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On a mountaintop, in a tree grove, along a seashore, spiritual connections transcend all forms of liturgy. The Word, in these settings, sounds through the crashing of waves, the rustling of leaves, the blowing of winds.
Members of Utah's various faith communities understand this much, which is why they came together recently to discuss climate change, an issue affecting all denominations. The Jan. 23 gathering at the University of Utah's Student Union, featuring panelists of different religious backgrounds, was scheduled to coincide with this week's Focus the Nation, a national teach-in to increase awareness about global warming.
"You are the future. You get to inherit the Earth we messed up," said Elaine Emmi, a Salt Lake Quaker, who served as moderator and welcomed the crowd of mostly students. "All religions have an environmental component; it's just been hidden away."
Imam Muhammed Mehtar, of the Islamic Society of Greater Salt Lake, stood and sang in Arabic from the Quran. He sang about the moon, sun and vegetation.
"The obligation," he explained, is "not just to read [the Quran] but to reflect on what it states . . . to get the people to reflect on something beyond themselves."
The sentiments expressed at this panel discussion represent a trend of faith-based environmental concern that's "taking hold across the country," said Deeda Seed, the grassroots outreach coordinator for Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, which is hosting a faith-based dialogue on Feb. 9.
"It's not a hard sell," said Seed, who described herself as an atheist. "With regard to the environment, people feel a stong spiritual connection, even if they're not part of an organized religion."
Utah's interest and commitment to this work can serve as a model for others, said the Rev. Sally Bingham. The Episcopal priest, based in San Francisco, heads The Regeneration Project, a ministry to deepen the connection between ecology and faith. Her organization is the force behind Interfaith Power and Light, a campaign to encourage congregational responses to global warming. The Utah campaign kicked off in the fall, currently has eight committed congregations and is one of 25 chapters in the United States.
When she came to Salt Lake City about a year ago to first address the Salt Lake Interfaith Roundtable, the campaign partner Emmi - the moderator of this recent discussion - chairs, Bingham left the meeting in awe.
"I had never been in a room with such religious diversity. There were Mormons, Catholics, Jews, Muslims, Bahais, Quakers," she said Wednesday, remembering her visit. "I got back [to California] and said, 'Man, you won't believe these people in Utah.' They're exemplary in that way."
Bishop Carolyn Tanner Irish of the Episcopal Diocese of Utah, one of the recent panelists, called this taking responsibility for the natural world and not exploiting it "our green vocation," a job that belongs to everyone.
George Handley, a Brigham Young University professor and former bishop of a student ward, said that though he knows of no "anti-ecological teaching" in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, he thinks there should be "an arm of the church that outlines principles of environmental stewardship."
"I wish there was one, but I'm not going to wait for one," he said. "I listen to what science tells me . . . [and] still hold to the belief that God is the creator. I don't own [the Earth]. I'm a borrower. I'm accountable to him."
Daniel Gomez, representing Congregation Kol Ami, a Salt Lake City synagogue, spoke of the Jewish value of tikkun olam (repairing the world) and said reverence for the environment is rooted in thousands of years of history.
"Our ancestors walked for 40 years in the wilderness," he said. "We were not in temples or beautiful buildings. God spoke to us in nature."
No matter what a person believes about how the world was created or what forces are above, what surrounds us - especially in a state such as Utah - should inspire awe, the panelists suggested.
"If you see it, the Earth, as a sacred presence, it becomes a very different experience," said Vaughn Lovejoy, a practicing Buddhist who left the corporate world years ago and now works with TreeUtah, a nonprofit that's planted more than 300,000 trees in the state. "The challenge we have is the modern view that the Earth is an object, and we can do whatever we want with it."
Added Amee Garcie, a Catholic student at the U., "In the end, it doesn't really matter what faith you are because we're all on this planet together. There's nowhere else to go."
Some upcoming and ongoing ways to look at the environment spiritually
* Attend a faith-based wild lands dialogue, sponsored by the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, Feb. 9 from 10 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. in Utah Valley State College's Sorenson Student Center, 800 W. University Parkway, Orem. For more information about SUWA's dialogue project and to register for this event, visit http://www.suwa.org or call 801-428-3971.
* Pledge to take part in Utah Interfaith Power & Light, an ongoing interfaith commitment to environmental stewardship. To learn more about how your community can fight human-induced climate change, visit http://www.utahipl.org.