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  • Hands and Feet—Meet Your Recognized Clergy:  Genny Rowley

    by Genny Rowley

    Last week, I found myself standing in an unfamiliar doorway, giving directions to a classroom in a large synagogue. A small crowd filed past me, interested in learning more about their various congregations’ support of a community solar project. As the designated direction-giver for this Utah Interfaith Power & Light event, I was the last to enter the room.

    When I did, I saw attendees holding up small solar panel samples, eyeing the shiny objects with curiosity. A local solar installer stood in the front of the room, explaining the process of installation, the cost and benefits of solar, and the group purchase option sponsored by Utah IPL. What followed was an animated discussion, filled with practical questions and a sense of moral responsibility to stand against climate change.

    As a brand new Utahan, I jumped into working with our local Interfaith Power and Light chapter four months ago. Five years ago, my perspective was dislocated by a pivotal encounter. I met a pastoral counseling client whose mental health troubles were intertwined with the physical health problems she experienced resulting from poor air quality where she lived.

    This complex interaction of mental health, spirituality, social justice and environmental justice troubled me. I had taken actions in my personal life to be responsible with my environmental footprint, but I sensed a nudge to think bigger. What if how I thought about social justice needed to expand?

    Thus began my journey into religious environmental activism. As a minister who has specialized in spiritual care and pastoral theology, I have come to believe that working for social justice and caring for human beings means that we must also care for the planet sustaining our common life.

    We cannot claim to love the people God so loves without loving the whole of the world that God so loves. And here is the real challenge of this work: not that it is so big, but that it requires metanoia at a very basic level. It requires recognizing and accounting for ecological privilege, and a willingness to see how this privilege is integrally related to ecological and social marginalization.

    Let’s return to the community solar meeting, where “moral responsibility” became the center of discussion. In a global context, this was a group of very privileged people. There weren’t any extravagantly wealthy folks, but it was a room of people with at least some disposable income, thinking through their use of coal-powered kilowatt hours per month. In terms of local health costs, Utah struggles tremendously with air quality issues — inversions mean that the Salt Lake Valley experiences some of the nation’s worst air quality in winter months.

    Persons vulnerable to respiratory health problems struggle significantly in these months. On a global scale, carbon emissions contribute significantly to climate change. Disturbingly — but unsurprisingly — the most vulnerable in our local and global communities reap the consequences of our culture’s heavy use of fossil fuels.

    The repercussions of the fossil fuel use needed to keep our cultural system running arrive in the form of health issues, loss of natural resources due to drought or flooding, and inability to recover from the increasing rate of major natural disasters fueled by climate change.

    Clearly, the ability to purchase a solar array for one’s home will not alter the unjust structures of our world economy. And yet, without changes in hearts and minds of individuals like you and me who likely enjoy significant ecological privilege we cannot hope for any kind of change in our cultural practices and their devastating consequences. And so, I keep showing up to meetings like these and for work like this.

    This meeting is one small seed of change, and we need many, many seeds. They are there, and they are growing.

    Genny Rowley is an Alliance-recognized chaplain at the University of Utah Hospital, a Utah Interfaith Power & Light board member and project coordinator for Solar Champions, a statewide project promoting group purchase action in the move to solar energy