Our Lady of the Watershed

OUR LADY QUEEN of Peace church sits atop a low bluff overlooking the Army Navy golf course. This vibrant Arlington, Va. Catholic community has a history of staring hopelessness in the eye and declaring, “Not on our standing ground!”

Queen of Peace was founded by African Americans in the midst of virulent segregation. In the 1940s, Arlington’s black Catholics had to travel two hours by buses to attend a Mass where they were welcome. There was a closer church, but black Catholics were relegated to the back pew and prevented from receiving communion before whites. In 1945, 16 families pooled their money, hired a black real estate agent, and purchased small parcels of adjoining property under various names so as to not arouse suspicion. In an era when redlining and “neighborhood covenants” protected white enclaves and economic power, this was a courageous act. A little less than two acres—their standing ground—was purchased for $14,000. The bishop blessed Queen of Peace, Arlington’s first black Catholic congregation, on Pentecost Sunday 1947.

Now, nearly 70 years later, this multicultural community is asking a new question: With global temperatures rising and changes visible everywhere in nature, how do we face the truth of climate change?

During a speaker series in March focused on “the integrity of creation,” I encouraged them to overlap the ecclesial concept of “parish” with the ecological one of “watershed.” For life to persist, there must be living water. Scientists tell us that each watershed, no matter how small, is responsive to climate change. Since human activity has destabilized the climate, changing human activity is important in undoing the harm. And since the earth’s biosphere is made up of interlinked watershed communities, perhaps restoring our particular watershed is analogous to healing the earth at its “cellular” level, which would be a positive contribution.

One of our first exercises was to identify the church’s watershed. By accessing Arlington County’s GIS mapping, we learned the bluff on which the church sits was formed by a fall line between the hard rock of the Potomac Formation and softer Upland Terrace deposits. This geology influences how water flows and percolates. We knew that the largest regional water basin was the Chesapeake Bay—a watershed maintaining 17 million people. Next we narrowed it down to the watersheds of the Potomac, Four Mile Run, and finally Lower Long Branch, a watershed of about seven square miles with 66,000 inhabitants. Still big, but manageable for a church to live its commandment to “till and keep” (Genesis 2:15), or “serve and preserve,” as Ched Myers translates it. We also discovered that two underground creeks hugged the property.

What would it look like for Queen of Peace church to engage in this kind of “watershed discipleship” as a means of caring for creation in context? Could the church’s evangelism team survey its watershed inhabitants to develop a demographic profile of strengths and needs—and invite neighbors to visit Queen of Peace? A committee could map the property’s impervious surfaces and tree canopy and consider installing rain gardens to enhance groundwater retention. The food pantry volunteers might supplement their supplies from an organic church garden. The youth group could mark the storm water catchments with watershed labels. The church could collect a symbolic amount of water from the head of the Potomac River to use when baptizing new members. There are thousands of ways for a church to serve its watershed and all life within it, practices that build ecological and spiritual resiliency. Small acts like these disciple us to our place so we can “exercise skilled mastery” (Genesis 1:28) within it, as biblical scholar Ellen F. Davis puts it.

Jesus was baptized into the Jordan River watershed and absorbed its ancient place-memory, hovered over by a brooding Spirit. Our churches retain this ancient memory, these old stories. But if the stories don’t take root in native soil, in our own standing ground, then they won’t have the power to save us. Like seed on rocky soil, they will wither before the enormity of environmental collapse.

Perhaps Our Lady Queen of Peace sits on a bluff for a reason. It is like someone who, “building a house, dug deeply and laid the foundation on rock; when a flood arose, the river burst against that house but could not shake it, because it had been well built” (Luke 6:48). A church, once again facing an apparently impossible endgame, hears God’s word and acts on it. 

Rose Marie Berger, a Sojourners senior associate editor, is a Catholic peace activist and poet.

Image: Rusted drainage grate clogged with leaves, Richard Wayne Collens / Shutterstock.com 

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