anacostia

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.

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SLIDESHOW: 'Rev. Riverkeeper' in Action

As Dottie Yunger writes in 'Rev. Riverkeeper' (Sojourners, November 2013), the Anacostia River is a “river of contrasts,” flowing through rich and poor communities in and around the nation’s capital. Yunger, a pastor at Metropolitan Memorial United Methodist Church in Washington, D.C., spent three years serving as the watershed’s appointed “riverkeeper.” Like the Anacostia itself, Yunger’s identities—as a person of faith and an environmental activist—are contrasting, yet deeply connected.

View the slideshow below of Yunger putting her faith into action as Rev. Riverkeeper.

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'Rev. Riverkeeper'

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.

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Reflections on an Eco-Justice Anacostia River Tour (PHOTOS)

Brandon Hook / Sojourners
The river tour gave a few of us the opportunity to get some waders on and clean the river. Brandon Hook / Sojourners

On Saturday, Sojourners sent a group of staff members sailing down the Anacostia River.

But this was no pleasure trip.

Dottie Yunger, from the Anacostia Watershed Society, teamed up with Sojourners’ Creation Care campaign to teach some of our staff and a few other members of the local community about the state of the Anacostia river, how we as people of faith can be better stewards of our God-given resources, and how we can help create a healthier system where all creatures (both human and non-human) can survive and flourish.

Here are a few reflections from the trip.

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