Interfaith Campaign Targets Issue of Environmental 'Sin'

TIMES RELIGION WRITER

Moved by a Greek Orthodox patriarch's declaration that environmental abuse is "sin," an interfaith group of Christians, Jews and Native Americans this week stepped up efforts in the religious defense of the natural world.

A week before a major international conference in Kyoto, Japan, to approve a climate change treaty, about 140 representatives of religious, environmental and scientific groups throughout Southern California laid the groundwork for a new interfaith coalition on the environment.

The treaty will seek to reduce worldwide emissions of carbon dioxide and other gases that cause climate changes. The local group said the issue would be one of its first priorities in taking a more active role in "caring for creation."

"The time for indifference has expired," said Jim Great Elk Waters, a Native American spiritual leader and author from Lakewood. "[The environment] is everyone's problem. It is everyone's responsibility.

"It is now time for each of us to join in the restoration of God's creation," he told the joint meeting of the Southern California Ecumenical Council and the Interfaith Council for the United Nations at the Hollywood Women's Club.

Two weeks ago, His All Holiness Bartholomew I, the spiritual leader of 300 million Orthodox Christians worldwide, declared environmental degradation sinful and urged increased activism for environmental causes during a Santa Barbara visit.

Bartholomew's remarks were believed to mark the first time that a major international religious figure explicitly linked environmental problems with sinful behavior. At the time, environmental activists, as well as Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt and Sierra Club Executive Director Carl Pope, said that Bartholomew's speech would go down as a historic turning point in religion's response to the ecological crisis.

Religious leaders in Los Angeles were not the only ones making plans to follow Bartholomew's lead.

"It's amazing what has happened since the Santa Barbara conference," said Father Constantine Zozos, pastor at St. Barbara Greek Orthodox Church.

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He said that the patriarch has since been invited to address other groups on the issue, including a 1999 environmental conference in Mexico. At the national level, Zozos said the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America is planning follow-ups, including religious environmental education programs.

"People are starting to sense that it's the lifestyle that we need to change and redirect, everyone from adults to children," Zozos said.

Paul Gorman, executive director of the National Religious Partnership for the Environment, said that exhortations at the national or denominational level will be only marginally effective unless local congregations become actively involved in across-the-board efforts such as recycling and generally pursuing less wasteful lifestyles.

Saran Kirschbaum of the Southern California Committee on Environment and Jewish Life echoed those sentiments. "If the environment is not part of the religious agenda, we will not have a chance to save it," she said.

"Each one of us has to be a model. We have to live our lives the way we've talked it."

The Sunday night gathering included Jews, Buddhists, Native Americans and Hindus. But most were Christians, including Greek Orthodox, United Methodists, Episcopalians, evangelicals, Lutherans, Presbyterians and Disciples of Christ. Also present were several members of environmental groups, including Sierra Club Director Chad Hanson, and David Orr of Earth Island Institute's John Muir Project.

"This is a beginning," said the Rev. Peter Moore-Kochlacs of the ecology task force of the Southern California Ecumenical Council.

In the keynote address, Jim Birakos, a Greek Orthodox and former official of the South Coast Air Quality Management District, said he sat through thousands of public hearings on environmental issues without any mention of God.

"We were always afraid to use the word 'God' or 'God's creation,' " Birakos said. "I never once heard someone say it's got to be done because it's protecting God's creation," he said.

Moore-Kochlacs, a United Methodist clergyman, said the church has also been remiss. "For 2000 years, seminarians have not been trained in caring for God's creation," he said. "But the Bible is filled with biocentric statements in caring for creation."

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