Auburn and The BTS Center: Spiritual Ecology for Spiritual Leaders

Over four days this June, Auburn and The BTS Center will host a multifaith group of leaders of faith and moral courage in Portland, Maine, for Spiritual Ecology for Spiritual Leaders.

Participants, mostly from around Maine, will experience a time of deliberate engagement with each other, with the Earth, and with stories of our collective spiritual ecology. Dr. Keisha E. McKenzie, senior vice president of programs, and Matt J. Deen, associate director of institutional partnerships and pastor of a small rural congregation, share their hopes for the gathering.

Keisha: Matt, in addition to your work at Auburn, you also work with climate justice and climate resiliency activists. There’s a term I’ve heard you use: ecological grief. What is that? Why is this the time for spiritual leaders to build relationships?

Matt: I use ecological grief to refer to the feelings of loss that come from knowing the impacts of the many overlapping ecological crises we’re experiencing—as individuals and as a collective. Lately, I’ve been using the term “ecological emotions” in order to capture the fuller range of feelings folks have in response to our changing ecosystems—emotions like anxiety, anger, and confusion, as well as grief.

Really the right time for us to build ecological consciousness and connect as people of faith and moral courage was 30 years ago, but the next best time is right now. Right now we’re witnessing and experiencing ecological breakdown and resulting catastrophes, the likes of which our species has never before encountered.

As a pastor, this Spiritual Ecology for Spiritual Leaders gathering in June represents an incredible opportunity for a diverse group of spiritual leaders to find connection, resources, and a clearer sense of what we as spiritual leaders can offer this moment from our own traditions.

Keisha: We’re fortunate to have the partnership of The BTS Center in holding this particular gathering: The BTS Center recently refocused their work on cultivating both transformative leadership and ecological imagination. What do you think spirit-rooted people have to offer the environmental, climate, ecological movements at this time?

Matt: I think the greatest asset spiritual leaders bring to these movements is their unshakeable commitment to a vision of a world that has never existed. Their work is informed by a deep sense of time and mission that transcends present accounts of what is possible or feasible and, relatedly, that enables them to sit better with uncertainty and indeterminacy. And their traditions, myths, and sacred texts inspire them to make the most of every possibility for connection, liberation, and collective thriving.
What are you looking forward to, Keisha?

Keisha: I’m curious about the spiritual wisdom and grounded perspective participants will be bringing with them because of their concern and care for the world we’re part of. Sometimes our work at Auburn has led us to focus on how to mobilize people of faith in public acts of justice—and that certainly has its place, but mobilizing folks is not what this gathering is all about.

I’m looking forward to spending time with leaders who want to draw up from their traditions the wisdom that helps us better metabolize the realities of this moment, both the ecological urgency that faith and community leaders have to shepherd members through facing and the interconnection that’s also always been true and real.

And I’m looking forward to being grounded in this location again: I spent a short time in Penobscot territory about 7 years ago and hope that we’ll be able to help reinforce local leaders’ relationships with members of the Wabanaki Alliance through this experience.

Matt, what’s something you’d recommend people read or listen to that would be a good way to understand the kind of wisdom we’ll be learning from in June?

Matt: I have been reading a really helpful resource called Required Reading: Climate Justice, Adaptation and Investing in Indigenous Power, which was curated, edited, and produced by the NDN Collective Climate Justice Campaign. This mighty little volume does an impressive job of outlining the myriad environmental problems and the white settler-colonial myths and worldviews that led to them, and it suggests a realistic, constructive path forward.

I have also been relishing a beautiful series called Kinship: Belonging in a World of Relations, co-edited by Robin Wall Kimmerer, among others, and published by the Center for Humans and Nature. Each of the five books in this series contain a powerful and artful assortment of writings—spanning poetry, essays, stories, interviews, and more—that speak beautifully about the many ways we are entangled with the cosmos through the places and relationships that ground and sustain our lives.

Keisha: Rev. Nicole Diroff and Aram Mitchell at The BTS Center have recommended Spiritual Ecology: The Cry of the Earth and so I’m going to pick it up.

A few weeks ago I started reading Dr. Jessica Hernandez’ recent book, Fresh Banana Leaves: Healing Indigenous Landscapes through Indigenous Science. Through the perspectives of Indigenous peoples from this hemisphere, the book explores questions about migration, displacement, and our relationships with our ecosystems and environments.

So many of us have been living or working outside of our customary places over the last two pandemic years, and the conditions for worship, labor, community relations, and justice organizing have all been affected by that. It feels especially important that spiritual leaders have space where we can query and reshape our sense of place, relationship, and responsibility.



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