IN SERVICE OF LIFE
The Rev. Fletcher Harper is an Episcopal priest and GreenFaith’s Executive Director. Under his leadership, GreenFaith has developed innovative programs linking religious belief and practice to the environment. An award-winning spiritual writer and nationally-recognized preacher on the environment, he teaches and speaks at houses of worship from a range of denominations nationally and internationally about the moral, spiritual basis for environmental stewardship and justice. He is an Ashoka fellow (2011) and author of GreenFaith: Mobilizing God’s People to Protect the Planet (Abingdon Press, 2015). A graduate of Princeton University and Union Theological Seminary Fletcher served as a parish priest for ten years in leadership positions in the Episcopal Church before becoming GreenFaith’s leader.
How and why do you contribute to environmental conservation on personal and professional levels?
By a combination of living my own environmentally responsible life in terms of my own consumption habits, doing my best to reduce my carbon footprint, eating vegetarian, being responsible and working on an organizational level with GreenFaith. Through leadership programs and campaigns, we try to encourage more religious leaders to step into those behaviors and to advocate for policies. I try to do it both individually and institutionally.
Do religious leaders have more of an impact when they speak to their congregations than someone people see on TV or something they read in a magazine? Religious leaders are so revered by their congregations…
The way that religious leaders can create change is because congregations are communities, so the way that change works is not that the leader gives one talk and everything changes; it’s the way they preach over time and monitor the habits of institution. Because people are members of that relationship it gives people a chance to change their habits also. I think that religious congregations are really well suited to support environmental protection but it is through the cumulative impact of teaching relationships and changing behaviors. It’s a cumulative process rather than just a one-time kind of thing.
GreenFaith is an interfaith coalition for the environment that was founded in 1992. It works with houses of worship, religious schools and people of all faiths to help them become better environmental stewards. It believes in addressing environmental issues holistically, and is committed to being a one-stop shop for the resources and tools religious institutions need to engage environmental issues and become religious-environmental leaders. www.greenfaith.org
What about how we treat animals on individual animals? Do we see that they have a soul? How do we not have a little bit of self-loathing for how we treat these sentient beings?
The cruelty that animals suffer at our hands is unthinkable. Even though there are some people who are critical of certain animal rights groups for being overly aggressive, but my feeling is God bless them for making us aware of and making it unavoidable for us in terms of what is really happening. Religious groups need to reckon with that. We all need to reckon with that. It’s horrific. This is not at all scientific but I find that when I talk to people about why they eat less meat or why they’ve gone vegetarian they feel appalled and violated by what happens to animals in factory farms and they can’t stand the cruelty. It’s that more than the carbon footprint of the meat it’s that they owe a duty and respect to other sentient creatures that makes them make that change. On an individual level people can’t help but love animals. It’s something that is first nature for us.
I don’t think information changes people for the most part, I think relationships do.
So, adopting a shelter animal or getting people in front of individual animals helps to foster that love and that may help people go vegetarian or vegan?
Everyone has a sense of their own identity. This is how change happens. By helping regular contact with animals and the natural world and their well-being becomes part of people’s identity. If I see bad treatment it feels like a violation of my own identity. I don’t think information changes people for the most part, I think relationships do.
Why do you devote so much time to this issue?
When I was growing up and all through my life many of my most meaningful spiritual experiences have happened outdoors and in relationship to animals. I don’t think I’m alone in this but I don’t think most people think about it that way. My work is definitely based on the sense that the earth is sacred. There is a bigger soul out there that is what Christians and Muslims and Jews call God’s Creation and that my calling in life was to try to awaken a sense of that. For me, it was functioning as a religious leader and this is a calling within a calling. So many people have had these experiences outdoors. These experiences are transformative. People are moved to the deepest part of their being.
Any last thoughts?
More than anything, what I want people to know are that the feelings of love and connection and kinship they have with animals and the natural world are genuinely sacred, and I feel very moved saying that. This is about the core of who we are as human beings and what is at stake with this works is the protection of other creatures that have feelings and the protection of our shared home. It is God’s holy and sacred work. So that to me is what most important to realize. It’s not optional.
The feelings of love and connection and kinship people have with animals and the natural world are genuinely sacred.
Interviewed by Melissa Foss, freelance Freelance content creator with experience in magazines, PR, hosting and digital; eco-style expert supporting no animal testing.
No part of this interview can be reproduced without citing Thinking Animals United.