Religion And Disaster: An Interesting Mix

religionanddisadterI am haunted by an image. Years ago, as I was preparing a story about the Mayan women of Guatemala and their ancient backstrap-loom weaving, a friend sent me a photograph taken in a Guatemalan village shortly after a major earthquake. It shows a woman seated before a pile of rubble–possibly the remnants of her house. Around her waist is the backstrap of her loom; stretched out before her are the bright threads of her weaving. In the midst of ruin, she is being who she is: a weaver. In response to loss, she creates what is both necessary and beautiful.

During the past ten years of an earthkeeping ministry, I have come to see, ever more clearly, the ruin and loss of our “village”–the earth itself. And I believe that we women, as the ones who know what it means to shelter and cradle life, are called–all of us–to become weavers of life.

My earthkeeping journey began when I was a child in Virginia. We lived near a small tributary of Little Hunting Creek, a narrow band of water and woodlands. For me this creek was an entire world, a place of curiosity, exploration, wonder, and delight. I did not yet know the word communion, but I lived it day after summer day–a human child woven into the fabric of creation.

As an adult, I exchanged that world of sensory experience and enfolding nature for a teaching position at an inner-city Head Start program. For the next ten years I lived and worked in a human-centered world. But after a series of wounds and losses–the death of my younger brother, my own illnesses and major surgery, separation and divorce from my first husband–I left that tattered world in search of new life.

In Germantown, Maryland, I began attending silent retreats at Dayspring, a retreat farm. Taking long walks through woods, fields, and valley, I knew in my body, in my fingertips, that I had come home to the world of earth, water, and stone, and to myself as one in a vast community of living beings. This return to the community of life was not a rebirth of childhood innocence and wonder, but an awakening of my own longing and need for healing through the real things of earth. And as the trees, the fields, and the water worked their comfort on me, I began to open myself to the cry of God’s wounded creation.

On the eastern boundary of the farm is Dayspring Creek. Photographs from the 1980s show water so clear you can see the colors of the stones in the streambed. The creek flows through a narrow corridor of parkland, falling over a series of ledges–the backbone of ancient mountains–creating bright riffles and still, deep pools.

Since the early 1990s, my husband Jim and I have been monitoring the health of Dayspring Creek through a program run by the local Audubon Naturalist Society. We collect and identify tiny invertebrates that live in flowing water, whose number and diversity tell us much about what is happening in the stream.

When the field at the headwaters was bulldozed, stripped, and left raw in preparation for a five-hundred-unit housing subdivision, we witnessed the rending of the intricate web of life in Dayspring Creek. When I look through the microscope, I see the silt coating the eyes of the living creatures. When I look at the banks, I see concaved, undercut, deeply eroded earth. The water itself has a dense gray film of sediment veiling all the colors of the streambed.

Despite many local environmental regulations governing development, Daystream Creek grows darker, murkier, more fragile. Who will speak for the water? Who will weep the tears that God is weeping? Who will work to shelter the life of life itself?.

In the story of Tabitha (Acts 9:36-41), I found a powerful metaphor for what we, as women, are called to do. Tabitha was a disciple whose good works included making clothing for the widows who had nothing and no one to care for them. When she became ill and died, these same widows stood before her body and wept for her, wondering perhaps who would supply warmth and protection once Tabitha’s garments wore out.

Widows were a significant group in early Christian times. Initially, the church held them in high esteem. The first sharing of apostolic power, the designation of deacons, arose because widows were “being neglected in the daily distribution of food” (Acts 6:1). Soon, though, their influence waned. The author of 1 Timothy, under the pretext of honoring “real widows,” demeaned their status by severely limiting who deserved that designation: only those over sixty years of age. He labeled the younger widows as “gossips and busybodies” who should remarry and devote themselves to domestic chores so they don’t embarrass the church. Even the “real widows,” if they had any family at all, should stay at home so that “the church not be burdened” (5:3-16). No wonder Tabatha’s widow-friends wept.

Who are today’s “weeping widows,” the ones denied essential sustenance, silenced from speaking out on their own behalf, expected to survive in the face of institutional onslaught? We must see and name them: the children, the poor, all the creatures in the communion of life.

Once we have identified these “weeping widows,” let us carry them by name into our prayer, asking which garment of protection is ours to weave. Some of us will weave letters and phone calls to political leaders; others, poems and stories. Still others will weave liturgies on the land and church prayers that include the voices of creatures that do not speak. All of us must weave a daily life rooted in simplicity and justice.

The earth and her creatures are crying out for a modern-day Tabitha to protect and restore those who weep. In this time of the ruin of creation, the threads of God’s wisdom, skill, constancy, and love must flow through our fingers. In this time of destruction and loss, we must weave.

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