“It’s a hard place to be, this environmental work.”
I often hear this from the front lines of the battle. And so it is, for all sorts of reasons. The science and the psychology are complicated, not to mention the politics. The problems loom large and progress seems small. There are all the urgent facts, with an ever present temptation to despair. For those on the front lines of organizing and motivating groups of people, a burn-out born of a constant need to stir the anxious pot or maintain a constant cheerleading is always near at hand.
Those are hard places to be for very long. They wear you down and wear you out. Few people are cut out for it and fewer still thrive on it. Those are the born cheerleaders and organizers. Most are not, however, and they know it. They know they are lovers, not fighters, and so shy away from the call to be crusader and advocate.
The same is true for communities of faith. “Creation Care” presents to them as environmental justice and stewardship and demands from them advocacy and organizing (or the funding of others to do so). But in this day of declining membership and resources, most faith communities already have a full plate advocating and organizing for their own survival. They are up to their necks in the need to fund their own future.
This too is a hard place to be for very long. It wears them down and wears them out. And so if environmental ministry is just another battle to be fought by advocates, crusaders and funders, they too will stay away. The gates of advocacy is a hard place to be.
There are, of course, good arguments from all sides for the legitimacy of their need and value of their work. Advocacy and organizing are right responses to issues of eco-justice and stewardship, faith communities do need to survive in order to serve into the future, and everyone needs a healthy planet to have a future at all. So, it will not do to simply walk away from these hard places (although that is often what happens). For those folks who just do not have an affinity for advocacy and organizing, what authentic place can they find that still allows their presence at the table of caring, loving and responding? Is there a different place to be that, while matching different skills and temperament, yet still aligns well with the truth and urgency of environmental issues?
The Gates of Hope
There is a different hard place to be that is a different kind of hard. It is hard like advocacy is hard, because it too demands courage, persistence and heart. But it is different in its relationship to the problems and the role taken. In an article called “The Gates of Hope”, Victoria Safford writes about how we each can become visionaries:
Our mission is to plant ourselves at the gates of hope — not the prudent gates of Optimism, which are somewhat narrower; nor the stalwart, boring gates of Common Sense; nor the strident gates of self-righteousness, which creak on shrill and angry hinges (our people cannot hear us there; they cannot pass through); nor the cheerful, flimsy garden gate of ‘Everything is gonna be all right,’ but a very different, sometimes very lonely place, the place of truth-telling, about your own soul first of all and its condition, the place of resistance and defiance, the piece of ground from which you see the world both as it is and as it could be, as it might be, as it will be; the place from which you glimpse not only struggle, but joy in the struggle — and we stand there, beckoning and calling, telling people what we are seeing, asking people what they see.
This too is hard. Here, the problems are no smaller and the progress no quicker. The urgency of the facts remain. The sense of our small helplessness is just as acute. But the relationship to it all is different. The problems are not to be over-powered, they are to be borne. The role too, is different. At this gate, the advocate advocates for mutual understanding and mutual change.
At this gate, the tools are different. They are the tools of grief, patience and abiding love. They are the tools of listening and conversation. They are the tools of community making – community born by shared hope in the midst of shared suffering. At this gate, confession comes before confrontation and dialogue before demands. At this gate, listening trumps messaging. While there may be recruiting for common cause, there is no crusade against the other. While there may be confrontation, there is no enemy.
At this gate, perhaps even the hope is different. The hope lies not in the ability to organize and convince, but in the ability to foster open and honest relationship. The work is beckoning and calling, telling and asking. Abiding at this gate requires a sustained belief in the baring of souls and the sharing of pain as tools of change. In other words, hope lies less in the tools of victory (convincing, organizing, coalition building and politicking), and more in the tools of community (being awake, being together, speaking truth, sharing pain, and persisting in love).
This is not to say that the gates of hope is not a place of action. It is not a place of spiritual detachment or passive acceptance. The mission at the gates of hope need not be any less active or engaged than the mission at another gate. But the quality and kind of action is different. It is engagement, yes, but with different expectations for outcomes and different criteria of success and progress. Its hope is not tied to the success of the organizing (even though one may organize) or changes in society (even though one may advocate). Its hope is tied to kinship building with others who also want to talk about what they see and ask others what they see (even if in opposition). Its hope lies in the love shared between those of common (and of competing) hope.
This is a hard place to be. Here one must resist both cynicism and anger. Here one must stay open. Here one must control the urge to draw the line and define the tribe. But perhaps it can be a less heart hardening or life draining kind of hard. Perhaps even if one bleeds profusely here, one does not bleed to death.
The Gates of Hope (Redux)
Let’s revisit our quote from Victoria Safford, with a little annotation for illustration:
Our mission is to plant ourselves at the gates of hope — not the prudent gates of Optimism [technology will save us], which are somewhat narrower; nor the stalwart, boring gates of Common Sense [lets change light bulbs]; nor the strident gates of self-righteousness, which creak on shrill and angry hinges [a pox on the house of: humans, religions, business and politics] (our people cannot hear us there; they cannot pass through); nor the cheerful, flimsy garden gate of ‘Everything is gonna be all right,’ [God will save us] but a very different, sometimes very lonely place, the place of truth-telling, [the problems are deep] about your own soul first of all and its condition, [I am part of the problem, I am in grief] the place of resistance and defiance, [I like my car and what it provides for me] the piece of ground from which you see the world both as it is and as it could be, as it might be, as it will be; [while not optimistic, I remain hopeful] the place from which you glimpse not only struggle, but joy in the struggle [it is better to suffer for love than to avoid life] — and we stand there, beckoning and calling, telling people what we are seeing, asking people what they see [this is being with, not against].
Perhaps this gate can open a way for those who do not have the gifts of advocacy and organizing; for those more attuned to the lover’s heart than the warrior’s heart. Perhaps if this gate was offered as a faithful response to the cry of the earth and her creatures, more people of faith would meet us there.