Seven religious leaders climbed out of their vehicles on a recent weekday and scattered on foot across Whitewater Canyon northwest of Palm Springs. They were looking for clues to the character of the prophets said to have used the wilderness as a gateway to spiritual awakenings.
It didn't take long for members of the newly formed Desert Stewardship Project, an interfaith coalition dedicated to protecting the vast expanses of arid California, to find what they were seeking.
Moses met the Lord in the form of a burning bush on a mountain in the Sinai desert. Jesus prayed in the desert for 40 days before beginning his ministry. The prophet Muhammad meditated in a cave on the desert mountain of Hira, where the Angel Gabriel recited the Koran to him.
Gazing across a broad, sandy gulch where the Whitewater River carried its cargo of silt and snowmelt past fortress-like sandstone walls, Petra Mallais-Sternberg, pastor of the First Congregational United Church of Christ in San Bernardino, said, "The basic elements of my faith are all around us.
"I see flowing baptismal waters, and boulders that stand for the cornerstones of my faith," she said. Pointing toward a gentle slope above the riverbed edged with willows and creosote, she said, "They are fruits of the earth."
Fatima Alrahem, 27, of the Muslim Student Assn. at Cal State San Bernardino, said she was reminded of the ways that "Islam, which was born in the barren Arabian deserts, encourages us to be mindful of the fragile environment, and to take special care of our life-giving rivers."
Jim Burklo, associate dean of the office of religious life at USC and a project leader, was along on the field trip too. "I feel a sense of humility and an understanding that the Earth has a right to exist apart from us," he said.
The coalition's members — churches, synagogues, mosques and cultural organizations mainly in the Inland Empire — are linked by the spiritual connections between their local desert landscapes and the parched sacred grounds that have nurtured some of the world's great religions.
Their mission is to spur more congregations to take on issues affecting desert lands, vistas and waterways and help provide what Burklo described as "a new dimension and depth" to the conversations about them. The areas of interest include alternative energy development, mining, recreation, military exercises, transportation corridors and proposed national monuments.
Although the project is focused on the deserts of San Bernardino, Riverside and Imperial counties, Burklo said it reflects a growing interest in environmentalism among religious groups in California and across the nation.
For example, the Orange County Interfaith Coalition for the Environment urges congregations to "be partners in restoring and sustaining creation." Interfaith Power & Light, which is based in San Francisco, is a self-described "religious response to global warming," dedicated to helping churches make their buildings and premises more environmentally friendly. In West Virginia, Christians for the Mountains was formed to take on environmental causes, including coal mining that involves the removal of mountain tops.
"Our hope is to educate and empower local congregations to respond to issues in their own communities," Desert Stewardship Project coordinator Jane Boutwell said. Possible forms of action include letter-writing campaigns, prayer meetings and excursions into the desert.
Of particular concern to project members is Whitewater Canyon, a wildlife corridor that provides a link between the San Bernardino and San Jacinto mountains. Several described it as a sacred space that offers tranquility and spiritual insights.
The canyon is a candidate for special protection under the California Desert Protection Act proposed by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-California), which would bar development on more than a million acres.
Another concern for the project is the proliferation of solar and wind energy farms. The group does not oppose such development but encourages more consideration of the environment in such land use decisions. Last year alone, federal land authorities approved alternative energy facilities on more than 15,000 acres of California desert.
Rabbi Michael Lotker, 63, a physicist whose former career included developing wind energy facilities across the Coachella Valley and the Mojave Desert, is not a member of the project, but lauded its goals — up to a point.
"If the purpose of this group is to remind us of our spiritual responsibilities and the origins of our spiritual insight in desert settings, that is a useful thing to do," Lotker said. "But feeding and clothing people, and giving them jobs, is also a spiritual responsibility.
"In other words, responsible use of our precious resources always involves tradeoffs," he said.
Burklo does not argue with any of that.
"All we are trying to do is raise awareness and add a conscience to ongoing discussions," he said. "That, we hope, will motivate religious communities to act as they see fit."