By Jill Drzewiecki Rios
At some point, true outdoor enthusiasts ask themselves an important question: What drives me to paddle a creek, to seek out an isolated patch of old-growth forest, or to cycle or run dozens of miles? Besides the health benefits, personal satisfaction, or endorphin boost, outdoor enthusiasts have an inherent knowledge that they are intrinsically bound to the natural world. In the highly churched Southeast and the heart of the Bible Belt, they may even admit that there is something spiritual about outdoor pursuits-perhaps even religious.
Outdoor sports and adventure travel carry overtly secular connotations. Perhaps this secular identification is even more pronounced in a bioregion where Christianity has been highly politicized and even co-opted. Like Roger Gottlieb, author of A Greener Faith, I am “tired of the presumption that fundamentalism owns all of religion and that our only choice is between repressive religion and spiritless secularism.” In the midst of an environmental crisis, the rich biodiversity or “fullness of Creation” that surrounds me (and often tempts me to skip church on Sunday) begs the question: what does my faith require of me? In a nation where over 70 percent of the population identifies themselves as Christian, and especially in the predominantly Christian Southeast, this question means examining my own faith journey and reconciling a conflicted history that extends into the present day.
The Southeast is distinctly different from northern Wisconsin where I grew up. I remember the loss I felt as a new subdivision eventually destroyed my childhood sledding hill. Regardless of the change of geography, this theme of destruction for “progress” continues to be present in my life, as the view from my favorite mountain hike is now scarred by another gratuitous housing development. Adding insult to injury, this new development-cleverly named after the natural beauty it destroys-boasts its closeness to nature and “expansive views” of the surrounding valley below where people who can never afford to live in gated communities will suffer the consequences of another steep slope development.
The view that defined my favorite hike will never be the same. It’s no longer safe to bike a bucolic route, because increased construction and SUV traffic crowd out those exercising the most energy-efficient mode of transport possible by humans. Sediment from another “dream home” clogs the waterways that cradle native trout and where we paddle. What do these ubiquitous themes of destruction require of outdoor enthusiasts who may also identify as people of faith?
As an environmentalist, outdoor enthusiast, and person of faith, these scenarios demand my response. If you can bike or run 100 miles, hike the distance of the Appalachian Trail, or paddle the hairiest creeks in the Southeast, you certainly have the wherewithal to plumb the depths of what communing with the outdoors means to you. If these experiences are something you regard as sacred, your response as part of a collective response may be appropriate. As outdoor enthusiasts and/or people of faith, we can’t deny the impact of the world’s faith communities. For better or for worse, we know the impact of a collective response by faith communities in the Southeast perhaps better than anywhere. From the civil rights movement to the outcome of the last presidential election, religion is a powerful force in this neck of the rapidly disappearing woods. Religious environmentalism is a powerful and widespread movement that is gaining momentum across the U.S.-especially in the Southeast. Learn about it, contemplate it on your next outdoor pursuit, and if the spirit moves you-get involved.
The Regeneration Project’s Interfaith Power and Light campaign is a great place to start, with state-specific projects throughout the Southeast: www.theregenerationproject.org. Or check out the Church Green Walkabout Program being developed by the Environmental Leadership Center of Warren Wilson College: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Jill Drzewiecki Rios has spent her adult life planning and teaching environmental, social justice, and language program in the US and Latin America. She is currently co-authoring a book on religious environmentalism in the US while preparing for a foray into motherhood.