about the earthwitness project
by Marshall Massey, Projects Director
The Environmental Projects Center
It began in 1996. At that time, I’d been pondering the condition of the religious-environmental movement for five years, feeling that it had somehow wandered down a blind alley. Most of the activities that religious-environmental groups were engaged in in the early-to-mid-1990s were either forms of abstract theology and contemplation, or relatively safe and, alas, minor things like recycling and tree-planting. Real control of many of the larger groups had passed into the hands of functionaries who didn’t much grasp the significance of major environmental and spiritual issues. Membership in most groups had ceased to grow significantly; and more importantly, the fires of excitement and enthusiasm that had blazed up so brightly in those groups in the 1980s were dying down.
I have long believed that, as far as the big environmental issues go, the world must either make a major change of direction, and soon, or it won’t survive. Moreover, I feel convinced that even if the world makes such a change, the change won’t last if it’s not well rooted in the religious part of our selves. So this loss of excitement and enthusiasm was a real concern to me.
During the early 1990s this sense of concern led me to study other reform movements that had not died back in such a manner, but instead had won over more and more people until they had succeeded in changing the world. I began to see that all such movements had engaged in witness or something comparable, and that these practices had been what kept their fires burning and had drawn growing numbers of people to them.
By the middle of 1996, I felt I understood enough to be able to talk to others about it. And so in October of that year, with the approval of the president of this organization, I obtained the earthwitness.org domain on the Internet as a project identity marker, and began convening discussion groups on witness, and workshops on witnessing skills, at religious and environmental events throughout the U.S.
Now, skipping ahead nine years —
In early 2005 I was invited to give a major presentation — including a keynote speech, a multi-day workshop, and a four-day-long Bible study — on “Living in Harmony with All God’s Creation”, at the August, 2006 session of Baltimore Yearly Meeting, a regional body of Friends that includes many gifted social activists.
By that time it had become clear to me that Friends were in fact quite divided in regard to major environmental issues such as greenhouse warming and endangered species. (Actually, virtually all religious bodies are divided on such matters.) Some Friends believed strongly that harmony with all God’s creation cannot happen unless people stop adding to the planet’s greenhouse gas blanket and stop destroying what’s left of the world’s wilderness. Others believed equally strongly that such reforms are not only unnecessary but dangerous to the nation’s economy.
I was also, by now, very clear in my mind and heart that, given such divisions, no action on my part would be right unless it was one that built unity. But the way in which unity could be built wasn’t obvious at all to me. I prayed over the matter for a good six months. And in October, 2005, I began to sense (as what we Friends call a “leading”) that the right way to proceed in this particular case was to walk the distance from Omaha, Nebraska, where I live, to Harrisonburg, Virginia, where Baltimore Yearly Meeting would be gathering.
As I came to understand it, the walk itself, from Omaha to Harrisonburg, would not be witness but an opportunity to listen — to God, to the people I met with on the way, and to all the natural world — and through listening, to learn. In this way I would be given an understanding of what was needed in Harrisonburg, and in Harrisonburg I would then be able to bear the witness that was called for.
Up to this point, the earthwitness.org domain had served me solely as an e-mail address. Now, however, Friends persuaded me that it was time to take the next step: I should set up an on-line journal at that address, which could be used to keep others informed of how my walk was progressing.
And so, as the three-month journey from Omaha to Harrisonburg proceeded (and, after my ankles gave out, became transformed from a walk-pure-and-simple into a combination walk-and-drive), I met with Friends in communities along the way, asked them what sorts of action they believed was needed, and reported their answers in my journal. And other Friends read my reports in the journal, became interested, and responded with their own thoughts and ideas. And the fires of our shared enthusiasm began to grow.
And in Harrisonburg, I did bear my witness. You can read about it for yourself on my earthwitness journal —
Was it a breakthrough? It’s much too soon to say. But there were certainly some potent synergies between the address I was invited to give, the walk that took me there, and the interactions which this on-line journal made possible.
The earthwitness project still remains a small and personal effort. But small as it is, it is putting ideas and tools for positive social change — insights into the power of witness, understandings of how witness works, and ideas about how it can be practiced in different situations — into the minds of caring people who can put such things to use.