Reinhabiting Bioregional Faith and Practice
Why this book: When asked, why this book? Our response was, because we need it. Ched Myers’ compilation brings together the voices of 16 eco-justice leaders, all under the age of 40, who have lived their entire lives “under the shadow of climate crisis” (pg.1). For this reason, their perspective is invaluable to the future of the Church. These young leaders are responding faithfully to the greatest social and environmental crises of our time, to what Myers’ calls “a watershed moment of crisis” (pg. 2), and they are doing so from a bioregional standpoint. In other words, they are working and writing from specific places––places that they know, love, and understand. They are digging their heels into real problems that exist in real spaces, and they are creating real change through dedicated discipleship. It is imperative that we listen to their witness.
What is watershed discipleship: Watershed discipleship is a framework for addressing social and environmental ills by orienting our focus on such issues locally. It can be difficult to know how to address concerns of racism, climate change, mass species extinction, or poverty when they remain in the abstract. When presented as abstractions, these concerns feel overwhelming, and adequately addressing them can seem impossible. But something changes when we bring the problem “home,” and look at the concern through a bioregional lens. When we ask ourselves how and where structural racism exists in our own communities, in our own watersheds, we can begin to address the larger societal problem. The same is true for issues of environmental degradation. If we consider what environmental ills exist within our watersheds, and we address those local concerns, we can begin to have an impact on the larger concerns of global climate change, mass extinction; the list goes on and on. The takeaway message here is that paradigm shifts occur one watershed at a time. When we become disciples of our watersheds, we begin to change the narrative from one of hopelessness, death, and desecration, to one of hope, life, and possibility. Practicing watershed discipleship helps us love our neighbors, human and otherwise, in real and tangible ways––all while bringing us into closer communion with God, and God’s world.
How to Lead Discussion: It’s true, this isn’t the most straightforward Sunday School or book study text. With that in mind, here are some suggestions for leading discussion:
1) Don’t assign the whole book. Instead, pick a few chapters to lead your group through. We have chosen chapters 4, 6, 7, and the introduction. But given differences in location and congregational context, you may opt to substitute one or more chapters.
2) A word on the introduction… The introduction to this text is somewhat academic, and groups unfamiliar with climate justice or environmental activism may find its terminology frustrating. We have assigned it because it outlines the text, and really does have some great concepts to ponder! But if you feel like your group might become overwhelmed, here is our suggestion: read the introduction yourself and take notes. Then, in your first group meeting, view a video clip (or listen to a podcast) that encapsulates the main points of Myers’ introduction as you saw them. Group members can respond to the clip/podcast, and you can tie the introductory chapter into discussion. Consider watersheddisciplsehip.org for resources. If you choose this option, edit the questions for discussion as you see fit.
3) If you teach 4 chapters, meet 5 weeks. On your fifth meeting, after you have read the chapters you wish to read, meet to discuss plans for action--for bringing what you have learned into “the real.”
4) Focus on the important stuff. Don’t get bogged down by terminology. Instead, pay attention to main points and key concepts. Bring attention to particularly powerful quotes. And if need be, check out watersheddiscipleship.org for additional resources or clips to show your group. Don’t stress.
5) Get outside. If you’re teaching this class during a favorable season, meet outdoors. Enjoy the world God created. Get to know your watershed by spending time in it.
6) Make use of visual aids. During your study, have a print off of your watershed available to the group. It may also be helpful to do a bit of research regarding what plant and animal species call your watershed home, in addition to what environmental concerns are impacting your community. This is a helpful way to bring your reading into the room and make it tangible.
7) Recognize intersectionality. Though this particular study will focus heavily on environmental concerns and justice issues, remember that the framework of watershed discipleship can be applied to any social justice concern. Additionally, it is important to remember that all environmental justice concerns have social justice applications and implications. If some of the members of your group are more passionate about social concerns than environmental ones (and even if they’re not!), be mindful of how to tie in connections and remind the group of this intersectionality.
***Another way to present this material could be through a weekend retreat on church grounds, at a local park, or on a camping trip. Activities could provide breaks from heavy conversation, while time spent in prayer and contemplation outdoors could provide space for individual growth. If you choose this option, pick and choose what you need from the book, and create your experience around that. Print off quotes for discussion and reflection. See what happens.
The Introduction (pg. 1-21)
Get to know each other: If you don’t know each other already, spend a few minutes with introductions. You may also want to ask participants to share where they are from or if they could name the watershed that they live in. If participants don’t know the name of their watershed, why do they think that’s the case? This could be a good moment to transition into an introduction of the text itself and the importance of place.
Introduce the text: What is the importance of this work? What is the hope of your group or congregation in reading it? You may choose to outline the text briefly, given the excitement level of your group or their comfort level with the material. Conversely, you may choose to watch a video clip (or listen to an introductory podcast from watersheddisciplsehip.org) at this point.
Potential questions for discussion:
1) What comes to mind when you consider the “watershed historical moment of crisis” discussed by Myers on page 2 of his introduction? Concerns from your own experience? Something you’ve seen on the news? How might, as Thomas Merton said, “Christian hope” address these crises when all other hope “stands frozen stiff before the face of the Unspeakable?” (pg. 3).
2) Read the quote on page 3 from James Speth. How do you feel hearing this? What do these words stir in you?
3) On page 4, Myers writes that though creation care and earth spirituality have gained ground across the country, they are not enough to address “the creation crisis” we now see. Do you agree? If yes, why do you think that’s the case? What more do we need to do?
4) What do you consider to be the importance of place and rootedness? Consider Myers’ quote on page 9, “...it is those who are most deeply rooted in their place who are most likely to sustain fierce, long-term resistance, even against great odds. This is because rooted people are fighting for a way of life, and not just against one.”
5) “We won’t save places we don’t love, we can’t love places we don’t know, and we don’t know places we haven’t learned” (pg. 16). Reflect as a group on this sentence. How can we learn our places? How does the group feel about Myers’ suggestion of watershed mapping?
Homework: Read next week’s chapter. Also, pay close attention to your surroundings this week. Notice the geography surrounding your home. Notice the kinds of birds that you see outside your window or at your local park. If you have lived in the area for a significant amount of time, look around you to see what has changed in both human and natural communities. Do you find yourself experiencing “solastalgia” (pg. 9)?
You may choose to bring a glass or bowl of water into the space that you meet with your group. Place the water in a central space, as a way to remain focused on the presence of water in and around us, and the gift of water in our lives.
Begin with check-ins: Go around the circle and allow everyone to say a brief word about the chapter and how it resonated with them. In one sentence, what is something that surprised or made an impression on them? Something that they loved? Something that concerned them? Make sure to provide time for introductions if any new members have joined the group.
Potential questions for discussion:
1) This chapter reminds us that when we read the stories of Jesus, we encounter the geography of his roots… “these place names were written and remembered because they matter” (pg. 78). Our author goes on to note that we likely know the names of the places through which Jesus traveled and lived, far better than our own. Reflect on this as a group.
2) 70% of our body is made up of water. The water that flows through the creeks, rivers, ditches, and storm drains of our watershed, miraculously, becomes the majority part of us (pg. 79). Think of specific places in your watershed in which water collects or moves. Then, think about the water that flows from your faucet, and through your veins… How does this change our perceptions of the sacredness of water? Or does it?
3) Wylie-Kellerman writes of a family in El Salvador who drinks only Coca-Cola because clean water is not accessible (pg. 77). She writes of Palestinian families without access to water because of walls built by the Israeli occupation forces “that twist and turn according to water access” (pg. 78). Finally, she writes of the “occupation” of Detroit (pg. 79). In Detroit, the water of anyone 60 days late on their water bill ($150 or more) is being turned off without warning (pg. 80). 45% of Detroiters, the same number of those in poverty, could have to live without running water (pg. 80). How do you respond to this information emotionally? What does/did it make you think about?
4) “Jesus was intimately connected to water, and critical of the empirical economy that sought to control it” (pg. 78). We know from this chapter that the empirical economy is still controlling and commodifying water… How should we respond as people of faith? What injustices are in need of attention in our watershed?
Baptism Activity: On page 84 of this chapter, Wylie-Kellerman remembers her father, the pastor at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Detroit, who said, “...Baptism is the way into the church. But it is also the way out into the world.” Take a moment to read the story of Jesus’ baptism in Mark 1:9-11. Then, distribute paper, pens, and markers to your group. During the last 10 minutes of class, allow the group to think about this story within their own watershed context. If they were getting baptized into a particular place, a particular watershed, who would be their John the Baptist? What bird might represent the Holy Spirit? What river would they be dunked in? How would it feel? The group may choose to write or draw their answers to these questions. Then, have individuals share their pictures (or written answers) with a partner.