Lessening Impact

Posted: 6/19/2015

All Catholics are called by the social teaching of the Church to care for and protect God’s creation. Glenmary missioners, coworkers and mission members are no exception. Raising awareness and taking steps to lessen impact on the environment are goals in Glenmary’s efforts to carry out good stewardship of creation.

Brother Joe SteenBy Margaret Gabriel

Care for God’s creation is close to the hearts of missioners and coworkers who carry out Glenmary’s mission and ministry. Often, that care is shown not so much with words as with actions.

The call to care for God’s world “is part and parcel of our faith,” says Father Neil Pezzulo. Father Neil serves as first vice president of Glenmary’s Executive Council and as a member of the society’s Environmental Committee. The committee works to help missioners, coworkers and members of mission communities become more aware of environmental concerns and take steps to minimize impact on the planet.

In addition, the committee is helping guide environmentally friendly programs at Glenmary’s Headquarters and residence in Cincinnati, which include a successful recycling program and new composting and community garden projects this summer.

Catholics are taught—through the Church’s social teaching—to show respect for the Creator by their stewardship of creation. “The environment is not a commodity to be used up,” Father Neil says. “It’s important to protect and preserve an environment that welcomes, one that makes it possible for all people to access land, water and food.”

For example, he travels extensively in his role as first vice president, so he drives a car that gets 46 miles per gallon of gasoline. “We make decisions based on our values, and you can see where a person’s heart is based on those decisions.”

Kathy O’Brien made such a decision after she arrived in Erwin, Tenn., to serve as the pastoral associate for St. Michael the Archangel mission. She became aware that mission members and community residents were concerned about the lack of available recycling options and about other environmental issues they felt were impacting their community.

In response, she called a meeting and facilitated a brainstorming session for those interested— which resulted in the formation of “Keeping the Valley Beautiful,” a nonprofit group that includes both St. Michael members and people from the larger community.

“Unicoi County is known as ‘The Valley Beautiful,’” Kathy says, and the group wanted to live up to that description.

On a Saturday in April, in the Chestoa Recreation Area near Erwin, group members collected 22 bags of trash, four tires, seven bags of recyclables and several bags of invasive plant species pulled by the roots. The project served a twofold purpose: to rid the area of garbage, and to serve as a witness to community members of the value of a trash-free environment.

The group also sponsored a presentation of The Council of the Creatures: A Musical to celebrate Earth Day 2014, and invited Unicoi County residents to the production. The work of Nashville jazz musicians Tammy and Jamey Whiting, the play features seven woodland creatures who speak about the human destruction of God’s good earth and the animals’ suffering as a result.

The musical was well received by its audience, which also received educational flyers that focused on proper ways to dispose of recyclable materials.

“We don’t have curbside recycling here, but we have areas where people can take their recyclables,” says Kathy. “These areas don’t accept everything, though, so we encourage people to take some items to the recycling center in Johnson City, about 20 minutes away.”

While the group in Erwin works to keep their valley beautiful, the Glenmary Group Volunteer Program in Grainger County, Tenn., is planning to create an environmentally friendly structure where volunteers can stay while participating in the mission immersion experience.

“We need to house more volunteers at our location on Joppa Mountain,” says Joe Grosek, manager of this volunteer program site and chair of Glenmary’s Environmental Committee. That need led to the design of an environmentally friendly structure that will have double framing to allow twice the amount of insulation to be used, aiding in both heating and cooling.

Joe would also like to use LED (light-emitting diode) lighting throughout the building and will install south-facing windows in order to capture solar energy.

“I really want to build something that looks like a ‘normal’ house,” Joe says. “An environmentally friendly house doesn’t have to look like a hut.”

The building will also be practical, he says. While the initial cost of construction will be a bit higher than with a conventional approach, energy-conserving features are projected to save utility money in the long run. And the house will be more salable when it’s time for Glenmary to move on “because, after all,” says Joe, “we are a missionary society!”

Generally, Father Neil says, the people Glenmary serves live in rural areas and are more closely tied to air, land and water. So, the effort to preserve all those natural resources is an important part of serving residents of the mission regions.

That connection between people and creation is expected to be one of the ecological issues explored in Pope Francis’ encyclical (a letter sent to the entire Church) set to be released sometime in early summer. According to reports, Vatican sources say the encyclical’s main themes will be based on the duty to protect God’s creation, sustainable development and human ecology.

Glenmary priests, brothers and coworkers will continue working—as they have for more than 75 years—to encourage respect for the environment and sustainable practices in mission areas they serve. And they’ll continue to raise awareness of environmental injustices taking place in mission areas and beyond.

“It’s about showing respect and appreciation for what God has created through the gift of nature,” Kathy says, “and finding ways to lessen our impact on the world around us.”

This article first appeared in the Summer 2015 Glenmary Challenge.