by Kate Strathdee
Albuquerque Mennonite Church, Albuquerque, New Mexico, is a congregation of about 200 that has been working on creation care in various ways over a long period of time. This article traces the winding pathway that led them from congregation-level creation care activities to initiatives that reach outward to the community.
Albuquerque Mennonite Church’s growing involvement in the health of their watershed was grounded in the church’s sense of mission. Long before the watershed way was born, they had been involved in justice initiatives, from protesting against nuclear weapon proliferation to talking about poverty. For decades, AMC recognized that part of the church’s mission was to be co-creators of justice. Because of this, topics such as climate change were not controversial even before members of AMC started the Watershed Way.
Energy efficiency and renewable energy
The congregation’s first forays into environmental issues focused on their building. The congregation got involved with the New Mexico chapter of Interfaith Power and Light and had energy audits done on their church building. In 2017, they installed solar panels.
Building initiatives were important steps to take, but many in the congregation felt like this was not enough. Not only did AMC believe deeply in combating climate change; participants were already feeling the impacts. Albuquerque straddles the Rio Grande River, which flows from Colorado, through New Mexico and Texas into Mexico. This river is an important resource for the city because the area receives less than 10 inches of rain a year. In the last several years, for most of the season, the southern part of the river has become dry or gone underground. It is also possible that the Rio Grande might dry up this year. Much of the Rio Grande has been polluted from agricultural fertilizers and hydraulic fracking. In addition, agricultural industries, water companies, and tech companies have been using large amounts of water. Members from AMC have stood alongside other community members and called on their local city council to follow the will of the people. Unfortunately, the City Council has not been responsive.
Watershed Way: Helping people love where they live
Some AMC members realized that a spiritual and cultural shift needed to occur in the community, as it would require spiritual transformation to change hearts and minds. In 2014, AMC invited Ched Myers and Elaine Enns from the Bartimaeus Institute to give a workshop on watershed management and discipleship. Bartimaeus Institute’s work includes advocating for Sabbath economics, restorative justice and environmental justice. It is deeply rooted in the Christian tradition. Unitarian and Catholic congregations also took part in this workshop and after that weekend, the Watershed Way was born. This is an ecumenical group that educates others about the Rio Grande watershed.
According to Anita Amstutz, current congregant and former pastor of AMC, the mission of Watershed Way is to “help people love where they live.” They have connected with Navajo and Pueblo nations, led workshops on eating bioregional foods, led communal ceremonies and encouraged churches and other groups to integrate watershed nurturing into their worship. The Watershed Way has marched in parades and set up a booth at Cesar Chavez events.
Rio Grande Times
In 2020, AMC congregant Sue Brown noticed that local resources about protecting the Rio Grande watershed and the bioregion were limited. She, along with other members of her congregation and her community, recently created an online magazine called the Mid-Rio Grande Times. This magazine educates individuals on native plants, the status of the Rio Grande, and how to be a steward of the watershed. Having this online resource will hopefully help more residents of the Rio Grande “love where they live,” as Amstutz put it. Currently, they have 100 subscribers and are looking for article ideas.
Advice for facing challenges along the way
The Watershed Way has not existed without struggles. Some of the pilgrimages and events were sparsely attended. AMC congregant, Ed Katzenberger, believes that one must recognize that there will be times where only a few people show up to events and are invested, but pushing through despite this is essential.
In addition, many politicians are still not listening to the calls of people with environmental concerns. An individualistic mindset is common, as is a sense of entitlement to large amounts of water which has contributed to water scarcity. Despite these roadblocks to justice, the congregation believes it is important to keep pushing on because advocating for another way of living was part of Jesus’ ministry.
“Jesus’s very message and life critiqued the power of empire and religious establishment,” Amstutz said. Mennonites have generally stayed away from politics, and she recognizes the challenge of doing political organizing in churches. However, she believes that in order for ecological justice to be reached, churches must get involved. This is no longer a time for merely individualist climate change measures. Amstutz’s advice is for congregations to connect with faith groups and/or churches such as Interfaith Power and Light that are already working at the political level.
Katzenberger believes that church members need to be “humble accompaniers” with fellow community members. Too often white Mennonite churches have been telling BIPOC communities what to do rather than asking what would benefit them. If we are going to create a new way of being and solve the climate crisis, we must truly walk humbly. The Watershed Way is an attempt at doing that.
Kate Strathdee is an intern with Mennonite Creation Care Network during the summer of 2021. She is studying Global and International Studies at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada, and attends Ottawa Mennonite Church.