It's relatively easy, isn't it, to love things whose beauty can't be denied — snowcapped mountains, red rock canyons, oceans that sparkle and dance and grip the horizon.
Illinois has none of those things. So it takes a discerning eye and an open heart to fall in deep, respectful, adoring love with its natural wonders. Lucky for Illinois — and its inhabitants — Clare Butterfield has both.
"There's a subtlety in the landscape of light and color and movement and season and gradual change that is so restful and lovely and patient," says Butterfield, executive director of the nonprofit Faith in Place. "There's this amazing fertility here because of the glaciers, which by themselves are about patience and things taking a long time.
"I love this place," she says quietly. "I love the rivers. I love the way the land rolls a little bit when there's a river nearby."
In 1999, Butterfield, a Unitarian Universalist minister, co-founded Faith in Place as a way to protect the objects of her affection and, on a more global scale, direct people of all faiths to practice what she believes to be their two great responsibilities: "to love one another and to care for the creation that sustains all life."
Her organization has led more than 900 congregations — Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Sikh, Zoroastrian, Baha'i — to integrate environmentalism into their teachings and actions. Faith in Place helped Bridgeview's Mosque Foundation become the nation's first solar-powered mosque, partnered with Urbana's St. Matthew Lutheran Church to convert four acres into a community farm and worked with Evanston's Jewish Reconstructionist Congregation to build a "green" synagogue — the first house of worship in the world to get LEED certification.
"We try to be your environmental concierge," Butterfield, 51, says with a laugh.
In the process, she has found her love to be both deepened and gracefully returned.
"I went out for place," she says, "and I got people. And that's a wonderful gift."
Q: What has this work done for your worldview?
It helps you see that there are commonalities and differences and there are wonderful people everywhere and there are a few stinkers everywhere and it's got very little to do with what group they belong to. It takes apart your ability to generalize, and that's a really frustrating and useful thing.
Q: What's your greatest attribute?
A: Curiosity. I'm sustained because I'm really interested in what happens next, so even when things aren't especially pleasant they remain interesting. Curiosity drives a lot of what I do at Faith in Place because it's allowed me to interact with people whom I wouldn't otherwise have known, in places I wouldn't otherwise have gone, and all of that experience has been rewarding. People are great, it turns out.
Q: Your biggest fault?
A: I have too many faults to figure out which one is the biggest, and if I were sure of it I probably wouldn't print it in a newspaper.
Q: Your greatest possession?
A: Having gone through some ups and downs economically in life, I know that it's possible to walk away from any possession, and I try to practice a certain detachment with regard to things. But if the house were on fire and the living were safe, I'd grab my children's baby books.
Q: What's the best lesson from your father or mother?
A: My father planted 9,000 trees. I love saying that because it sounds so crazy. The obvious lesson there is to love trees. The less obvious one is to not be afraid to do big things, and to think long-term about them — trees being a long-term proposition. You'll never know which thing you did turned out to be the one that made a difference for someone.
Q: Who's your living hero?
A: We have several thousand people in our database, and they're ordinary people from all walks of life and all over the state. Some of them are between jobs right now, so they're spending extra time volunteering at their congregations. Some of them work 50 hours a week and then get up on the weekend and teach Sunday School, or chair the Green Team, or organize the work party to start the vegetable garden where their congregation will grow fresh vegetables for the food pantry. They just get up every day and do what they can to make the world better, and to be kind to each other. In our celebrity culture these people don't count as heroes, but they're mine.
What's your biggest mistake?
A: I've wasted a lot of energy over the course of my life on anxiety over things I did not control and couldn't change. Anxiety is an attempt to control the future, and it robs one of the present experience. I still have work to do on this.
Q: Your professional mantra, in fewer than 10 words?
A: Don't panic.