A seed of inspiration led U of I grad to sow a garden of faith
July 19, 2010
Brian Sauder was about to complete his bachelor's degree at the U of I when he became disillusioned. He was majoring in Natural Resources and Environmental Sciences in the fish and wildlife conservation option. "I became depressed about the status of ecology worldwide, about diversity loss, and climate change," Sauder said.

"I was enrolled in a senior seminar course with Professor William Sullivan. I went into his office and vented to him. When I told him that I was thinking about going to seminary after graduation, he pointed me toward an article in the New York Times about a connection happening between religious communities and ecological thought. He planted the seed that inspired me. I thought there might be some hopeful work that I could do."

Since graduating in 2007 with a B.S. from the College of ACES, Sauder has become much more interested in the human dimensions — the social science side of environmental sciences. While at the Urbana Theological Seminary, Sauder began cultivating his ideas about the connections between religion and ecology. One outcome was to help coordinate the first Stewardship Workshop in 2008. The workshop, Sustaining The Earth With Allied Religious Organizations (STEWARD), was three days long and attended by over 50 people. Ethicists, theologians, scientists, philosophers, agriculture people, lawyers, all of these different people gave presentations about their discipline's perspectives on the current ecological crisis and how they would approach it but with a religious and specifically Christian focus. "After that, we started meeting to brainstorm ways we could take this abstract theory and do something practical. We called ourselves Eco-Ecumenical," Sauder said.

The group decided that gardening was an activity that could promote local foods, the environment, health, and the economy, while incorporating spiritual analogies. In the spring of 2009, Eco-Ecumenical started three gardens in Champaign-Urbana. "As the gardens were getting into full swing, I was contacted by Faith in Place in Chicago who said they noticed what we were doing. They had independently had the same vision to broaden their reach by expanding downstate," Sauder said.

Faith in Place and Sauder wrote a grant that changed Eco-Ecumenical into the central Illinois branch of Faith in Place. According to Sauder, this change has been a perfect fit for him. "Faith in Place has a broader mission for cultural change than just getting congregations to switch from using disposable cups," he said. "We do that in four ways — for each there is an educational component and an action component."

One Faith in Place mission component is to help congregations reduce their carbon footprint by installing solar/thermal heat systems and implementing other energy-saving measures. The group's other mission emphases are in water conservation, local foods, and in connecting religious leaders and lay persons with public policy.

Sauder said that he starts the process by meeting with someone from a congregation and encourages them to form what he calls a Green Team. He helps them take very practical steps to work on food, renewable energy, water, or public advocacy.

Why religious congregations? "That's our niche," said Sauder. "We give tools to religious organizations. All of us on staff have some sort of religious background or training. I have environmental training from NRES as well as seminary training."

Sauder explained that there are already a lot of environmental groups aimed at secular organizations and religious people may feel alienated by them. Faith in Place can help religious groups approach these environmental problems from their worldview in order to ethically move forward.

"It's always the hope of Faith in Place that we can start with education, move toward making a difference on a congregational level, and then to activism on a statewide level," he said. One example of starting with education is an 8-week class Sauder is leading for Muslims and Mennonite garden volunteers about food and faith. "This year the garden located at the Mennonite Church is a Peace Garden — Muslims and Mennonites planting peace one seed at a time," he said.

"Volunteers from the Central Illinois Mosque and Islamic Center and the Mennonite Church not only garden together, but we gather at the weekly class to talk about food economy, food health, and the food environment with an emphasis on how they relate to peace-making."

Sauder's environmental background combined with his degree from seminary has helped him see the relationship between people's faith and their practice. "There's sometimes a disconnect between practice and ideology among environmentalists," he said. "We need to change behavior as well as belief, and religions have a strong impetus to do that. Changing lifestyle and behavior -- my own religion has helped me put that into practice."

To learn more about Sauder's work or Faith in Place, visit www.faithinplace.org contact him at brian@faithinplace.org.