Paul Gorman founded the National Religious Partnership for the Environment in 1991, back when he was working with Dean James Morton in the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, the Episcopal flagship cathedral in New York City and one of the biggest cathedrals in the world. Paul had served as a speechwriter and press secretary for Eugene McCarthy back when the latter challenged Lyndon Johnson for the 1968 Democratic nomination for President based on opposition to the Vietnam War.
NRPE was the first interfaith organization, led by Christian ministers of all faiths, rabbis, Imams, Buddhists, Hindus, Native people, and other religious leaders, raising consciousness about environmental degradation, educating and training its clergy members not just to preach to their congregations but also to use the power of cross-religious partnerships to raise consciousness and push for political solutions. Clergy leaders would use excerpts from their own religious texts to illustrate that taking care of the earth and all species was a God-given mandate.
At some point in the first decade of this millennium, during the time of the George W. Bush White House, Paul started working with evangelical Christians, trying to persuade them to join this movement. A few welcomed him, but for others it was not an easy sell.
He told us over dinner that he was invited to a conference of evangelical leaders. He was an excellent speaker and a highly persuasive presenter. He went into some detail about what is happening around the world, with a focus on climate change, described the work of NRPE, and proposed that the Christian evangelical movement take part because there was no time to be lost.
They listened politely, he told us, then called a break. During the break, the head of the conference took Paul aside: “Paul, this was all very interesting, thank you,” he said. “But please tell me one thing: Do you believe in Jesus Christ as your savior?”
It was obvious to Paul that everything depended on his answer. By birth, he himself was both Jewish and Christian. He had collaborated with Ram Dass in the book How Can I Help, knew a great deal about various traditions, and I believe identified mostly as a Christian, though not as an evangelical.
“What answer did you give?” I asked.
He gave an answer that pleased his conscience, he told me. Nevertheless, it was clear that it wasn’t sufficient for the group of evangelicals, and his efforts met with no success.
I remembered that this morning, when I gave a talk as part of a Zen retreat. I thought of all the infinite stories of our universe, the narratives that shape us but also tear us apart. I thought of the humanitarian narrative around stopping to bomb Gaza and feeling horror at the thousands of people killed, including so many children.
I also thought of the conflicting narrative I carry as a Jewish woman, born in Israel to parents who went through wars and Holocaust, part of a family whose own sons discovered the gruesome murders that took place 3 weeks ago, all of whom are now in military uniform. The four of them came for a leave of 8-12 hours yesterday and my brother said it was his best birthday gift ever.
Day by day I bear witness to different narratives. Sometimes they’re so similar, you just have to change the names and pronouns and they’ll sound exactly the same. For years I felt as an outlier in the family due to my feelings about the Israeli occupation of Palestinians. Now I feel more torn than ever before.
“Why?” my sister asked me.
“Because that Saturday Israel lost,” I told her simply. Suddenly, its military, technological and economic advantages were nothing to take for granted. And I think that with its ongoing bombardment, regardless of how much the army describes it as hitting Hamas targets, it’s still losing, its soul if nothing else.
There are political solutions to this, not military. The world has to step in.
Today was our last warm day; temperatures tomorrow will be lower by at least 25 degrees Fahrenheit. I took the dogs for a walk and Aussie waded into the water and stood there, looking blissfully around, perhaps aware she might not do this again till next spring.