'Healing Earth' - Orthodox Christian perspectives on Ecology and Climate Change Conference

October 13, 2016 to October 14, 2016

The small mission parish of Saint Aidan Orthodox Church in Cranbrook hosted a 3-day conference on a timely and relevant topic at the Royal Alexandra Hall over the weekend of Oct. 13 -15. About 85 attendees came from many places in the United States, BC, Alberta, Saskatchewan and Ontario. Priests and pastors from several Christian communities as well as a good cross section of Christians and others were united in their appreciation for the depth of the lectures. We were blessed to have local Ktunaxa Elder Marty Williams open our conference with some heartfelt words and a Ktunaxa prayer of blessing.

Although the speakers were all Orthodox Church members, the subject is one of concern to all Christian leaders and all of humanity; ecology and climate change due to global warming transcends any political or religious borders and is a subject that effects every human being regardless of race, creed or nationality.

Orthodox priest, Doctor of cross cultural communication, author of many books, PBS series, etc. Fr. Michael Oleksa from Alaska was the headline speaker. While in Cranbrook he also taught an Anthropology class at the Traditional Gathering Place building on the traditional Ktunaxa territory at the College of the Rockies for professor Avery Hulbert, and did several radio interviews. Although Fr. Michael is of German and Slavic ancestry, he married into the Yup’ik Nation more than 40 years ago and is recognized as an Elder by the Alaskan Federation of Natives. He spoke on how “the indigenous people for thousands of years have embraced the environment and derived most of their spirituality from their experience.” He shared many traditional stories from the indigenous people of Alaska, demonstrating how “Christian” their outlook already was in their “pre-contact” spirituality. When the Orthodox missionaries arrived in Alaska in the late 1700’s, Christianity was presented as the fulfillment of this spirituality, rather than the replacement of it. Their culture was celebrated and accepted and there was no requirement to assimilate into a foreign culture to become Christians. They soon had their own indigenous Orthodox priests, and now have recognized indigenous Christian holy people and saints such as Saint Peter the Aleut, Saint Jacob, and Matushka Olga. In his four lectures, Fr. Michael developed his message of seeing the presence of God in all of creation hat we can learn from the respect the deep love each indigenous group has for their land, and join in supporting their strong determination to protect it. In Fr. Michael’s last session, the sacredness of water was expounded. He shared the story of how the proposed “Pebble” gold mine with its huge arsenic laced tailings pond, to be built at the world’s largest Salmon spawning headwaters in Alaska was stopped, largely by joining with the local indigenous people and actively going out and blessing the waters that would be affected. The conference then concluded by entering “Kairos” time and celebrating the blessing of water service and blessing all present with the holy water.

Kaleeg Hainsworth, noted author of “An Altar in the Wilderness” spoke passionately on the current science of where we are in the global warming cycle. He presented much information on the raise in sea levels, which are already being experienced, and the expected results of the rapidly raising global temperature, continuing from the present 1.6 through to 2 degrees and above. Hundreds of millions of people in coastal cities are expected to be impacted as sea levels raise by several feet over the coming decades. In his second presentation, he interviewed Fr. Nilos Nellis, an Orthodox priest and environmentalist who lives off the grid in Birchdale (across the Kootenay Lake from Kaslo, BC). Fr Nilos is creating a wilderness sanctuary and building a stone chapel. He spoke deeply of the need to live a life focused on the heart, and to simplify and live a less consuming lifestyle.

Mark Sandford, head of the large inner healing counselling organization “Elijah House” in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, spoke of the transformational power of prayer and of the misunderstanding that some Christian’s have of the term “dominion” of the earth, sharing the biblical injunction that this means to tenderly care for all of creation. He told many stories from “Healing the Earth”, the book he and his father John Sandford wrote, showing how connected many of the saints such as St. Francis, St. Seraphim and many others were to God’s creation, and their loving care and communion with the animals. He also had some current remarkable stories on how prayer and repentance had resulted in shellfish returning to areas they had been wiped out from, and insect and pest infestations being reversed.

Executive Director Fred Krueger, of the Orthodox environmental group “Transfiguration” web site: http://www.orth-transfiguration.org/ spoke of the many statements that have come from the Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew since the world day of prayer for the environment was first instituted by the Patriarch in 1989. Fred quoted one of dozens of Patriarch Bartholomew’s statements; “We wish to emphasize the seriousness of the situation. To persist in a path of excess and waste…is not only folly; it jeopardizes the survival of God’s creation…In the end, this is not only sinful; it is suicidal.” He emphasized that environmental responsibility is completely in line with Orthodox theology and agreed with Fr. Michael’s explanation of John 3:16 in that “God so loved the world (THE COSMOS – ALL OF HIS CREATION) that He sent His only begotten Son…”

Music by recording artists Jeremy and Sheree Eisenhauer, and a wonderful lunchtime of storytelling by Shayna Jones of “The Art of Storytelling” were also greatly enjoyed by all.

Thanks to all the many parishioners at St. Aidan’s, to Don and Char and the staff at the Royal Alexandra Hall and to all who came out in making this a great conference. If anyone is interested in hearing more, please call me anytime or come on by for Liturgy and lunch! Sunday’s : 10:30 am.

Fr Andrew Applegate