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What is Eco-Chaplaincy?
Letters by Sarah Vekasi
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Eco-Chaplain as Spiritual Care Provider

Eco-chaplains offer spiritual support primarily through helping people honor their pain for the world. It is understood that in order for people committed to sustaining life on Earth to maintain their intention and vision they have to face the pain, acknowledge the feelings, and allow grief, anger, despair, apathy, overwhelm, and hope to express themselves. The ecological crisis is the pain we are honoring here, and it is painful. It is so painful that it is often impossible to look at directly. Eco-theologian and academic Roger Gottlieb articulates this by saying that before we can even face the ecological crisis we have to look at the ‘problem before the problem.’ Gottlieb says, “The problem is humanity’s devastation of the natural world. The problem before the problem is that it is very difficult to face this devastation.” (2006, 3) Eco-chaplains help people ‘face this devastation’ through pastoral or spiritual support.
One skillful tool for the pastoral tool-bag is learning to facilitate the Work that Reconnects, a tool par excellence for the eco-chaplain. Begun by Joanna Macy in the late 1970’s in response to the proliferation of nuclear power and its unbelievably long-term radioactive consequences, the work has expanded from her original “Despair and Empowerment” workshops to include an international network of facilitators who now lead the Work that Reconnects. Macy and Molly Brown Young wrote that “the central purpose of the Work that Reconnects is to help people uncover and experience their innate connections with each other and with systemic, self healing powers in the web of life, so that they may be enlivened and motivated to play their part in creating a sustainable civilization.” (1998, 58) The Work that Reconnects involves group exercises and rituals designed to help people touch in to gratitude, honor their pain for the world, see the pain with new eyes and go forth in the Great Turning with renewed energy, clarity of vision, and nourished hearts. The basic suggestions are available for all future eco-chaplains as they are taught by Joanna Macy and others and also described in the book, Coming Back to Life: Practices to Reconnect Our Lives, Our World (Macy and Young Brown, 1998).
There are other important pastoral opportunities for eco-chaplains as well. The stakes are so high in the Great Turning -- the survival of life on Earth in fact -- that we often get daunted by the immensity and forget to take the time necessary each day to feed ourselves enough to stay engaged and inspired. All of the pastoral roles of an eco-chaplain have something to do with actively offering and implementing organizational and personal burnout-prevention strategies.
Eco-chaplaincy intends to inspire a culture of self care. This is done through reminding, inspiring and teaching people how to maintain the discipline of paying attention to their inner-health and engaging in activities to nourish themselves. Self-care activities can include spending time in nature, connecting with family, engaging in personal devotional practice, dancing, making and enjoying art, playing and listening to music, writing and reading poetry, engaging in mindfulness practices designed to remind us about interconnectedness and/or engaging in prayer.
Like the list in the previous section, the following list is not meant to be exhaustive, but is a heart-storm to begin the process of developing this arena of care. More direct pastoral roles include:
• Facilitating or aiding in the process of internal conflict resolution through mediation, restorative practices, group circle work, direct intervention, communication techniques, etc.
• Activating open systems by helping to re-distribute workloads, helping people share responsibility through collaborative processes and delegating tasks and minimizing overlap.
• Helping people ask for and receive help.
• Actively encouraging radical interdependence through cooperation, power-with-horizontal power structures, consensus and/or open decision making and the like.
• Soliciting and initiating eco-narratives from individuals and groups on given topics or stresses.
• Encouraging art such as mask-making, dancing, story-telling or re-imagining work designed to elicit a deeper understanding of ones place in the web of life at this critical moment in time.