Cherice Bock interviews Peter Sergienko about going the extra mile in trying to steward the land.

St. Michael & All Angels Episcopal Church, Portland, OR

How many of us have heard some version of the following arguments:

“Sure, protecting the environment, saving the spotted owls–these things are great. But how am I going to put food on the table?”

Or:

“I want to care for creation, but how can my actions make a difference?”

Here in Cascadia, we love our region. From the coast to the mountains to the high desert, the beauty of the landscape evokes awe, reminding us to attend to our Creator God. Many churches in Cascadia want to conserve our natural resources in a sustainable way as a fulfillment of our role as stewards of creation. Yet, we also want to do so in a manner that will continue to provide jobs in these industries. How do we take the next step from talking about caring for creation as God’s steward to acting on these convictions?

My own congregation struggles with these questions. We find ourselves at the point where we’ve tackled about as much of the low-hanging fruit as we can. We recycle as much as possible, we’ve won our category in the town’s “Walk & Bike Challenge” each May for several years running, and we have a community garden. These are good, but they do not really get us to the level of lifestyle change needed to reverse the environmental problems we’re currently facing as a global community.

Stewardship over Domination

I heard about St. Michael & All Angels Episcopal Church in Portland and the work they are doing to implement environmental stewardship through education, advocacy, and liturgical practices. Peter Sergienko organizes St. Michael & All Angels Episcopal Church’s Green Team. He’s also an attorney specializing in environmental, real estate, and general business law and serves the Episcopal Diocese of Oregon as a member of its Environmental Stewardship Commission and Fossil Fuel Divestment Study Committee.

I spoke with Sergienko recently about his work at St. Michael’s and in the Episcopal Diocese of Oregon. He told me that St. Michael’s originally became interested in caring for their region because of the idea of stewardship. Rather than relying solely on the notion of humanity’s dominion over the rest of the natural world in the Genesis creation stories–the part that seems to give us the right to use up all of our planet’s natural resources (Gen. 1:26)–he emphasized the role of human being as stewards of creation, in charge of maintaining balance for a flourishing and sustainable future (Gen. 2:15).

The Environment Versus Jobs

At this point in our nation’s history, says Sergienko, the roll of stewardship requires repentance and reconciliation, recognizing the environmental destruction occurring due to our way of life. At the regional level, the Episcopal Diocese of Oregon is working with individuals and congregations to resolve tension between those advocating responsible use of resources and those who prioritize jobs. While Episcopalians in urban areas around Oregon may be protesting proposed pipelines and oil rail terminals, Sergienko and others also meet with those from rural areas, such as communities that traditionally formed around logging, ranching, or other industries–industries that are no longer as economically viable due in part to environmental regulations. Sergienko understands the necessity of meaningful work for human wellbeing, and struggles with the fact that he does not personally have other jobs to offer. He says:

What matters most to us in the Episcopal tradition is coming together in worship even when we strongly disagree with one another.

What matters most to us in the Episcopal tradition is coming together in worship even when we strongly disagree with one another. Many feel a legitimate desire for meaningful work to be available for people who need it and who don’t have other alternatives–at least in the place where they live. But others desire to protect their immediate environments against proposals for local fossil fuel facilities that would damage the climate–even if those facilities would bring much needed jobs. What do we do in the midst of all that disagreement? There’s not really a simple answer. We have to hold in tension the call to be good environmental stewards by resisting dangerous fossil fuel facilities while at the same time being genuinely concerned for people who are suffering due to lack of work.

I asked Sergienko how they applied that conclusion in his congregation and denomination, especially given how environmentalism is often so politically charged. He told me they try to provide good education regarding climate science and its impact on people. They connect it directly to biblical imperatives for stewarding creation and caring for people as an expression of our love for God. They then dialogue about solutions–not to support those presented by a political party, but looking for ways to care for people and for our region and world.

When we lose track of our priorities, of the whole picture of what it means that God put us here to steward creation and care for one another, then people and places can fall through the cracks.

Sergienko has worked with Episcopal communities around Oregon that are on some of the front lines of clashes between rhetoric valuing environment and jobs, and he’s tried to create spaces where people can listen to one another’s real needs, fears, and the impact of each side’s policies on the other. For his own congregation of Portlanders, it’s easy to think the environment should be the top priority, but to actually hear the stories of other Episcopalians dealing with unemployment puts a face to the controversy. Going the other direction, for those who live in regions where proposed industrial sites might cause huge environmental problems in the future, posing risks to human health, or might lead to over-extraction of resources and an eventual decline of the industry and fewer jobs in the long run, it can help to have a two-way conversation where both groups can share their legitimate fears and attempt to work toward a solution they can advocate for together. Sergienko poses these problems from the perspective of environmental stewardship: when we lose track of our priorities, of the whole picture of what it means that God put us here to steward creation and care for one another, then people and places can fall through the cracks.

Local Activism

At the local level, St. Michael’s partners with many local groups in the area of advocacy. The church used some of the courses offered by the Northwest Earth Institute. Members of the St. Michael’s advocacy group have worked alongside 350PDX, organized petitions, met with local and national officials, participated in rallies and marches, been trained in activism and civil disobedience tactics, and participated in actions with local faith-based environmental groups such as EcoFaith Recovery and their program Beyond Fossil Fuels.

Redesigning the Building

St. Michael’s has also made some good progress regarding its building use. They did a building use assessment and found ways to become more eco-friendly in areas such as:

…how we do dishes, use our kitchen, use water, take care of our buildings and grounds, what kinds of flowers we buy for Sunday, what oil we use in our candles, all that sort of stuff–we were able to look at an inventory to see where we used materials we could change out. For example, detoxifying and going from kerosene-based candle oil to bio-based oil. We realized, oh wow, we didn’t even know we have those things to do…There’s basically a lot of stuff you can do at the level of purchasing that either doesn’t cost anything or doesn’t cost much–just replacing products you were buying anyway with better products.

I asked Sergienko how other Cascadian churches might begin work in the area of environmental stewardship:

The easiest way to connect people around environmental stewardship is to connect them with a sense of place.

The easiest way to connect people around environmental stewardship is to connect them with a sense of place. Oregonians are easy to connect to a sense of place, regardless of what our politics are. Virtually everyone has at least one place outdoors they love and cherish and want to see preserved and maintained. Helping people visualize that and say what they love about it is enough to empower them as an environmental minister. This is a common starting point that’s pretty easy to tap into. I use it. I think it’s a very Cascadian thing to do. I like to remind them that in the gospel of John, it says Jesus’ love and Jesus’ Light are in each place, and that’s probably one of the reasons why you love it.

For Sergienko and others at St. Michael and All Angels Episcopal Church, caring for their specific region grows out of their faith: their love for God, their understanding of themselves as stewards of creation, and their sense of calling to intergenerational and interpersonal justice and reconciliation. Caring for our region, our nation, and our world through active changes to lifestyles, buildings and grounds, denominational investments, our national and international policies and practices, and our economic choices is an expression of what it means to be a Christian here in Cascadia.