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Holy Waters

Churches on a mission to save the Bay

Yes, we’ll gather at the river,
The beautiful, the beautiful river;
Gather with the saints at the river
That flows by the throne of God.
–Hymn by Robert Lowry


We all live downstream. How clean our water is depends a lot on our upstream neighbors, just as those who live downstream from you trust you to keep it healthy. With so much water running through Chesapeake Country, keeping it drinkable, fishable and swimmable is a massive task that requires many hands.
    For an ever-growing number of Chesapeake churches and faith communities, the challenge is also a spiritual calling. Faith organizations own significant swaths of land within the Bay watershed. As custodians of this land, they recognize their responsibility to care for it.
    Thus, church members are flocking to the Anne Arundel Watershed Stewards Academy for practical hands-on education. Based at Arlington Echo Outdoor Center, the program has certified 160 stewards in its seven years. Now a new program aims at turning churches into champions of Chesapeake Bay and inspiring faith communities to take action for the earth.
    The first graduates of the RiverWise congregation program are 24 interfaith watershed stewards now trained to coordinate and care for stormwater projects on their church lands and to reach out to other faith congregations, Christian, Jewish and Muslim, from Brooklyn Park to Herring Bay.
    RiverWise is a partnership with the Interfaith Partners for the Chesapeake and the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay. The Alliance brings the money, looks for ways congregations can manage stormwater and makes project grants, so that “stormwater and spiritual training aligns with the work on the ground,” says Lou Etgen, who directs the program in Maryland.
    The inaugural class represents 17 local faith communities, including Congregation Kol Shalom. Christian congregations include one Baptist, Faith; one Catholic, Holy Family Catholic Church; one Lutheran, St. John’s; one Unitarian Universalist, UU Church of Annapolis; two AME, Payne Memorial and Mount Olive; two Presbyterian, Ark and Dove and Woods Memorial; two UMC, Wilson Memorial and Mt Zion; three Episcopal, St. Luke’s, St. Margaret’s and St. Phillips; plus Empowering Believers Church, Faith Christian Community Church and United Church of Christ in Edgewater.
    Their new stewards have planted 5,500 native plants and trees, installed 20 rain gardens, planted six conservation landscapes and created 300 square feet of pervious surfaces, areas where rain water can soak and filter into the ground instead of causing more runoff.
    “Water plays such an important role in many faith traditions, be it baptisms, foot-washing or the Jewish ritual mikvah bath,” says Kolya Braun-Greiner, who coordinates the work of the third partner, Interfaith Partners for the Chesapeake.
    Beyond their own grounds, the churches act as beacons on the hill, teaching their congregants to care for the earth.
    That’s the part of the mission developed and delivered by Interfaith. We are, says Braun-Greiner, turning stewards into environmental ministers in their congregation to teach church members ways to reduce pollution and care for the earth.

St. Luke’s Episcopal: Caring for God’s Creation
    One of those leading the charge is St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Eastport.
    “One of our core values as a congregation is caring for God’s creation,” explains the Rev. Diana Carroll.
    Church members are living out their values by putting their shovels and sweat — not just lip service — into environmental stewardship. With an environmental committee that includes four master watershed stewards, the church is undertaking a massive drainage project to commence this fall. The annual Blue & Green Festival in October plus a spring concert series all help supplement grants in raising money for continual conservation work and cleanups: conservation landscaping, invasive species removal and rain gardening.
    As a mission post of St. Anne’s on Church Circle, St. Luke’s was established to serve mariners on the Bay. Nowadays, the congregation is more likely to be recreational boaters than commercial watermen.
    Finding the diminutive church on Back Creek seemed divine inspiration to Betsy Love, recognized as 2015’s Master Watershed Steward of the Year.
    “It is no ordinary church,” she says. “I was struck by the chapel with its ship-like beams and the light streaming through the arched window behind the altar with a lovely scallop shell.”
    Reverence for the Bay brought Love, a sailor, to St. Luke’s. At St. Luke’s she found her mission.
    “I realized the Bay needed me to be more involved right after I nearly lost a friend who had to be hospitalized for three weeks after swimming with a small scratch on his leg,” Love says. “He was a runner and swimmer, a perfect specimen of health. If this could happen to him, it could happen to anyone.”
    Love became a master steward. Her capstone project was so large that it took three stewards — Sandie Kirkland and Dawn Moorehead joined in. Restoration of Nature, their project, benefits not only St. Luke’s but also the entire surrounding community.
    Taking their lessons from the Watershed Academy, the stewards, proposed a series of step pools to slow and filter the water heading into Back Creek. Underwood and Associates Ecological Restoration did the design and engineering.
    Love also designed a set of bio-swales on three acres of undeveloped land owned by the church and adjoining Watergate Pointe apartments. The bio-swales are trenches that intercept hundreds of thousands of gallons of stormwater, slowing it so it filters through the soil and roots of plants, where pollutants are removed.
    The project treats runoff from more than 27 acres of developed land in Eastport. It requires multiple partnerships with state and federal agencies and plenty of patience. Love has already secured over $1.3 million from Maryland Department of Natural Resources and other nonprofit and private donors.
    “It would be hard to overstate the importance of the role that Watershed Stewards Academy has played in enabling St. Luke’s to do this work,” Carroll says. “I can’t imagine how we would have gotten this far without them.”
    For the first step in that community-wide project, steward Sandie Kirkland tackled the overgrown woods behind St. Luke’s, a not-so-big but still daunting task.
    “Many trees had been killed by the strangling vines of English ivy, and oriental bittersweet Multiflora rose and autumn olive had overtaken the native plants that fed birds and insects,” Kirkland says. “As my project consultant, Jodie Shivery of Ecologically Sound Landscapes, described it, the woodland had become an ecological desert and was not supportive of wildlife.”
    Over 170 volunteers attacked the invasive vegetation for six days before the crew was able to replant with native trees and shrubs. The restored woodland section is adjacent to the area where the step pool system will be built next fall.
    Kirkland says the experience of working with RiverWise and the Watershed Stewards Academy provided her with the opportunity to shift from “lip-service passion and love for nature” to becoming a change-maker.
    “Everyone who has good intentions needs a place to give, and, most importantly, the knowledge, support and motivation of others to reach a goal. My project was achieved through this lovely process of synergy,” she says.

Mount Olive AME: Making Black the New Green
    A few miles away, the Rev. Johnny Calhoun is firing up his congregation to make “Black the New Green.”