Reflections on Transition and Faith Communities

This past weekend, Transition Los Angeles had a small table of information at the Renewal LA event.  Our initiating group, Environmental Change-Makers (ECM), is relatively well-known within the Southern California Interfaith Power and Light circles.  ECM co-founder, the Rev. Peter Rood, is an Episcopal priest who is active in interfaith dialog groups.  In fact, Peter gave the Welcome for the Renewal LA event.

For tabling at Renewal LA, we brought some of the handouts that we have developed specifically for faith communities, such as "Environmental Suggestions for Large Events,"


which encourages people to think beyond single-use paper goods and other items.  (We discourage the euphemism "disposable").  Within interfaith religious circles there are several greenhouse gas pledges circulating, some far more potent than others.  The Genesis Covenant is one by which communities pledge to cut ghg emissions by 50% within 10 years.  We developed a How-To handout for communities which have adopted the Genesis Covenant, so that their signature can be backed by concrete powerdown action. 

We also brought copies of "Entry Points," an article about Peter which appeared in Christian Century magazine and describes his unique vision of faith communities being "hosting communities" -- a vision which is highly compatible with Transition ideas.  In this article, Peter shares his belief that the old view of faithful members entering church through the front doors on Sundays between 8 and 11 am is an outdated paradigm. Rather, in his vision, the extended community of the future includes several "Entry Points"; in the case of his own local church these include a community garden, a yoga center, Buddhist meditation, and jazz performances, just to name a few.  Between Peter and I, we have jokingly developed an acronym:  FDOS -- Front Door On Sunday.  His community has its FDOS members but now also plenty of non-FDOS members. 

A bit of background

Personally, I happen to be one of the "side garden on Thursday" people at Peter's site, thus one of the non-FDOS community members. 

Peter Rood and I have a unique partnership in the Environmental Change-Makers in that it represents the coming-together of two erstwhile separate worlds.  He is the religious side; he brings a special charisma, great community connections, and a deep spiritual understanding (that at times seems much more Buddhist than any of the other religious brandings).  I'm the secular environmentalist who happens to live 2 blocks from his church site.  Together we formed the Environmental Change-Makers group in autumn 2005, about the same time Rob Hopkins began working with Totnes.  The Environmental Change-Makers hosted the event that gave birth to Transition Los Angeles in December 2008.

The Change-Makers draw a diverse crowd.  Over the years our events have brought together atheists, agnostics, Baptists, Buddhists, Catholics, Congregationalists, Episcopals, Evangelicals, Hindus, Jews, Lutherans, Muslims, Methodists, Native Americans of many tribes, Presbyterians, Pagans, and Universalists, as well as those whose belief system defies description.  Our meetings have typically been secular in topic, but we are not afraid to touch on the more spiritual aspects of this Transition journey.  We have used Joanna Macy exercises, as well as bringing this element of human experience into our sessions in our own unique ways.

Because I work in partnership with Peter, despite my non-FDOS status I've had the opportunity of speaking at lots of churches and religious circles.  Additionally, in this first 16 months of the TLA city hub's existence, several of our local pods meet at the sites of religious centers.  Thus many Transition people have come to me asking questions about working with religious communities.

The Lessons

Over the time of working with faith communities, I have learned quite a bit. 

I.)  I learned that the environmentalist/religious divide traces back to the 1960s and a very divisive article that proclaimed that all religion (at least the biblically-centered ones) was out to dominate creation.  Over the intervening decades within faith communities, in most cases, this view has since become quite an outdated view.  Yet secular environmentalists have tended to hold onto the old stereotype about religious people.  In my observation, enviros have tended to point to the few faith communities who are the laggards, and cast all religious people there.

II.)  I learned that people inside faith communities are just as eager to hear about environmental solutions or What We Can Do, as those outside.  They are eager to begin the process of change.  And just like those in government, in business circles, in public schools, and elsewhere in mainstream society, they feel alone in their desire to create change, they feel stuck or frustrated within a larger system of "it's always been done this way," and they have plenty of questions about how to effectively get things moving.

III.)  I realized that, if Transition is to get underway quickly, we need to work with existing pools of people, people who are already accustomed to working with each other (for whatever original reason).  The timeline is simply too short: we don't have the time to build all-new groups from scratch.  We need to recognize religious circles as existing pools of community, and learn to how work with them.

I have also learned that the language barrier is huge.  What works in a Yogic Hindu setting would probably be the absolute wrong thing to say in a Catholic church.  In Permaculture terms, you might say we need to Observe and Interact.  We need to notice the "microclimes."  What has worked for me is to learn the approach of that particular religious circle, and address things -- peak oil, climate change, the need to act -- with a fully customized approach.

When I go into a Catholic community, I tie it to people: how climate change will impact humanity, particularly the poor.  There is far less interest in discussions of polar bear extinction and species decimation; the interconnection of all life forms might even turn them off.  When I go into a Yogic Hindu community, I emphasize ahimsa -- the avoidance of himsa/violence.  It's not too difficult to show how conventional agriculture is himsa to the planet and to the farmworkers, and how use of an SUV or an airplane wreaks himsa upon all life forms. 

Part of the work of Transition is going to be to teach tolerance of the others' language.  Within Judeo/Christian circles, you can refer to taking care of "God's creation."  But within the Buddhist practice, where there is no particular "God" figure, this isn't a very sensitive phrase to use.  Within hip secular circles "Gaia" is a readily acceptable term, but you'd better avoid that word in most churches.

The term "Christian," when used by an Episcopalian, might refer to Evangelical Christians.  But the same word "Christian," when used by a Jew or a Muslim or a Hindu, would mean the entire panorama of Christianity including Catholics, Protestants, Lutherans, Episcopals, Anglicans, Baptists, Evangelicals, and more.

Peter and I have also had discussions about the term "faith communities."  He points out that Buddhists regard what they do as a practice, rather than a faith; the term "faith" implies a God.  For a while, Peter's church had fliers inviting "people of faith and no faith," which to me sounded like a put-down; after all, who goes around saying "I'm a person of No Faith!"  And some religious traditions consider themselves to be the only one true faith, thus will avoid calling what the others do "faith."  Thus terminology could even become offensive!  But overall, I think if we proceed with efforts to be respectful, to listen, and to sincerely offer help, we should do okay.

I compare this to the Slow Food Movement, which was established as a reaction to the homogenization of the industrialized food system.  Slow Food appreciates the beauty, tradition, and diversity of local specialty foods.  As we begin to explore Transition and faith communities, we must be careful not to homogenize, but instead to appreciate and value the beauty within each local circle.

Transition and faith communities

When we propose going into a faith community with Transition ideas, I think that we need to be clear on what we expect to accomplish.  Are we
1. hoping that they will become a Transition Initiative? 
2. seeking to find, somewhere within their midst, the people who will eventually make up the local Transition Initiative? 
3. going to them to raise awareness, to teach and educate about what lies ahead and what powerdown solutions might mean? 
4. going to them simply to help them find additional tools they can use to "green" their operations while they continue on with "the way things have always been"?

When I speak to faith communities, usually the group has invited us in for reason #4, to help them "get greener" -- perhaps to help them get a community garden started, or to encourage their Just Faith group to embrace environmentalism as their action, or to give them a few green tips for Earth Day.  Before we get there they have no idea that "the way things have always been" will need fundamental rework.  We typically stretch each engagement into reason #3 by doing awareness-raising of peak oil and the far-reaching consequences of climate change, simply because that's what we do; we don't do things the surface green-tech way.

There are currently three faith communities within TLA's network where churches have truly begun to adjust "the way things have always been."  At each of these, there have been Transition-active residents or environmental leaders who have pushed the changes through -- from gardens on the property, to on-site composting, to eliminating styrofoam and single-use paper goods, to holding ongling reskilling events at the site.  In each of these cases it has been more about finding the people at the church site, the people who will eventually make up the local Transition Initiative, reason #2 (rather than the site itself becoming the T.I.).

A few potential stumbling blocks

As far as a faith community actually becoming a Transition Initiative (reason #1), I see a few potential stumbling blocks. 

First and foremost there is Transition US' guiding principle of inclusiveness and openness.  For one church group we're currently working with, it is challenging for us to get them to think about inviting people from outside their membership.  Additionally, the group has tended to begin their meetings with a prayer, which could be off-putting to those who might come from outside that specific church's culture.  I believe that until we can get the core group to think in terms of geography and localization -- as contrasted with church and membership -- it may remain simply a "greening group"; Transition in that area simply won't thrive.

Secondly, there is public perception.  When meetings are held inside a church facility, there is a presumption that meeting content is private, that it is tied to the church.  There always will be people who are hesitant to join in.  We experience this with Environmental Change-Makers; because we meet in the Community Hall of an Episcopal church, people often presume we're a church group.  It takes prolonged presence in the general community to establish that our mission is not tied to the facility, that Transition is something altogether different, and to get the message out to non-members that it is "safe" to come in. 

As a potential solution, I have begun listing it on our fliers as "Site: Community Hall, 6700 West 83rd," at times even omitting the church name.  But I've also observed that local people are beginning to recognize the diversity offered at that address (see "Entry Points" article) so all these factors are simultaneously working to achieve the same welcoming end.

Thirdly, there is the issue of focus, or drivers.  One of the criteria for becoming a T.I. is "An understanding of peak oil, climate change and the economic crisis as drivers." Yet faith communities have something else as their principal driver.  To expect to morph a faith community into a T.I. is, I feel, inappropriate.  I simply cannot see a faith community doing the full-fledged work of the 12 Steps of Transition.  Perhaps a Transition-oriented focus group or two, but the full journey toward an all-encompassing EDAP?  Not likely.

The EDAP (Energy Descent Action Plan) to me is like the defining attribute of a T.I.  Certainly many T.I.s around the world (my own included) don't yet have one.  But as we form working groups and network with other organizations and individuals and do all of the other 12 Steps, we're headed in that general direction.  The EDAP distinguishes a T.I. from the average "greening groups" because it is panoramic; it takes in the wide array of local topics and issues.  Where most other environmental groups focus on a single problem, the EDAP is unique in its examination of the confluence of peak oil + climate change + economic contraction.  And unlike any other group I've ever heard of, a T.I. EDAP folds grassroots community-based ideas together with artistic visions together with large-scale planning.  And in many instances then goes on to get this plan embraced by local decisionmakers.  I just can't see a church group doing all this.  Which means that Transition action in faith communities will probably be limited to reasons #2, #3, #4.

What We Can Do

Perhaps Transition teams can be most effective by teaching faith communities how to:

a.)  upgrade their "What You Can Do" lists to include powerdown and decreased consumption concepts (not just surace green-tech).  These would include any what-to-do lists they might circulate for the internal facility, regional organization, as well as member households.

b.)  gear up spiritual counselors for the emotions of powerdown.  As our more-more-more society begins to come to terms with the fact that the powerdown future will be quite different than our expectations, emotions will surface.  It will likely bring on psychological depression and spiritual questioning of enormous proportions.  Our society will desperately need counselors who are ready to cope with such issues.
see "The Waking Up Syndrome" by Sarah Anne Edwards (a Transition trainer) and Linda Buzzell (part of the Transition team in the Santa Barbara area).

c.)  host or actively participate in a local Transition Initiative.  Most faith commumnities have physical facilities, and in this era of declining attendance at traditional religious facilities (a phenomenon Peter and I have come to call "peak church"), many of these facilities are now underused.  Peter's "Entry Points" article and other tools might be used to encourage them to open their doors.  They may be inspired to convert their rooms (as Peter did) from "parish hall" to true "community hall," and welcome community-building T.I.'s.

d.)  upgrade the physical aspects of their facilities to become demonstration sites for "the new normal" -- increased insulation; passive solar attributes; decreased use of HVAC; installation of edible landscaping, on-site composting, rainwater harvesting, and greywater (and eventually composting toilets).  As many people move through the site and see and use the new features, these Transition practices will become more familiar, more comfortable, and thus the new "acceptable."

e.)  circulate Transition-type information through their membership lists.  Upon occasion, I have gotten Peter's church to publicize some of our Transition-oriented events out through the church mailing lists.  We have publicized some of our larger events through his diocese's weekly news bulletin.  Religious community mailing lists might help in limited fashion with awareness-raising as in "these activities really do exist, right here."  And as the religious community gets on board with more and more Transition-type practicies (items a-d listed above) this last item is much more likely to occur.

Environmental Change-Makers' resources for faith communities

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