Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Giving Thanks by Showing Thanks!

Kate Kirbie served as a Dominican Volunteer from 2012 to 2013 at the Racine Dominican Eco-Justice Center in Racine, WI. After serving she was hired as the Assistant to the Director of the Eco-Justice Center where she continues to minister, leading environmental education programs and helping to care for the farm.

Is it just me or has November gone by fast? Maybe it is the cold quickly confronting us, making the outdoors feel more like the frigid weather after Christmas, or maybe it is me overly occupying my days with fall events. Either way, Thanksgiving is just around the corner. Thanksgiving is a time to make a point to acknowledge the relationships we have, appreciate our health and the experiences we’ve had, and maybe even acknowledge the simple blessings, like food, water, and clean air. 

On Thanksgiving, no matter if you have a large turkey for twenty family members, or spend a small meal together with few, we can easily recognize our thanks for food. Living and working at the Eco-Justice Center, I’ve grown accustomed to praying in thanksgiving for “the hands that worked to prepare and grow the food we eat.” For Thanksgiving on the farm, we gather the squash and potatoes from the root cellar, defrost beans and fruit from the freezer, open cans jarred last year, and prepare the turkey that recently left the farm. We, as do many, become closer to our food as we cook and eat our Thanksgiving meal.

But there are many gifts in our lives that we can easily overlook. The fact that the food is safe enough for us to eat is a great blessing. Most of us probably also pay little attention to the water that fills our drinking glasses. Along the same line, I only think of the cleanliness of the air I breathe when I drive by the Oak Creek coal power plant just north of Racine. Still, many others are living with the health consequences of drinking contaminated water or breathing in air pollutants.

On Thanksgiving we can make a simple verbal acknowledgment of what we are thankful for, but how do we show our thanks? For example, if we spend one day in the year thanking our family but don’t regularly call, lend an ear, or see what we can do for them, then how else do we show our appreciation? How can we show our thanks for our air, our water, or our food? Certainly not by continuing to pollute, destroy, and ignore the environment.

To mark the 10th anniversary of the Eco-Justice Center, a small group from the community went to the Lake Michigan shoreline, just a mile away, to pick up trash. As we were approaching the site, I mentioned to the group that only two months ago fifteen high school students and I visited the same difficult-to-reach beach front and picked up loads of Styrofoam, plastic and glass. After hearing that, the group I was traveling with expected a minute amount of refuse. Instead we were greeted with a shoreline covered in trash. While some of the garbage was left by people having late night bonfires, much of the Styrofoam surely washed in from the lake after blowing from someone’s possession on land.

It’s not just this beach front. There are few places now that you can drive, bike, or walk without spotting litter. If it was just an eyesore, I wouldn’t be so worried. Many of us know that animals can get trapped in litter. When I recently watched the documentary Bag It, I was shocked to find that there are 40 times more plastic particles in the oceans than there are plankton! Plankton – the organisms that provide a crucial amount of food for fish and whales. There are more plastic particles in the oceans than plankton!

Kate (kneeling in front) gathers with volunteers to clean up Racine's shoreline.

Recently, while meeting with a group of LaSallian Volunteers to discuss “peace” in our weekly “Spiritual Literacy,” I had a realization: entropy. I’ve always compared the second law of thermodynamics to my bed room. In the morning, it is easy to throw my pajamas over my chair and leave my bed unmade. I have to use energy to tidy my room. This seems to be true with most worldly issues. It takes effort to make a peaceful world, it takes effort to educate, it takes effort to have a healthy, clean environment, and it takes effort to think of new alternatives. If we continue to live our lives saying we are thankful, but not really showing it, what will our futures look like?

The Water Conflict Chronology sites nearly 100 attacks on water or conflicts over water around the world in the last four years. These numbers are sure to grow as our population continues to increase, as we carry on polluting the environment, and as we delay reducing our unnecessary use of water. There are a lot of challenges to caring for the Earth. Many Americans feel entitled. Cheap food, cheap electricity, cheap oil, and cheap water are expectations without acknowledging the actual cost of health or the cost to clean up the land. Doing nothing and accepting what we currently have will lead to a future generation making even harder decisions.

Still there is hope. Communities are joining together to learn, educate, and find solutions. On September 21, over 300,000 people marched in New York to advocate against climate change and to promote positive action. Close to home the Racine Dominicans, like many other religious communities, are paying attention to the companies in which they are investing their finances and working to leave a lighter footprint. There is even an Eco-Justice Committee within the Dominican Alliance, which includes representatives from the Racine Dominicans, Sinsinawa Dominicans, Dominican Sisters of Springfield, Dominican Sisters of Houston, Dominican Sisters of Kenosha, and Dominican Sisters of Grand Rapids. As individuals we can work to make small changes: buy local (reducing the amount of fossil fuels used to transport food), be conscious of your water use, properly dispose of trash if items can’t be reused or recycled, reduce your use of plastics, write to politicians and support those in favor of protecting the environment.

However you celebrate Thanksgiving this year, I push you to stretch your mind. We are blessed. I personally feel blessed to have had the opportunity to serve as a Dominican Volunteer, to still have a number of sisters as close friends and mentors, and to live in a safe environment with access to organic produce and clean water. Now, this November, let’s not only give thanks, but show thanks for these many blessings.

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