Celebrity chef, interfaith activist, and "Triple Bottom Line" business owner Amanda Saab to headline VEJ Earth Day Interfaith Prayer Breakfast in 2020
Celebrity chef, interfaith activist, and "Triple Bottom Line" business owner Amanda Saab will headline VEJ's Second Annual Interfaith Prayer Breakfast on Earth Day (April 22) 2020.
"Amanda walks the Earth justice talk and she's blazing trails for others to do the same," said VEJ executive director BT Irwin. "Her story and her wisdom will inspire everyone in the room on Earth Day 2020.
Saab first gained national fame as a contestant on Fox's Masterchef in 2015. She was the first contestant to wear the hijab--a traditional headscarf for Muslim women--on a primetime national cooking competition show. In 2017, Amanda and her husband, Hussein, started Dinner With Your Muslim Neighbor to help non-Muslims build familiarity, friendships, and understanding with their Muslim neighbors. In 2018, she opened Butter Bear Shop, a "Triple Bottom Line" business in Livonia, Michigan.
Last year, VEJ hosted its first Interfaith Prayer Breakfast on the National Day of Prayer (May 2) because Earth Day (April 22) fell on the day after Easter. This year, the event will move to Earth Day, Wednesday, April 22, which is also the 50th anniversary of the first Earth Day in 1972. Details such as location and ticket prices will be announced in January 2020.
Before you get into reading the blog post, here is VEJ's 2019 Report and 2020 Outlook. If you've been part of us in the past or you're thinking about being part of us in the future, please read it to get a good grasp on what VEJ is all about and how we're doing our work.
As you guessed from the headline, this is a blog post about the year we are about to end and the year we are about to start.
By "we" I mean you and me and us and everyone you know and don't know.
We're all in this together.
President John F. Kennedy said: "In the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children's future. And we are all mortal."
He said these words in a speech about the threat of nuclear war. He called upon his listeners to think twice about their attitudes toward America's enemy: The Soviet Union. President Kennedy dismissed those who held the belief that the Russians were immoral people beyond hope of being any good. He reminded his listeners that it would take the people of the Soviet Union--just as much as it would take the people of the United States--to keep the world from destroying itself with nuclear weapons. In the quote above, he reminded his listeners of the humanity common to both Americans and Soviets.
In sum, Kennedy was saying: We're all in this together.
This morning on the walk to school, my seven-year old told me he was going to play a prank on a girl in his first grade class.
I asked him if she is a friend of his and if this is the kind of thing they do as friends.
He said: "No. She's mean to me."
"So, you're going to be mean back? Is that your plan?" I asked.
He paused for a long time. Then he said, sheepishly: "Dad, she's really beautiful."
I asked him if he ever told her she is pretty. To be honest, as a 44-year old male living and working in the #MeToo world, I wasn't sure this was the right thing to say. But, a dad has to grasp for teachable moments where he can get them.
He said: "No."
Then I asked him: "Daniel, who chooses for you whether you're kind or not kind to someone else? Who makes that choice?"
He started in on an excuse.
I backed up and asked: "Daniel, have you ever given this girl a reason to be mean to you? How do you treat her? How do act whenever she's around?"
He admitted that the girl is a good student who pays attention in class. My son has his share of getting in trouble for cutting up. He's a class clown. I asked Daniel if maybe this girl didn't like him because she was trying to do her schoolwork while he and his buddies were trying to get out of doing theirs.
He admitted that could be the case.
Then I said to him: "Daniel, the only person who can choose how you act and feel and think is you. Nobody can make you choose to be mean to them by being mean to you first. You always have the power to choose friendship and kindness. And, you know what? If you choose to be friendly and kind--even when someone is mean to you--I bet you most people will end up being friends with you. They'll want to help you and support you the way you help and support them."
We've been talking a lot about attitudes and choices lately and I think he kind of got it. We made a plan: He should pay this girl a compliment. Maybe he could tell her he likes the way she does her work in class.
It's a start.
Friends, I'm not going to choose to go along with the meanness in our country and in our world right now. I'm not going to choose to see people who disagree with me or who oppose me as bad people or stupid people.
And that goes for VEJ, too, as long as I'm leading us.
We're going to see people as people. We're going to choose to treat them as human beings who are just as frustrated and hopeful and scared as we may be.
Because it's the right thing to do.
And because climate change is at least as big a threat to humanity as nuclear war. And if you believe President Kennedy when he said it would take Americans and Russians working together to avoid a nuclear apocalypse, then you have to believe it will take people from every walk of life to avoid a climate apocalypse.
So, our 2020 theme at VEJ is going to be We're All In This Together.
VEJ is going to work to create common ground and safe spaces for people to come together from all walks of life. We're going to offer information (training) and inspiration (real-life stories) that show how people from different backgrounds can work together for Earth justice. As the year goes on, we hope to have more nitty-gritty conversations that bring together people who, at first might seem like opponents, but may turn out to be allies in the Earth justice movement.
Let's talk about the elephant in the room. Yes, this direction and this theme are our response to the political climate in the United States.
I'm going to put it in black and white for the record: We are not going to be part of the noise pollution coming from the national elections in 2020. For one, as a 501c3, VEJ can neither campaign for, nor endorse, any political figure, party, or platform. We are an apolitical organization by law.
However, we will not act like the election is not happening. My hunch is that most people in this country will be discouraged, disgusted, exhausted, and feeling a loss of hope. I believe that about people on both sides of the political divide.
So, we want to offer another way. A better way. We want to not only show that it is possible for people to come together for Earth justice, but that some of the best Earth justice work can come from allies who used to think of each other as opponents. We want to give people the know-how, the relationships, and the tools they need to put it into practice in their own communities and lives.
This is what I mean when I call VEJ a "pebble in the pond."
Look, we have a choice to react or respond.
React, and we get more of the same. React, and we ensure that Earth justice will be as elusive as ever as we isolate ourselves more and more.
But if we respond--that is, we lead in compassion, grace, humility, kindness, and love for all--we have a chance. We have a chance to gather around us a plurality of people who are able, ready, and willing to work together for Earth justice.
We're all in this together.
I believe this. Do you?
Thanks to a generous grant from the Father Clement H. Kern Foundation, VEJ's Hope House & Gardens will become home to a new Bees in the D hive in 2020, the first in Brightmoor/Old Redford.
"It's been a wish of ours to install a Bees in the D hive at Hope House & Gardens," said VEJ executive director BT Irwin. "Our thanks to the Father Clement H. Kern Foundation are only just beginning."
Bees in the D is an award-winning, nationally-recognized nonprofit organization "whose mission is to create a cooperative effort between residents, schools, organizations and businesses in the city of Detroit and southeast Michigan to contribute to both the health of honey bee colonies and the education of their importance to our environment."
Bees in the D manages 9 million honey bees at 160 hives at 50 locations throughout southeast Michigan. In addition to managing the hives, Bees in the D offers education, training, and volunteer programs for neighbors and students.
"Just having the hive at Hope House & Gardens is going to increase crop yield and the natural beauty of our garden," said Irwin. "But more important, it will benefit every flower and fruit and vegetable garden within two to three miles."
Irwin said that classes, demonstrations, and training for aspiring beekeepers will be part of the Bees in the D program at Hope House & Gardens. In a year or two, it may even be possible for VEJ to make and sell its own honey at local farmer's markets.
Watch for more information about VEJ's partnership with Bees in the D in early 2020.
Pollinators are animals, like bees, that help plants make fruit or seeds. They do this by moving pollen from one part of the flower or plant to another. The more pollinators, the more flowers and fruit.
Oakland University recently found in a study that VEJ has one of metro Detroit's strongest gardens for supporting pollinators.
Over the course of a growing season, researchers from the university observed and recorded pollinator populations and varieties at 15 gardens and small farms in metro Detroit. Their study found that VEJ's Hope House & Gardens supported the greatest number of wild bees and second greatest number of all kinds of pollinators.
"This goes to show that sometimes you make a difference in ways you don't expect or plan for," said VEJ executive director BT Irwin. "Whatever you give the Earth, the Earth gives back a hundred times more."
The study took place in 2017. Since then, VEJ has installed even more flowers and growth that pollinators like. With the news that Hope House & Gardens will get its own Bees in the D hive in 2020, VEJ will grow its contributions to Detroit's ecology even more.
"When most people think of a garden, they think of how many people it can feed," said Irwin. "But a garden is a lot more than just food. It's beauty and tranquility. It's therapy. It's a source of beauty and life way, way beyond its borders. We're so grateful that VEJ's little garden is helping gardens and plant life and kitchen tables all over our neighborhood."
VEJ's garden season is still going strong and you can be part of it:
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.