Water and Faith

Can churches have an impact on how North Florida cares for its freshwaters?

Photo by Ray Carson – UF


By Eduardo E. Almaguer

About 800 years ago, a Catholic friar roamed the streets of Assisi, Italy, north of Rome. Francesco, as he was informally known, strongly believed that it was the human mission to care for the world God created. Every being, animal and several inanimate objects were “brother” or “sister” to him. His fervor for the care of nature, along with his ardent following of God’s teachings, earned him sainthood two years after his death. He became Saint Francis of Assisi. In 1979 he was declared the Patron Saint of Ecology.

Saint Francis rose to prominence one more time in 2013 when the current Pope of the Roman Catholic Church, Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina, chose ‘Francis’ as his papal name, the first to do so.

Francis, old and new, symbolizes the connection between religion and care for the Earth and its wildlife, land and water. Pope Francis last year released a sweeping encyclical on the environment that urged humanity “to work together in building our common home” to solve climate change, water and other ecological problems.

In the United States and locally in Gainesville, churches of many different denominations have heeded the call. When it comes to water, local churches have commonly worked to build wells and latrines in the developing world as part of an obligation to the poor. But as water pressures at home become more acute, some churches are finding ways to become involved here, too.

They can be effective because they’re in a unique position of power, says Gainesville resident and theoretical ecologist Bob Ulanowicz.

“Churches are in a privileged position to call for restraint and sacrifice,” Ulanowicz said. “The only way we as a society can survive the water crisis is to take on characteristics of the Franciscan of Assisi way of life.”

Tackling the water crisis is high on the docket for Gainesville’s Trinity United Methodist, 4,000-member church to the north of the city. The church has long sent members on water missions in other parts of the world. Because it also sits at the headwaters of Possum Creek, Jim McFarlane, a retired educator and member of the church, encourages his church and all other congregations to “adopt their watershed.”

“If every church is adopting their watershed, in the adoption process, you’re going to learn where this water flowing off your parking lot goes,” he said. “If you don’t learn that about your watershed, nobody will.”

McFarlane is particularly worried about increased nitrogen levels from septic tanks, sewer systems and fertilizer. Among other things, high levels of nitrogen can stimulate algae growth and suffocate life inside a body of water. Tainted runoff can makes its way to the aquifer beneath our feet that we rely on for drinking water.

McFarlane says it is critical to not wait for government to take action. He says congregants often already have the community’s trust, and aren’t seen as trying to make money by pushing a green agenda.

Physicist and educator Robert Davies of Utah State University addresses a Gainesville audience at the First United Methodist Church earlier this year. First United Methodist hosted the international climate change project Crossroads: Rising Tides that fuses music, art and science to spark public awareness and conversation on climate change, water and other pressing ecological issues. (photo by Ryan Jones – UF)

Lucinda Merritt, a local writer and secretary of the board at the nonprofit Ichetucknee Alliance, thinks government is needed, too, and that faith can be an important connection to the political system.

“Our water problems are, at their core, political problems, but these political problems are linked to faith and religion through the idea of water ethics,” she said. “In the same way that we all agree to follow traffic laws so we don’t kill each other on the road, we need to agree not to trash our sources of freshwater.”

The Ichetucknee Alliance aims to preserve, restore and protect the 5.5-mile stretch of the Ichetucknee River. However, in a largely rural area, Merritt has not yet been able to involve the rapidly growing green religion sphere with the organization.

“The Ichetucknee at one time had an ‘ambassador’ who tried to connect with churches in the springshed, but the only thing she accomplished was to get a couple of churches to re-institute having baptisms in the headspring,” she said. “The churches were not interested in other involvements. I think as our water problems get worse, this may change.”

In Gainesville, several churches are finding ways to get involved, often through programs to raise awareness among the congregation. This month, Westminster Presbyterian Church is hosting a series on “Water Sustainability in Our Backyard” with expert speakers each Sunday. Earlier this year, First United Methodist Church hosted the international climate change project Crossroads: Rising Tides. The event fused science and art in a performance that explored climate, water, food, energy and consumerism – using imagery and symphony music to inspire the audience to understand their role in what the future looks like.

The marriage of religion and environmentalism continues to burgeon, but Bron Taylor, professor of religion and nature at the University of Florida, wonders if those two forces could also repel each other. “When people believe that there’s some kind of divinity or deity in charge of environmental systems, they tend to be more complacent about [conservation efforts],” he said. “That kind of belief system does not help people understand how environmental systems in fact operate.”

He points to research that shows that non-religious people tend to have a more grounded approach to the preservation of the environment. A lack of a being at the top of a chain may plant a seed of humility through which sustainability can grow. But Taylor says that churches can make a powerful impact when they get truly involved – for example, in the Civil Rights movement.

Taylor also cautions to not fall into the trap of putting much weight on the ties between religion and conservation. “The same examples keep being brought up as evidence of religious greening trends,” he said. “But where is the evidence of significant social change and…mobilization?”

McFarlane, too, would like to see more mobilization of people of faith. As more churches open their doors to stewardship, he hopes more congregants will take up the call.

“We as individuals and humans have some responsibility for caring for what we’ve been given. Good stewardship is key to keeping living things around you alive,” he said. “Everybody – religious and non-religious – needs to come together.”


About Project Blue Ether

WUFT News is publishing this multi-week series on water by University of Florida students, led by award-winning environmental journalist and author Cynthia Barnett, who is a visiting professor at the University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications.