The American Southwest: One pictures cowboys riding across a thorny but beautiful red rock desert under a clear blue sky. Most people are shocked to discover that Arizona has any environmental problemsbut it does. A growing awareness of the threats posed to the environment and human beings led to the first Franciscan environmental organization in the United States, the SouthWest Environmental Equity Project (SWEEP).
SWEEP was conceived in 1992 by members of the Franciscan family (friars, sisters, secular Franciscans, and concerned laypeople) from Arizona, New Mexico, and Nevada who realized that concern for the environment was a thread common to their region. They wanted to contribute to the environmental movement in a new way.
Historically, few environmental organizations incorporated a sense of social justice into their work. Yet studies have shown that people of color and the poor tend to be the most severely affected by pollution and other environmental problems, which has given rise to the environmental justice movement. SWEEP embraces Francis of Assisis devotion to the poor and his love of creation. The result is a blend of community organizing, Franciscan spirituality, environmental education, and political advocacy.
SWEEP exists today due in large part to the leadership of Bonnie Danowski, a laywoman from Scottsdale, Arizona. A longtime friend of the friars, and a former employee at the Franciscan Renewal Center in Scottsdale, Danowski began by interviewing more than 100 people to determine the best way for the Franciscan family to respond to environmental problems in the Southwest.
"I realized the environmental movement needs a faith dimension," Danowski said. "It was a natural thing for anyone who has studied Francis to do! When there are problems in the environment, people are also impacted." With seed money and emotional and spiritual support from the friars, she started SWEEP and served as its director from 1992-1996.
TWO OF THE most exciting directions SWEEP has taken involve education in parishes and accompaniment of those impacted by environmental injustice. Sister Liz Cummins is a Franciscan who combines grief ministry, spiritual direction, and a passion for desert landscapes. She draws on all three at events called SWEEP Evenings.
"At parishes around the Phoenix area we have presentations on some of the qualities of Franciscan spirituality as it relates to creation," she explains. "We look at practical connections: Whats going on in your corner of the Earth? I show that Franciscan creation spirituality looks at all of life, all creation, from the perspective that it is relational and ongoing. It is not mechanical, not set; creation is still developing."
Nowhere in North America is the human cost of environmental damage clearer than at Nogales, which straddles the U.S.-Mexico border. A dramatic growth of U.S.-owned factories in Mexico, known as maquilladoras, has led to massive toxic pollution on both sides of the border. This directly affects U.S. residents because air and water flow downhill from Nogales, Mexico, into Arizona. The result has been an unusually high concentration of persons suffering from cancer and lupus.
In response to an invitation from a grassroots organization, SWEEP has led several delegations from the Phoenix area south to visit Nogales, see the environmental problems firsthand, and offer friendship and medical help to those suffering environmental illnesses. SWEEP has also organized letter-writing campaigns on behalf of those affected in Nogales.
"Christians who say, I dont have time for the environment, I just want to serve the people have a harder time keeping the environment and people in separate categories after visiting Nogales," says Bonnie. "I think people are starting to see that human health is connected to the health of the environment."
To further its vision of working more with affected Latino neighborhoods in Phoenix, SWEEP recently hired a Chicana bilingual, bicultural community organizer. Connie Meza brings a deep commitment to fighting racism to her environmental activism. "I want to create effective change for those who are under-represented," she says. With the prayers of Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of ecology, one can be confident that she will.
KEITH WARNER, O.F.M., is a Franciscan friar, environmental activist, and dancer living in Oakland, California. For more information, write to SWEEP at 231 N. 3rd St., Phoenix, AZ 85004; (602) 253-1875.