Activists fuse together ecology, faith

Lynne Fischer, with New Mexico Climate Action, lists environmental priorities Thursday for her table at the Green Fusion Breakfast at Temple Beth Shalom in Santa Fe. Andy Stiny/The New Mexican

Pope Francis’ encyclical on the environment, a call for Catholic faithful to help combat global warming and environmental degradation, met with skepticism and even some fierce criticism from conservatives when the unprecedented document was released in 2015.

While the pope’s message was popular in largely Catholic Santa Fe, it brought religion a little too close to climate science for many Catholics and others who continued to doubt that changing climatic conditions were human-caused.

Since then, however, people of a number of religious groups have increasingly embraced an environmental justice movement, what they see as part of their mission to fight for civil rights, economic equality and other social reforms.

Rabbi Neil Amswych of Temple Beth Shalom in Santa Fe, who also leads the 2,000-member Interfaith Leadership Alliance here, has been working for years on faith-based social justice initiatives, including environmental activism. The London native, who came to Temple Beth Shalom more than three years ago, launched a new such effort this week in Santa Fe called Green Fusion, what he described as “the Paris accord for faith communities.”

During a breakfast gathering Thursday morning with more than three dozen people — a mix of faith leaders and representatives of environmental organizations — Amswych introduced his plan for community environmental activism, saying, “This is very much the start of something.”

In the coming year, Amswych said, those participating in the initiative will “work out the text of an agreement for the interfaith community to commit ourselves to sustainable action.”

“It’s not just a passive organization,” Amswych said. “… The hope is that we can be really active in the local community.”

The Green Fusion effort, he said, is “much larger than just the faith groups.” It relies heavily on work that is already being done by local environmental groups.

The key environmental concerns cited by those who attended the event ranged from restoring streams and conserving water quality to expanding protected wilderness, preventing wildfires and addressing refugee issues.

In an interview after the breakfast gathering, Amswych said, “What we are doing is a repeat of something I did in England a number of years ago, which is to gather faith leaders and environmental leaders to try and work out what are the most pressing environmental matters of our time locally, nationally and globally, and to try and address them.”

In a yearlong effort, the rabbi traveled around England’s largest county, Dorset, working with environmental groups to create the Big Green Believers Agreement, a document that helped guide signatories “to live as sustainable as possible.”

Amswych said he was invited to take the document to the Houses of Parliament. “I believe that their intention was to see if the model could be used elsewhere,” he said.