When I first found out that the Sunday I was available for testimony during the Season of Creation was River Sunday, I was really excited to reflect on how God is renewing the rivers in my life. Scenes of interacting with the rivers of my hometown and college town immediately popped into my head.
I thought of how the Poudre River in my hometown of Fort Collins, Colorado, was an important place where my family spent quality time together. I was taken back to an early childhood memory of dropping twigs into the river from a bridge along the bike path with my dad and sister, and rushing to the other side of the bridge to see whose stick crossed under the bridge first and won the game.
A trip to one of my family’s favorite hiking trails, campsites, or snowshoeing spots usually started with a drive up the Poudre Canyon, where the water is wilder than its relatively tame path through town. I have fond memories of hearing the rushing water while hiking on a trail or falling asleep to the to the soothing sounds while camping near the banks. Watching the river is mesmerizing – the water moves in the same swirling and falling patterns around a rock or a branch, but each individual droplet keeps moving downstream. The river is the same, but also always changing.
Growing up, spending time with the Poudre River was profoundly spiritual for me. Activities near or on the river would often bring me to a place of somewhat unintentional meditation by focusing my interaction with the river on my senses. In the face of fierce and chaotic waters, I would feel a sense of calm and centeredness and connection to something larger than myself. I couldn’t help but feel the presence of God, Creator of the Universe, pulsing through the water. Looking up at the stunning canyon walls carved by millennia of rushing water put things into perspective by making me feel small in the grand scheme of the cosmos. Usually, this feeling was not in a way that made me feel helpless and insignificant, but rather, in a way that reminded me that all fish, birds, rocks, flies, algae and people that interact with the river are interconnected. My worries and concerns about daily life would pause and I would reorient myself to prioritizing relationships and bigger questions.
My river reflections next turned to the Upper Iowa River which flows through Decorah, Iowa, where I attended Luther College. Memories of walking or jogging along the river with friends, canoeing, and wading in the water for labs in various environmental studies classes immediately popped into my head.
After my sophomore year, I had the opportunity to stay on campus over the summer for an internship working with local churches on sustainability initiatives. A favorite activity for my roommates and me was to lazily tube down the river on a Sunday afternoon. The Upper Iowa River flows more slowly and smoothly than the Poudre River, which provided hours of time on the water for conversation and reflection. I spent a lot of that time thinking about the churches I was working with on projects ranging from energy efficiency to gardening for the food pantry, and the books I was reading about Christian environmental ethics.
While my environmental consciousness growing up in Colorado mostly stemmed from a privileged desire to protect beautiful and pristine places I loved to explore, what I was learning in my classes and now connecting with my faith shifted more to thinking about how caring for the Earth is a justice issue. Those who have done the least to contribute to the problems are usually the ones who suffer most. Part of Jesus’ mandate to love our neighbors includes our neighbors all across the world, consideration of future generations of neighbors who will be affected by today’s actions, and expanding our definition of neighbor to include all of Creation. This passion for integrating religion and sustainability led me to Chicago three years ago as a member of the Lutheran Volunteer Corps at Faith in Place, an interfaith environmental justice organization, where I still continue to work.
After running through these river scenes in my head while brainstorming for this testimony, I then asked myself, “What watershed am I in now?” I first thought of Lake Michigan but I’m embarrassed to admit that it took me several moments of pondering before I remembered the Chicago River.
I ride through a tunnel underneath the Chicago River everyday on the Blue Line to work without even thinking about it. Part of the reason for this is that I don’t really think of the Chicago River as a river – it seems more like a canal to me. In a sense, it is. The river was reengineered at the turn of the twentieth century to flow Southwest to the Mississippi watershed to wash sewage and pollutants away from the city’s drinking water in Lake Michigan. The development of massive skyscrapers along its banks and the fact that green dye is dumped into the river every St. Patrick’s Day makes it feel more like a human-made water feature than a wild and life-sustaining entity. The Poudre and Upper Iowa Rivers have also been diverted, polluted,and redirected by humans; however, the population is simply less dense so the effects are less noticeable.
The fact that I feel disconnected from the Chicago River was particularly striking, because this summer I feel like I’ve had the most interactions I’ve ever had with this river. Two of my coworkers introduced me to the idea of eating along the riverwalk, two blocks from my office, instead of my usual summer lunch spot in the park. I rode the Water Taxi from Michigan Avenue to Chinatown and up to North Avenue when my sister came to visit in June, and I went on the Architecture Boat Tour when my family came to visit in August.
In all of these activities, I don’t think I’ve ever actually touched the water of the Chicago River. In contrast, I swam in, drank from, tubed down, hiked next to, fly-fished, and canoed the other rivers in my life. I’m glad to hear that the Chicago River is now safe for kayaking – something that was unthinkable years ago – and that local politicians even jumped in the river in September to raise awareness that it is safe for people with “normal, healthy immune systems” to swim in some parts of the river at a fundraiser event for further clean up efforts.
For me, concern over pollution in the river is not just about the aesthetics or recreation. It’s about how water pollution disproportionately affects communities of color and economically disadvantaged communities. It’s about how I am implicit in this contamination by purchasing goods that are undoubtedly polluting rivers somewhere on the planet that affect someone else’s health, if not here affecting my own.
While I might not have quite the same experience of feeling peace and centeredness and connection with the Creator that I experience while hiking along the Poudre or tubing down the Upper Iowa, I still experience that feeling of smallness and perspective when reflecting with coworkers while eating lunch on the riverwalk, gazing at the Chicago skyline, looking around at all of the faces on the ‘L,” or marveling at the vastness of Lake Michigan. Sometimes that feels lonely and makes me question why I live here – one among millions. But mostly, I feel connected to a sense of something larger than myself, and my life is enriched by all of the people that I encounter daily in this city.
God is indeed renewing this river and shaping my understanding of “eco-justice” as I live in the Chicago River watershed.