By Lynn Lieu
The desert is an iconic landscape in many religions and has been spiritually symbolic throughout Western culture. But since it’s not immune from divisive environmental and political issues (endangered species, development, etc.), the desert seems to have lost some of its mystic luster over the years. Recently, a national conservancy organization has funded and kick-started a joint project between religious leaders and educators to raise awareness about why it’s important to preserve the desert.
For one, it’s where God appears to have been found time and time again.
“When you look at the desert in religions, it’s very rich,” says Jim Burklo, Associate Dean of Religious Life for UCLA and a member of the newly-formed Desert Stewardship Project. “Jesus spent 40 days in the wilderness, where it’s completely barren desert out there, very arid country east of Israel proper. The prophet Muhammad had his Revelation of the Koran in a cave in the desert. Moses discovered the burning bush in the desert and received the commandments . . . There’s a long tradition of people discovering God in the desert. There’s a whole literature in Christianity called the Desert Fathers. These were monks that lived out in the desert and prayed and meditated for years and years. The wellspring of Christian spirituality comes out of the desert if you look at the history of the church.”
The Desert Stewardship Project, which started this year, brought together 21 faith leaders in an effort to educate the local communities about the connections between the desert and religion and why the desert should be protected. The Stewardship outlines principles that were developed and are endorsed by leaders representing a diversity of faiths, including Christianity, Judaism and Islam.
“We are motivating and mobilizing religious communities in the Inland Empire, particularly those in the desert to learn about the need for desert preservation, environmental protection in the desert, to appreciate the desert, to be aware of what our spiritual/religious traditions bring to bear on the topic on environmental preservation, desert preservation in particular and to mobilize them to be supportive of and preserve the desert in the long-term,” says Burklo, who wrote and drafted the Stewardship’s principles.
The project began when an organization, that wishes to remain anonymous, reached out to faith leaders and community organizers with a grant for the project.
“The grantor had made some contacts among San Bernardino County clergy,” says June Boutwell, grant coordinator for the Desert Stewardship. “Eventually the grantor was referred to my office. The scope of the project was to develop materials to engage diverse faith communities in issues related to desert conservation.”
Religious leaders were approached and asked to donate their time to the project. Eventually a steering committee was formed to help develop the principles outlined in the Stewardship’s mission statement.
“The steering committee developed the resources [outlined in the Stewardship’s principles] for the project. This was accomplished by meeting together and by making sure that the documents developed were reviewed by all the faith traditions [involved] to ensure that there was theological and cultural integrity and authenticity to the quotes in the statement,” says Boutwell. “It was of primary importance that the various faith communities who would endorse the project in the future find the materials in harmony with the teachings and sacred texts of their particular tradition.”
The project is in its beginning stages and is currently working to educate more communities.
“This project is a long-term effort says,” Burklo. “It is not tied to any one particular piece of legislation or issue that the desert is facing. It’s about educating variations of all different religious backgrounds for the long-term to make religious connections between faith and the need to honor the sacredness of our arid lands. The grant got us off ground, but we will continue this as an effort from volunteers.” For more info go to www.facebook.com/Desert.Stewardship.