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Keeping the Faith: Using the Bible as the Basis for Environmental Stewardship in Virginia

"Some environmental conflicts are not just centered on the clash over the harvest and management of resources, but over the differences in worldviews of the people involved in the conflict."
Susan Drake Emmerich,

Religion and environmentalism are two words that typically do not go together. But when working with a rural, faith-based island community in Virginia, one researcher found that using examples from the Bible was the most successful approach to promoting sustained environmental stewardship and establishing partnerships with environmental professionals.

The initiative grew out of escalating conflicts between environmentalists and water-dependent communities on the Chesapeake Bay over oyster and blue-crab regulations set by state boards of fisheries and supported by environmental groups, such as the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. The clash climaxed in 1995 with the torching of one of the foundation's buildings on Smith Island and signs against the foundation being placed on waterways to Tangier Island for tourists to see.

At the time, Susan Drake Emmerich was a graduate student in Environmental Studies at the University of Wisconsin looking for a dissertation topic dealing with conflict resolution. What began with her researching the underlying causes of the conflict on Tangier Island and the social forces that could inspire change resulted in a community-based initiative to address the issues of environmental sustainability, obeying and ensuring fair laws and regulations, and developing alternative economic opportunities.

"People would never have accepted this if it hadn't been church-based," says Denny Crockett, principal of Tangier's Combined School and one of the citizens involved in the Watermen's Stewardship for the Chesapeake project. "This is a community that has 98 percent of its economy based upon the water, through crabs, fish, and oysters. It's something you grow up around and sort of take for granted.... Susan sparked us to look around and see the bounty that we have, and opened our eyes to start now to keep what we've got and enhance it rather than letting things just go on their own."

After meeting with community and church leaders to explain her research, Emmerich spent several months on Tangier completing an ethnography, or a study of the island's culture and people, and their ways of viewing the world. "I was going out on the watermen's boats for 8 to 10 hours a day and talking with them. I wanted to know how they viewed the environmentalists, the environment itself, and what they thought were the reasons for the conflict."

"I think everyone appreciated what she was doing at that stage," says Susan Parks, director of Tangier Watermen's Stewardship for the Chesapeake (TaSC), a nonprofit organization that was established as a result of the community's stewardship initiative. "People liked being listened to and having their thoughts recognized. I don't think anybody expected any great changes to come about, but it was good that they had a chance to have their say."

The ethnography showed that 84 percent of the island's estimated 650 population considers itself conservative, evangelical Christian, and that the two churches on the island are the primary institutional forces of change in the community, Emmerich says. She notes that island women also are strong forces of change, and that the Tangiermen have an environmental ethic within their religious belief system.

What also came to light was a "whole host of reasons why there was conflict" between the watermen and the government and environmental organizations, Emmerich says. "The watermen believed that scientists and environmentalists were one and the same, and that they didn't respect the watermen's knowledge, and in many cases, they didn't," she says. Another major issue was the "fear of loss of livelihood and loss of way of life. They considered anyone who threatened their existence the enemy, and both environmentalists and scientists fell into that category."

After sharing her findings with community leaders and leaving the island, a citizen's committee was formed and Emmerich was invited back to assist in developing a stewardship initiative. Subcommittees were formed to address the three primary areas of community concern.

"My role was that of paraclete, which is a Greek word meaning walks alongside, comforts, encourages, and exhorts," she says. This included providing information on environmental and economic development issues and putting them into the context of the Tangiermen's Christian worldview. She was even invited to speak from the pulpit of both of the island churches where she put environmental issues into scriptural context. At a meeting of both churches, 56 watermen pledged to be better stewards of God's creation through a Watermen's Stewardship Covenant.

"Incredible things happened in a short period of time," Emmerich says. "There was a dramatic change in attitude and behavior that you could see throughout the whole community."

"We had some wonderful meetings," acknowledges Denny Crockett. "We had watermen themselves offering suggestions about which laws were ineffective, harmful, or were not helping the resources, and giving ideas for better laws and regulations." He says residents began "keeping the areas in front of their homes and fences clean, even going into the marshes in boats to pick up trash that drifted in at high tide." Economic initiatives, such as a women's crab-picking co-op and crafts-making co-op, also have been explored.

The committee's efforts culminated in the Watermen's Stewardship 2020 Vision, which was presented to representatives of government and environmental organizations at a committee-sponsored workshop, where they received a lot of interest and support, Susan Parks says. Since then, fishery and wetland projects have been established with environmental organizations, and TaSC was formed to promote environmental and economic stewardship and preservation of the watermen's culture.

Parks notes that "a small group [of Tangiermen] is still suspicious and skeptical" of the initiative, but that "overall, it's been a positive experience. It's given us more of a feeling of control. We don't feel quite as helpless as we did before."

"Faith is a very powerful motivating force," says Emmerich, who is now a consultant in Illinois. "Faith, in this case, was a more powerful motivating force for change than economic issues. People there were willing to risk a loss of income in order to honor a higher authority."

She adds, "Some environmental conflicts are not just centered on the clash over the harvest and management of resources, but over the differences in worldviews of the people involved in the conflict. The belief systems and values are often very different between environmentalists, scientists, policymakers, and local people. To institute a change of attitude and behavior requires an understanding and respect of the worldview of the community they're working in. If you try to instill an environmental ethic in a local community, and if the community perceives that it's not coming from their worldview, they will reject it out of hand.... There needs to be an understanding and respect on both sides for the different ways of viewing the world. Facts alone can't change behavior, ethics, or philosophy."

For more information on the Watermen's Stewardship for the Chesapeake project, contact Susan Drake Emmerich at (847) 223-7646 or sdemmerich@yahoo.com. You may also contact Susan Parks at (757) 891-2329 or s_parks@yahoo.com, or Denny Crockett at (757) 891-2234 or dennyc_99@yahoo.com.

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