In Saint Francis’ “Canticle of the Sun,” the saint proclaims, “Be praised, my Lord, through our sister Mother Earth/Who feeds us and rules us . . .” How might Saint Francis view the current state of the environment and people’s relationship with nature?
For Rhett Engelking, OFS, “The first thing that Saint Francis would see is just how disconnected humans have become from the environment: we are living an unsustainable lifestyle.” Engelking, program manager for Franciscan Earth Corps, sees the brokenness of our environment, and seeks to make a difference through a grass roots, spiritually grounded approach.
The Earth Corps is an initiative of the Franciscan Action Network (FAN), a Washington, D.C.-based organization geared toward young adults who seeks to affect positive change with regard to issues such as the environment, immigration, and human trafficking. Engelking realizes that it can be hard for millenials to identify and embrace opportunities for spiritual growth:
“The deck is sometimes stacked against spiritual growth for young adults. We figure young adults will make time for authentic experience of God and find ways to remind people that there is nowhere that such an experience cannot be found.”
Instead of tackling our nation’s environmental challenges as one large group, the Corps operates through local chapters, which are able to take on the unique challenges of each community. There are currently 11 chapters across the Northeast, South, and Midwest, with more chapters in the process of forming.
Some of the various projects that the Corps takes on include planting community gardens, taking nature walks to get more in touch with the environment they are trying to protect, and hosting retreats to reflect upon and reinforce the importance of their mission. From facilitating a Catholic-Muslim dialogue about faith rooted eco-spirituality in New York City to engaging in a panel discussion regarding the dangers of hydraulic fracking in Syracuse, the Corps looks at environmental concerns through a broad lens.
Inspired by Franciscan spirituality and its focus on the interconnectedness of life, the Franciscan Earth Corps recognizes the important relationship between environmental and social justice. In fact, for Engelking, these issues are inseparable: “The wisdom of mystics like Saint Francis tells us that poverty, unhealthiness, and environmental degradation can be experienced simultaneously as the same broken relationship.”
Engelking encourages Catholics interested in getting involved in eco-justice, to start small and just be present. He found, “When I appreciated each little opportunity to help as a way to enter into a deeper relationship with God, I was present to the small ways that helped out. You will not experience joy or enthusiasm in what you do if you are not present to the activity.”