by Doug Siglin
In my home office, I have a ten-volume series published in the late 1990s and early 2000s with the title Religions of the World and Ecology. It was the result of three years of conferences sponsored by the Harvard Divinity School. I can’t claim to have read every word—Daoism and Ecology and Shintoism and Ecology lie a bit outside my current interests—but the key message of the series is that all world religions have strong and vibrant themes about the value, even the obligation, of protecting our natural environment.
On a beautiful Monday morning this week I attended a ceremony in the District’s Mt. Olivet Catholic Cemetery. Unlike most functions in cemeteries, it wasn’t a funeral, but rather a dedication ceremony organized by The Nature Conservancy, the world’s largest conservation group. His Eminence Donald Cardinal Wuerl, Archbishop of Washington, was there to dedicate and bless a rain garden.
You might be excused for asking what a rain garden is, and why there should be one in a place of eternal rest. A rain garden is a bit of landscaping that not only beautifies the surrounding area, but also serves the practical purpose of receiving rainwater running off impermeable surfaces like concrete and asphalt and naturally “treating” it.
Rainwater runoff often picks up and carries oil, gas, and other pollutants, and in much of Washington, it flows directly into our streams and rivers, with all its dirty load. Moreover, if there’s too much rain runoff, like in a big storm (that’s why it’s sometimes called “stormwater”) it can cause both flooding and serious erosion. A rain garden is a simple but effective way to capture runoff, filter out the pollutants, and evaporate or infiltrate rainwater back into the soil. This is really important in the District, which is 43% impermeable surfaces.
And why build a rain garden in a cemetery? As beautiful as they often are, cemeteries are polluters because they have impervious roadways. Some of the pollution comes from car traffic. But also, contaminants from gas engines and other sources go up in the air, but they don’t stay there. Eventually they settle back down and accumulate on hard surfaces – rooftops, roads, alleys, and parking lots, sometimes dozens or hundreds of miles away. They then simply wash off in the next rain. The impervious surfaces don’t always produce the pollution directly, but they convey it.
Some parts of Mt. Olivet drain directly to Hickey Run, the most polluted tributary of the Anacostia River. The Nature Conservancy worked with the Mt. Olivet cemetery managers to build the rain garden to help keep pollution out of the river that runs through Washington’s heart and soul.
You might also ask why the Archbishop of Washington would take time out of a busy Monday morning to come out to Mt. Olivet and bless this rain garden. The clear and simple answer can be found in his own words at the ceremony:
“We are challenged by our Holy Father Pope Francis in his encyclical letter Laudato Si—and this is a quote—‘to protect our common home’…. We are seeing an actual, practical example of what we’ve been asked to do: protect this magnificent creation and see that it’s kept beautiful and sustainable so that future generations can enjoy it.”
I was grateful for the invitation to attend the rain garden dedication, and I appreciate The Nature Conservancy’s work to protect and restore the Anacostia River. I also appreciate Cardinal Wuerl’s strong support of the project, and presumably, more to come.
Like The Nature Conservancy, the Anacostia Waterfront Trust has a program we call “RainPay” that works with churches, nonprofits and businesses to build pollution-stopping rain gardens at no cost or risk to the landowner. We even write a monthly check for the right to build the rain garden. Our program, like The Nature Conservancy’s, is made possible by the District’s world-leading “Stormwater Retention Credit” system.
In the summer of 2016, our board chairman, former DC Mayor Anthony Williams, wrote to Cardinal Wuerl asking him to encourage parishes and other Catholic institutions in Washington to participate in programs like this. Mayor Williams is a practicing Catholic, and his letter said in part “We believe that this program is consistent with the Holy Father’s teachings on protecting and restoring the environment while being of direct, tangible value to the church.” Things take time, but Cardinal Wuerl’s blessing of the Mt. Olivet rain garden can only encourage Catholic and other religious institutions to seriously explore doing the same.
In the meantime, our RainPay program staff has been working with our own church partners. Our first rain garden was dedicated exactly one year ago today at the Ward Seven national headquarters of the Progressive National Baptist Convention, on what the Convention staff likes to call the “Holy Hill.” The PNBC was the spiritual home of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the HQ is a historic site where Nannie Helen Burroughs trained African American women and girls in the early and mid 20th Century. Dr. Timothy Tee Boddie, the current General Secretary of the 2.5 million member Convention, has been asked on the record several times why he supports the rain garden. Here are his words:
“We think it’s important to be a voice for the voiceless in this community, not only on those social justice issues that we are often very vocal about, but also on issues such as sustaining our God’s Earth. We do believe that the Earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof, and all things that dwell therein. To that end we are happy to be partners with this project, and say to all of us that we care about our community, and indeed we care about God’s creation.”
The Trust is about to break ground on another rain garden, at the East Washington Heights Baptist Church in the Hillcrest neighborhood of Ward 7. When complete, the project will:
- beautify the church’s property,
- protect the Anacostia River,
- generate an income stream for church programs,
- qualify for a partial reduction of the church’s Impervious Area Charges, and
- provide a part-time maintenance job for a local person –
all at absolutely no cost or risk to the church. The East Washington Heights Baptist Church’s Reverend Kip Banks is also an enthusiast, and for good reason.
On Monday morning at the cemetery, Cardinal Wuerl concluded his remarks by saying:
“Surely we can find ways to make this planet more safe, secure, and beautiful, because our task is to not only to observe it, our task is to pass it on in all of its beauty and all of its richness to the generations to come. Today is a very practical example of a partnership coming together to do what we’ve all been tasked to do – simply to care for our common home.”
So let’s come back full circle to my book series on world religions and ecology. The rain gardens that help to protect and restore the earth that truly sustains our lives are not just for Catholics and Baptists, although we welcome their leadership. As I read the texts on religion and ecology, rain gardens are an equally appropriate, practical, and even lucrative way to protect our precious water resources for Presbyterians, Methodists, Episcopalians, Lutherans, Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Jains and everybody else. Even Daoists and Shintoists, I’m pretty sure.