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Integrating Creation Care into the life of the Cathedral - St. Mark's Episcopal

"A large congregation is like a ship; it cannot change its course abruptly." The Ecology/Spirituality group of St. Mark's Episcopal Cathedral in Seattle, WA, has worked tirelessly to bring many aspects of creation care into the life of its church.

StMark1 Building

The Story of St. Mark’s Ecology/Spirituality Group as told by Ruth Mulligan, June 2003

St. Mark’s Episcopal Cathedral in Seattle is situated beside a steep ravine and overlooks the city and a large greenbelt.

St. Mark’s is a socially active church of about 2000 members, known for working on a variety of justice issues, particularly racism, hunger, and homelessness.  There are 15 program staff (clergy and lay), plus administrative staff.  At last count 80 congregational groups are involved in various ministries.

Although there was an active Ecology/Spirituality Group beginning in 1989, it became dormant after 1992 when most of the leadership left the group to help found Earth Ministry.  In 2000, when I accepted the role of Earth Ministry Colleague at St. Mark’s, there was no ongoing group to bring encouragement and focus to an eco-justice effort.  I will describe some activities that have taken place in the past three years, including how an eco-justice ministry has evolved from one Earth Ministry Colleague to an ongoing active group in a large church, responding to the uniqueness of our particular situation. 

StMark2 Sanctuary

At the time I became an Earth Ministry Colleague, the Cathedral was in the unique situation of developing a Strategic Plan, which would set its direction for the next ten to fifteen years.  The Strategic Planning Committee was very responsive to suggestions for alternative wordings, and accepted several suggestions that would be more inclusive of Creation.  For example:  (we strive to be) “A Cathedral where reconciliation between peoples and with all Creation is sought and celebrated.”  Another example in the Church in the World section:  “Being wise stewards of the abundance with which God has blessed us offers unique opportunities for St. Mark’s to make a significant impact and difference on social and environmental issues, from the local to the international.”

All in all, with twelve instances of this more inclusive language, “Creation” became identified by the implementation task force as one of the Cathedral’s “Overarching Values”:

  • Our Spiritual Journey
  • Cathedral as Commons (a shared place)
  • Diversity
  • Reconciliation
  • Creation
  • Stewardship
StMark4 greenbelt worker

My next effort as a Colleague was to recruit helpers to plan Earth Day Sunday activities that would begin to make the work of environmental ministry at St. Mark’s more concrete.  We organized a Greenbelt cleanup to clear away trash and rescue small trees that were being overtaken by suffocating vines.  We surely appreciated the participation of the Youth Service Group.

Next, I was fortunate to connect with  two other women, Chris Christensen and Jennifer Kauffman, who were interested in helping to lead our efforts.  The three of us arranged to offer a three-week adult forum series, called “Vision for a Green Cathedral”, flowing from the Strategic Plan.  At these forums 75 parishioners expressed interest in learning about opportunities for environmental ministry at St. Mark’s. 

That summer we three developed a draft Strategic Direction for an Ecology/Spirituality group (based on guidelines from Earth Ministry’s Greening Congregations program), an annual plan, and an interest survey of those 75 people.  We then met individually with each of the clergy and some staff to present our ideas, gather their input, and enlist their support.

Each September, many of the ministry groups of St. Mark’s hold a sort of fair called “Homecoming Sunday”. 

StMark7 Homecoming

The three of us recruited more interested parishioners.  And we put articles in our church newsletter.  That fall, we announced an organizational meeting to incorporate others into a leadership team for our group.  This team has continued to take responsibility for the visioning and planning of our projects. 

We started the second year by organizing two twelve-month study groups on Earth Ministry’s book, Simpler Living, Compassionate Life.  And our most major effort, was a six-week Wednesday evening series in the spring of 2002, entitled “The Global Economy, Justice, and You”.  Each week featured a speaker and time for discussion.  Two of the speakers were David Korten and Earth Ministry’s Tanya Marcovna Barnett.  We followed up in the spring of 2003 with a four-week series on the Earth Charter.  We chose all three of these educational programs because they brought awareness to the interconnection between social, economic, and environmental issues.

StMark10 coffee farmer

Another part of our Global Economy and Justice series was a Sunday adult forum, with Blanca Rosa Molina, President of a coffee farmers co-op in Nicaragua. 

When we tried to fly the idea of switching coffees, we were told it would cost the church an additional $5000 a year, and was therefore not possible.   Realizing we had to start out by building visibility and broad-ranging support from the congregation, we recruited a coffee committee to begin strategizing during the summer.  In September 2002, again at Homecoming Sunday, we began our coffee project with an informal coffee tasting of three kinds of Fair Trade, shade grown, organic coffee, accompanied by organic chocolate zucchini cake. 

StMark12 Coffee tasting table

At our coffee tasting table, we provided a sign-up sheet for those interested in learning more about what our group had to offer.  Next we wrote several informative newsletter articles and served the coffee on three fall Sundays, complete with information sheets on where to buy certified coffee in local stores.

StMark13 TripleCert coffee

Finally in April 2003, we purchased fifteen airpots, (funded by St. Mark’s Church in the World Initiative), recruited volunteers, and  launched our coffee project.  We are covering our additional cost by requesting a suggested donation of $1.00 per cup.

This is our coffee volunteer coordinator, George, standing by the new setup.  If you noticed, he was the person signing up in our last photo at the coffee tasting.

We now serve coffee that not only tastes good, but is an act of social and economic justice and environmental sustainability—and has actually enhanced the hospitality of our coffee hours.

StMark15 Energy audit

After introducing the idea of an energy audit to our overworked Facilities Manager many months before, in the fall of 2002 he arranged for a free energy assessment.  Here he is with a  Seattle City Light consultant in the midst of that process.  In May 2003, the Facilities Committee began taking steps to gradually implement some of the assessment’s recommendations.

StMark16 Rogation procession

The Cathedral’s Liturgist invited a couple of us from the Ecology/Spirituality Group and the Coordinator of the Garden Volunteers to consult with her as she planned our first “St. Mark’s Blessing of the Gardens and Grounds”.  This took place on Rogation Sunday, the sixth Sunday after Easter, between the 9:00 and 11:00 services.  We processed to eight different locations, each described in its uniqueness in a special service leaflet.

StMark18 rogation blessing

A prayer of blessing was then offered, followed by a sprinkling of water taken from our baptismal font.

Here is Ann, one of our priests, sprinkling water with a cedar bough on one of the garden areas.

We also prayed at the Greenbelt--off our parking lot-- in part for “protection and blessing of all God’s creatures who live there, especially for homeless people who have no other shelter than the trees and bushes of this greenbelt”.   We ended with:  “May this greenbelt be a reminder to us of our one-ness with all life and all creation.” 

StMark20 garden blessing

Here we are at the back of the Cathedral, next to the vegetable garden, compost bins, and garbage dumpster, where we prayed in part these words:

“Bless all the feeding programs in our city.  Bless the workers who collect our garbage and recycling, all who work to protect the environment, and all who work to help us become more aware of environmental justice.

May we grow in our understanding of ecological matters and be good stewards of all you have given us.” 

StMark26 blessing of dog

The Ecology/Spirituality Group has also been invited for two years to consult with the Cathedral Liturgist to plan the annual Feast of St. Francis and Blessing of the Animals.

This Sunday service has an explicit Creation focus in our worship each year--and it is much loved by the congregation.

Family pets are individually blessed at the conclusion of the service.  

One of the major challenges we face in a large and busy church like St. Mark’s, is gaining visibility and support for our efforts amidst the swirling activity and complex administrative structures.  Another challenge is that although St. Mark’s is very socially aware and active, it is, so far, a somewhat faint shade of green.  We can go for weeks with almost nothing being said about Creation or the environment in the worship service or in adult education.  In this respect, St. Mark’s is similar to most churches in primarily reflecting the human-centered worldview of our Western culture.  Creation is very much evident in our Strategic Plan, but a long way from being embodied fully in Cathedral life.

But we are in the greening process.  A large congregation is like a large ship; it cannot change its course abruptly.  St. Mark’s future course is outlined in its Strategic Plan, and we see our Ecology/Spirituality Group as actively nudging it in this new direction.

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