Why loving your neighbor means loving your planet – and how to get started.

Why loving your neighbor means loving your planet – and how to get started.

“Love God. Love Neighbor. Two simple but difficult directives of our faith. By caring for our environment, we are doing both.”

That’s Steve Huels, one of the leaders of our Green Team here at Winnetka Congregational Church. We had the chance to interview Steve this month, as well as fellow Green Team leader Jennifer Guy, about the environmental advocacy work they’re doing to care for the planet, for the neighborhoods and parks in our community, and for the world as a whole.

Around here, we see taking responsibility for our planet as a spiritual practice. It’s a tangible way to love our neighbor. And to love God. Every day.

These days, that’s not the predominant mindset for people of faith in America. The Church in this country has a well-earned reputation for disconnecting itself from responsibility for the planet. By doing so, it has taught people to divide things into separate, even adversarial categories: holy, spiritual things of the mind and soul, and earthly, temporary things of the body and soil. Many seem to have decided that loving our neighbor doesn’t extend to loving our neighborhood, and have taken a sort of come-what-may-I’m-gonna-be-in-heaven-anyway approach to the very real, very measurable truth that our planet is suffering. The result is that we then contribute to that suffering.

At Winnetka Congregational Church, we believe that mind, body, spirit, other, self, soil… they’re all connected. They’re interdependent. They’re all a part of loving our neighbor and loving God.

“Living sustainably is an act of love toward future generations, toward our neighbors yet to be born,” says Steve. “I helped start the Green Team at a time when a few members were interested in sponsoring more sustainable practices in our church events and our on-the-lawn worship service. Initially, we were just focused on getting rid of plastics and pesticides at Winnetka Congregational Church. Over time, however, we’ve felt called to expand our focus to environmental justice issues in the greater Chicago area. This work is one way for me to take loving action on behalf of the environment at a time when the need for environmental action is painfully clear.”

Today, more than ever, we can feel the earth around us suffering from a lack of love and care. Our summers are progressively hotter with record high temperatures and dangerous tropical storms becoming the expectation rather than the exception. Even with teams of conservationists around the world doing their best work, we lost twenty-three species of animals to extinction in 2021. It’s easy to wonder what, exactly, we’re leaving our future neighbors. And easy to see how our actions today have inescapable and perhaps irreversible consequences for them tomorrow.

Experts believe that correcting climate change is still possible. But it’s going to take a commitment from every single one of us to live in more sustainable ways. In a word, it’s going to take action.

It’s going to take love. The verb kind of love.

Our Green Team is made up of members of the community who are practicing that love by learning about environmental issues, and by leading the rest of our congregation to act in ways that better care for our planet. “It’s more than recycling or consuming less,” says Green Team co-leader, Jennifer Guy. “We are exploring ways to take tangible steps to be responsible stewards. It’s about education and understanding. It’s not about scolding people. This is the way we work at Winnetka Congregational Church. We put our faith into action.”

“Each year, we have offered a series of programs designed to raise awareness of critical issues on the environment and environmental justice,” shares Steve. “A recent highlight was an evening program on Environmental Justice with Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky. The program, offered both in person and online, covered a wide range of issues and provided insights from an experienced legislator into leveraging our influence as citizens.” By learning from the experts and discovering our place in the movement toward a greener Chicago and a greener world, we can actively demonstrate our love for our neighbors. The humans we greet when we fetch our mail, as well as the trees that surround us, the flower beds, the birds, the butterflies. By loving them well, we’re also loving the neighbors who will inhabit these streets long after we’re gone.

And we’re also loving God. As Jennifer puts it: “So many of our hymns are about God‘s creation: For the beauty of the earth, for the glory of the skies. I sing the mighty power of God who made the mountains rise. O Lord, my God, when I in awesome wonder consider all the worlds thy hands hath made. I see the stars, I hear the rolling thunder, thy power throughout the universe displayed. Respect for God’s creation is deeply embedded in the Christian tradition. It’s only natural that we would take the responsibility of being stewards for God’s earth seriously.”

“It is an act of love to care for creation,” Steve agrees. “To conserve, protect, and restore instead of exploiting and destroying. We have no right to live wastefully just because we can.”

If we truly believe that everything around us comes from God – artfully crafted, beautifully painted, a love poem of Creation for all to enjoy – then it’s easy to find the motivation to sustain and protect it. Part of loving God is loving what God has made.

So, what does that love look like?

Simply stopping and breathing in the beauty all around us is a great place to start. The summer sunsets. The cool morning breezes. The smell of grass after a rain. The flowers that bloom and the trees that shade. The bees that buzz. And the sand that dusts our feet. First, we honor and recognize the wonder of the beauty of God’s earth.

And, then, we act. We find new ways to pray in the garden, to worship at the recycling bins, to walk instead of drive to the market as our daily devotional, our daily practice. Maybe you’ll call Steve or Jennifer to see about getting involved with the Green Team. Maybe you’ll feel moved to learn more about living greener. Maybe you’ll inspire our community’s next big idea for environmental action.

Mary Oliver has a wonderful way of reminding us how deeply our love for neighbor, our love for God, and our care for the earth are intertwined.

Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean—
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down—
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

—Mary Oliver

Loving our neighbor. And caring for our neighborhood. Loving God. And loving God’s miraculous handiwork. To kneel down in the grass, to stroll through the fields…it sure sounds like a beautiful way to spend our one wild and precious life.

Ready to get involved with the WCC Green Team? Here’s how.