, many little things.
Or, to put it better: Many, many individuals.
Want to go smaller?
Just multiply those many, many individuals by the many, many choices each one of them makes each day.
When you think about it that way, Earth justice is really what happens (or doesn't happen) as the entire human race makes trillions of choices on a daily basis.
So, then, Earth really is in my hands. It just takes what we call faith to see it.
Here's my point: The only way I will ever give energy, money, and time to "Earth in our hands" is if I first hold Earth is in my hands.
"Our" is so big it excuses personal responsibility.
But if I start with personal responsibility, if I hold Earth in my hands, it is much easier to join the collective "our."
And that is exactly what we are trying to do at VEJ right now.
Instead of overwhelming people with planet-sized problems that they feel helpless to solve, we are inviting them to hold--literally hold--Earth in the hands!
I thought about this a couple of weeks ago as I helped plant flowers at VEJ's neighborhood garden in Detroit. I looked down and there it was: I was holding earth in my hands. I was holding life in my hands. In that moment, one average, ordinary guy was in a partnership, a relationship with Earth.
I wasn't alone. Others were down on their hands and knees alongside me in the garden. We were having a moment of fellowship with each other and with Earth.
It may sound weird to some, but the moment changed me a little. Gave me a little nudge and pat on the back as I turned a little more toward Earth justice.
That's what we're doing at VEJ: Inviting people to join others in putting their hands into the soil, breathing the air, listening to the wind in the trees, looking carefully at the miracles all around them, tasting the fruit of the Earth.
"Everything is an experiment."
For the last 20 months, board members, donors, team members, and volunteers have heard me say these words over and over like a broken record.
You know it's true: Life is an experiment! We're all just making it up as we go.
Mission organizations like VEJ are in the experimentation business. Think about it: We are trying to solve some of the world's biggest, most "wicked problems" on shoestring budgets and working with unskilled volunteers.
And "wicked problems" don't stand still. They keep changing and so we have to keep changing, too.
Yes, experimentation is what we have to do at VEJ.
From the first time the board interviewed me for the leadership role at VEJ, I knew we would have to do two things to have a chance at making a difference:
So, we made a program plan for 2019 that we thought would help us do those two things. We didn't know what would happen, so we called it an experiment and jumped in.
As with any experiment, some things are working well and some things are not working.
When things don't work, we ask why and try something a little different.
One thing that is not working the way we planned is our Eco-Eating Tours and Wonder Walks. We created these to see what would happen when we mashed up fundraising, mission work, and public outreach into one dish. Some very successful nonprofits in southeast Michigan raise funds by charging $25, $35, $55, or even $75 for tours at points of interest around the region. I thought we could do this, too.
It hasn't worked and I have to ask myself why.
Two things come to mind right away:
The more I thought about that, the more I felt like asking people to pay $20 to come to one of our nature hikes or tours was just wrong for us. It works for other organizations, but maybe not for VEJ.
The main reason being: The Wonder Walks are supposed to be interfaith prayer events. Am I really going to charge someone $20 to come pray in nature? I hadn't thought of it that way before.
So...we are dropping the $20 fee to attend Eco-Eating Tours and Wonder Walks. It will now be "donate what you can" or nothing at all. We are a faith-based organization, so I am going to have faith that God will take care of VEJ's financial needs through the kindness of our many friends new and old.
I am sorry this experiment didn't work out the way I thought it would. Not because it didn't raise a lot of money for VEJ, but for those who felt like they were not wanted because of the fee we put on the programs. While we never meant to exclude anyone, I should have seen that the fee would make some people feel excluded.
If you were one of them, I'm sorry.
The experiment goes on.
We are trying to find the best way to help people of faith do Earth justice.
We are trying to find the best way to run a small organization to support that mission.
We make mistakes, compost them, and grow something new. This is what it's all about.
If you have any comments, questions, or suggestions to share with us, please call or send an email. After all, you are the real voice for Earth justice.
Grace and peace,
BT Irwin, primus inter pares
Voices for Earth Justice
The Adrian Dominican Sisters recently announced their selection of VEJ as a recipient of a Ministry Trust grant for 2019 - 2020. The funds will support VEJ's programs that focus on hunger in Detroit's Brightmoor and Old Redford neighborhoods.
"It's always good news when someone is kind enough to give to the work we do, but this grant is really special," said VEJ executive director BT Irwin. "Two Adrian Dominicans started VEJ back in 2002 and the Sisters have contributed tens of thousands of hours, over a hundred-thousand dollars, and a million prayers to VEJ over the years. This is very special relationship that is such a blessing to those VEJ works to bless. It is so gratifying to have a strong partner who sees us fit to keep going with us. Everyone this touches is very, very grateful."
In particular, the Adrian Dominican funds will support VEJ's programs that address hunger, nutrition, and self-sufficiency in Detroit's Brightmoor and Old Redford. VEJ's Hope House & Gardens stands on the border between those two neighborhoods.
"The Adrian Dominican grant will expand and improve our Community Meals and Organic Sustainable Gardening programs at Hope House & Gardens," said Irwin. "Through those programs, we are trying to take on hunger by helping people become 'food sovereign' and self-sufficient in terms of what they eat and what they feed their families. It just so happens that the 'food sovereignty' we teach is also good for the environment and personal health."
The Adrian Dominican Sisters are a congregation of more than 600 vowed women and 200 associates ministering in 22 states and four countries. The Sisters their ministries on education, health care, pastoral and retreat ministry, the arts, social work, ecology, and peace and justice advocacy. Their vision is to "seek truth, make peace, reverence life."
Learn more about the Adrian Dominican Sisters here.