Science and Faith Groups Collaborate to Kick-Start Environmental Services Movement
On a sunny day in November 2023, representatives of ten environmentally conscious organizations settled behind tables beneath a large tent on the grounds of a Maryland church. Their goal was to kick-start what they hope will be the first of many events that promote science and faith collaboration and raise humanity’s consciousness toward the natural environment.
Eco Fair 2023 was co-hosted by the Mid-Atlantic Community Church (MACC) Garden Ministry in Davidsonville, Maryland. The ministry takes its cue from Genesis 2:15, which says, “The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it” (emphasis added).
The other co-host of the event was the Hyo Jeong International Foundation for the Unity of the Sciences (HJIFUS), a nonprofit organization based in Washington, D.C. HJIFUS, which publishes the bimonthly online environmental magazine The Earth & I, devoted to researching and implementing strategies to mitigate global environmental challenges. Its focus is to spotlight and promote emerging eco-friendly science and technology, as well as to educate the public on how and why to take care of the natural world.
The MACC Garden Ministry was started by Gregg Jones, who is HJIFUS projects coordinator. Jones’ major partner in this ministry is Elmer Dengler, a MACC member who worked as an agroecologist with the US Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service for 31 years. Dengler worked throughout the US, caring for millions of acres of private land and encouraging farmers to adopt more sustainable practices. He now works nearby in Bowie, Maryland, undertaking projects to restore degraded public land.
“Working the land also means giving to others.”
MACC devotes a small portion of 55 acres to an organic “hoop” garden with raised beds that produces turnips, onions, sweet potatoes, kale, tomatoes, and other crops. “Working the land,” said Dengler, “also means giving to others.” In this spirit, the ministry has donated 1,200 pounds of its produce to two local food banks.
As a part of the Eco Fair, HJIFUS hosted a service project at the MACC garden for fifteen young adults. Members of the Garden Ministry team guided them to harvest sweet potatoes, construct a raised garden bed and fill it with soil, and spread wheelbarrow-loads of wood chips along the pathways and access road. “When we work in the garden with our hands in the outdoors,” Jones commented, “the Spirit of God can come in and penetrate each individual.”
Meanwhile, visitors at the tent were able to meet and network with each of the participating exhibitors:
The Master Gardeners of Anne Arundel County, an offshoot of the University of Maryland Extension agency. “We are trained to guide the community and educate them with sustainable practices, particularly in our area of Maryland that’s on the water,” said Clare Trainor.
GreenVest, a land-based developer of green infrastructure. “We see a lot of value in working with the community and talking with landowners and individuals who might have degraded environmental resources on their properties that GreenVest could evaluate and develop a solution for improving the ecological function of these natural resources,” said ecosystem restoration specialist Jack Turner.
Maryland Therapeutic Riding, of Crownsville Maryland, was represented by Jenny Ewald. She talked about the group’s mission to improve the quality of life of people with special needs by connecting humans and horses in a healing natural environment.
Crofton Village Garden Club. Jane McClanahan, one of the club members, noted, “We’re here to promote the understanding of our garden club, which is to promote beauty in Crofton [a nearby community] and to make the town more accessible to the beauty there. We plant cherry trees to shade the sidewalk and provide us with beauty that promotes well-being.”
Bowie Green Team, and its Pollinator Gardens Project. This is an effort started by Dengler, who also volunteers with the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center’s “Bee Lab.” Choosing plant species that attract honeybees and other pollinating insects, Dengler grows native plants from seed and then installs pollinator gardens around the area.
The Great Coffee Project. CEO Neil Kittleson said, “We’re here today to celebrate the sustainability of the Earth. The Great Coffee Project is founded on three principles: (1) sustainability, so none of our coffee has ever been touched by chemicals, (2) ethical sourcing, which means that all of our farmers are paid fairly, and (3) support of community organizations—20% of all online sales go back to the charity of your choice. So, we came out today to meet some people and serve some great coffee!”
New Hope Academy, a private pre-K-12 school in Landover Hills, Maryland. English teacher Stephen Gabb explained that New Hope Academy “is in the process of becoming a Green School and possibly putting up some solar panels. We have pioneered a garden project, very similar to the one here [at MACC], with raised beds in which we’ve grown radishes and snap peas. As a school, we want to be involved in the larger community.” The Green School program was founded in 1999 by the Maryland Association for Environment and Outdoor Education.
An interfaith group called the American Clergy Leadership Conference. Asked why an interfaith clergy organization would man a table at an environmental gathering, Rev. Susan Fefferman, the group’s Maryland director, said, “Because everybody needs to do their part to save the environment. We’ve been misusing Mother Earth—the creation that God gave us. And as responsible stewards of the Earth, we should support the Eco Fair.”
[M]any seminaries [are] inaugurating garden ministries, where they encourage clergy to have big gardens and send the overflow to feed the needy in local neighborhoods.
She said she has heard of many seminaries inaugurating garden ministries, where they encourage clergy to have big gardens and send the overflow to feed the needy in local neighborhoods. Moreover, she said, “It’s healthy for young people as they grow up to learn a culture of taking care of the Earth.” Many of her group’s member churches have large vegetable gardens themselves. She cited the example of Bishop Vandy Kennedy of the Walker Mill Baptist Church in Capitol Heights, Maryland, who launched a huge garden project that got his whole congregation involved in gardening to feed disadvantaged community members. “So,” she said, “sustainable gardening is a natural outgrowth of being a child of God and being a good steward of what God has given us.”
Gardens and God—Three Pillars for Environmental Service
Jones remarked that one of the purposes of Eco Fair 2023 was to begin to uplift the consciousness of the faith community in this area of Maryland and ultimately the entirety of America—concerning the role of all citizens in stewarding the Earth. “As people who have a faith in God,” he said, “we know that only through God can we solve our issues. It’s critical that we bring our faith in God into how we interact with the environment, and thus how we can solve environmental crises.” Environmental service is a vehicle for both honoring God and bringing abundance to fellow human beings.
Specifically, he said, HJIFUS is interested in uplifting three principles, or “pillars” as he called them, in all of its activities: interdependence (exemplified in Eco Fair’s bringing together multiple organizations that resonate with similar issues), mutual prosperity (represented in sharing produce from the MACC Garden Ministry with the neighborhood), and universal values (exemplified in the Eco Fair’s emphasis on humanity’s mandate to care for the natural world around them).
Only a fundamental and radical spiritual transformation among human beings resulting in “environmental peace, where nature and humans live together in symbiosis and harmony,” can shift the world to a more hopeful trajectory.
This latter “pillar,” of universal values, was a major theme of the keynote talk by HJIFUS’s Executive Director Dr. Sun Jin Moon, who spoke to the Eco Fair participants in a MACC church assembly hall. She called everyone’s attention to the multiple environmental crises afflicting the Earth at this time: pollution of the air, water, and soil; loss of biodiversity; depletion of natural resources; degradation of ecosystems; and climate change—with the latter causing superstorms and floods, atmospheric rivers, severe droughts, deadly wildfires, heat waves, and melting of polar ice caps.
She noted that governmental policies and regulations are having only a limited, halting effect on these major problems, and efforts to date by governments, businesses, and civil society organizations are just Band-Aids. She said only a fundamental and radical spiritual transformation among human beings, resulting in “environmental peace, where nature and humans live together in symbiosis and harmony, and the internal wounds are healed and restored back to our Creator’s dream of peace,” can shift the world to a more hopeful trajectory.
Green at the Grassroots
It is very common for grassroots environmental groups to run into barriers that discourage cooperation on projects of mutual interest at the local, county, state, and national levels. Eco Fair 2023 broke down those silos in a small way by bringing various groups together, literally under one tent.
Understanding that it’s good to feed the body and delight the spirit, Eco Fair organizers invited everyone to gather in the MACC assembly hall for lunch. After the speakers had addressed the participants, the fair ended with a synchronized dance performance by a faith-based dance teen group from Washington DC. It was evident that participants were delighted in body, mind, and spirit by all that had transpired during the day.
*Robert R. Selle is a freelance writer and editor, based in Bowie, Maryland.