THE ANACOSTIA RIVER is a river of contrasts. Often called “the nation’s forgotten river,” it flows for eight-and-a-half miles through some of the richest and poorest communities in and around D.C., through residential and industrial zones, through marshes and military installations. In fact, the federal government owns so much land in the watershed that when all those federal toilets flush during a heavy rain, they drain directly into the river.
The Anacostia River watershed is home to more than 800,000 people, 43 species of fish, and nearly 200 species of birds—including our nation’s symbol, the bald eagle, and the majestic great blue heron. Yet the trash in the river is so deep and wide at times that you’re just as likely to see a heron walking across a flotilla of trash rather than flying over the water.
As the Anacostia Riverkeeper—part of the Waterkeeper Alliance movement to protect local waterways—it was my job for three years to be the eyes, ears, and voice of its watershed. Of the nearly 200 waterkeepers worldwide, I was the only riverkeeper who was also a minister. I was called “Rev. Riverkeeper.”
The antiquated sewer system that pumps more than 2 billion gallons of raw sewage, mixed with polluted runoff, into the river each year is not just a shame, it’s a sin. African-American churches along the Anacostia used to baptize their members in the river. Nowadays, the river wouldn’t wash away anyone’s sins. My goal as Rev. Riverkeeper was an Anacostia that was not only “fishable” and “swimmable”—as required by the Clean Water Act—but also “baptizable.”
THE ANACOSTIA RIVER is in desperate need of healing. “How has one river fallen so far from grace?” asked one community leader.
I’ve had a lot of time to reflect on this question—and on the “state of grace” of the more than 100,000 creeks, streams, and rivers in the broader Chesapeake Bay watershed (which includes the Anacostia)—in my work as executive director of the Interfaith Partners for the Chesapeake. In this capacity I worked with congregations of all spiritual traditions throughout the watershed. I carried that community leader’s question to them, and we prayed together on how to care for creation, especially the waterway nearest to their house of worship.
One particularly effective Bible study with congregations was based on various verses from Psalms that refer to water. These verses (for example, Psalms 1:3; 68:6-9; 107:33-35) tell the story of how water works in creation and the different forms water takes. It’s an amazing system. The cycle that water travels is as much God’s creation as is the water itself. Generally speaking, the Earth has an established amount of water that has been cycling through phases and providing life since it was first established. The water celebrated by the psalmists is the same water we have today—literally. The waters of baptisms and ritual cleansings we use today are all part of the same body of water used by the prophets and Jesus. We are part of this cycle; this cycle is part of us. Yet we know this cycle is out of balance.
The psalmists’ vision of how things should be is not how things are. Our actions (or inactions) are the direct cause. We experience flooding in some areas, drought in others. We build dams and levees to control the flow of water. We allow harmful chemicals to change the very nature of water. Water that used to flow gently over lush vegetation now roars harshly across asphalt into these waterways, carrying with it pollutants and eroding riverbanks. We seem to think we know better than God how water should be water.
That’s the bad news. The good news is that we can help return the water cycle to its natural rhythm, as intended by God and described by the psalmists.
Last year, D.C.’s Washington City Church of the Brethren installed a bright red 650-gallon cistern on its property. The cistern was installed with youth community workers who live along the river’s banks. Jointly organized by the church, the D.C. Department of the Environment, Anacostia Riverkeeper, and Groundwork Anacostia, this project provides free rainwater to the Capitol Hill community, prevents thousands of gallons of storm water from entering the river as polluted runoff, and lowers the church’s water bill.
Once the cistern was installed, the church hosted a community celebration in which the cistern was christened and the water blessed. “We are blessed to share this water with our community,” I said, “and hope that the blessing spreads through our community.” With that, it began to rain.
Dottie Yunger, a Methodist pastor, is the former executive director of the Interfaith Partners for the Chesapeake. For more on your watershed, check out www.epa.gov/owow/surf.