Bridging Science, Faith, and Troubled Waters

As Dottie Yunger writes in ‘Rev. Riverkeeper’ in the November 2013 issue, Yunger spent three years serving as the ears, eyes, and voice of the Anacostia River watershed as its appointed “Riverkeeper.” Yunger, a pastor at Metropolitan Memorial United Methodist Church, has worked to combine her identity as a person of faith with her identity as an environmental advocate.

Sojourners editorial assistant Rebecca Kraybill sat with Yunger to discuss how she bridges these two worlds.

Rebecca Kraybill: Can you describe your current roles at work and in the church?

Dottie Yunger: I am the associate pastor for Metropolitan Memorial United Methodist Church and lead pastor for the Crossroads worshiping community at St. Luke’s United Methodist Church. (Editor’s Note: Dottie served as the “Anacostia Riverkeeper” from 2008-2011 and executive director of the Interfaith Partners for the Chesapeake from 2011-2013.)

You started in a lab at the Smithsonian. What led you to ministry and environmental work?

My background is in marine biology. So I started off working in a marine ecology lab at the Smithsonian. I really enjoyed working in the lab but also enjoyed working with the public and being able to explain the research that was going on in the lab and why it was important to people and their everyday lives. And so I then started spending more time working with the public and giving tours to school groups and teachers; and started doing satellite broadcasts from our scientists who build stations around the country and around the world. And I’ve always been a United Methodist. But I felt like the two worlds were separate: During the week we didn’t talk about faith, but some days we didn’t talk about the environment.

When I went to seminary at Wesley Theological Seminary, there were professors who had been Smithsonian scientists who had retired and were now United Methodist pastors. There were professors who incorporated creation care into what we were studying. And so I found a place where those two worlds could come together and decided to go into ministry. At seminary I was able to do my theological study work in environmental justice. I looked at the environmental justice themes in the Hebrew Bible and then compared them with the environmental justice themes I was seeing as the “Anacostia Riverkeeper.”

What did your role as the “Anacostia Riverkeeper” involve and how did it interact with your seminary studies?

[During seminary] I was working for the Anacostia Riverkeeper, which is a private watchdog group. Basically whoever is the “Riverkeeper” for a particular body of water—there’s now almost 200 of them worldwide—serves as the sort of public voice and advocate for that body. I started working a lot with congregations along the Anacostia River who used to baptize their members in the river, or their basements were now flooded by the Anacostia River.

While I was studying about this in school, I was sort of seeing it lived out as the “Riverkeeper.” And so it was a way to combine what I considered my call as a marine biologist and my call into ministry. And what I figured out was that it was all the same call, it was just two different ways of trying to live out that call. Studying that in seminary and getting ordained was a way to bring those two calls together, basically, and not do one part of the week and the other the rest of the week.

Having worked in both ministry and environmental justice settings, what are signs of hope that you see?

I’m always surprised when I’m talking to a congregation, or when I’m talking to folks in an environmental nonprofit, at how many folks in either situation say that they care about the environment and want to know things they can do. When I’m working with an environmental group I’m always surprised by how many folks are actually spiritual but just never talk about it. They are often concerned or sometimes downright fearful about “coming out” as a person of faith. So when I was working for the Anacostia Riverkeeper, a strongly secular organization, for example, I was always surprised by how many other environmentalists there were who identified themselves as spiritual or religious and were just as engaged in environmental issues in their congregations on Sunday as they were during the week. So that’s a sign of hope I do see: people who do care or are concerned.

I think what happens is we keep things separate. So we talk about the environment during the week and talk about faith on the weekend, and we don’t mix the two. And if we do, sometimes we’re met with skepticism or confusion. I remember when I left the Smithsonian to go to seminary, one of the scientists asked me where I was going, and I said I was going to go to grad school for seminary. And he looked at me and said, “Oh, we’ve lost another one,” like I had crossed to the dark side or something. So despite voices like that, I am hopeful.

Do you think it will require people being in the middle of those two sides, or is it people speaking from their side to the other side? In your experience, what is needed most at this point?

I think both are needed. One of the things at Interfaith Partners for the Chesapeake was to almost serve as a “matchmaker” between people of faith and environment groups and elected officials and local government agencies. For example, we worked with congregations in Baltimore County. The Baltimore County government identified small watershed action plans, or these plans to help address water quality issues. They identified almost 100 congregations that had properties close enough to local streams. If those congregations put rain barrels in for rain gardens or other uses, it could help toward improving water quality. The problem was Baltimore County didn’t know how to contact or get their foot in the door with any of these congregations. Then we had these congregations who were having flooding on their properties, and their water bills were going up. But they didn’t know how to be influenced by folks at the county level to help address those issues. So we got a grant from the Chesapeake Bay Trust to spend a year with three congregations and the Department of the Environment to develop these action plans. So the congregation would bring all of its resources to help with this problem, and the county would bring all its technical expertise, and they would get at the issue together.

And so I do definitely agree that there needs to be these brokers, these translators, between the groups. The county has its own particular technical expertise that’s needed, and the congregations have their traditions, culture, and experts within the congregation that are needed. And so we need [religious and environmental groups] to do it themselves, but we just need a way for them to connect.

Would you consider yourself a bridge between religion and environmental science?

When I was working at the Smithsonian, one of the reasons I started working more with the public was because it was around the time of the last government shutdown, so the Smithsonian got shut down and we couldn’t convince Capitol Hill why the Smithsonian needed the amount of money it did. So we realized we needed to start doing outreach to members of Congress. Some [Smithsonian workers] were really good at communicating technical research, but had a hard time putting that in normal language. And one of the translators said to me, “Oh, you can translate from geek to normal. We need you to translate when we’re talking to these other groups.”

And so I still feel like I can translate from religious to normal, or I can translate from environmental to normal. I have just enough science background and theology training that, in general terms, I can relate back and forth between the two worlds and communities. The other thing I think I do is give permission to other scientists who are also people of faith, or people of faith who also care about the environment. I give them permission to “come out.”

What are resources you can recommend to individuals or congregations wanting to learn more about faith and the environment?

For congregations or folks in the Chesapeake watershed, I’d absolutely recommend Interfaith Partners for the Chesapeake and I’d recommend Interfaith Power & Light. There are Interfaith Power & Lights across the country, so there’s one that’s here in D.C. and Virginia. The National Council of Churches’ Eco-Justice Working Group also has great resources for congregations, anything from how to switch out light bulbs in a congregation to how to ask your pastor to preach a sermon on environmental issues.

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