NAME Joan Brown
VOCATION Head of the
Ecological Ministry of the Archdiocese of Santa Fe, Order of St.
HOME BASE Albuquerque, New
MOST NOTED FOR Taking on social and environmental
issues with a Catholic sensibility
INSPIRED BY Catholic
priest and philosopher Thomas Berry, who said, "If we lose the
grandeur of the natural world, we will lose our sense of the
SHE SAYS "Practicality has to mesh with the
The trouble with Christianity, says Sister Joan
Brown, is that it's too often "confined to a building." "Jesus was
called to the wilderness to listen to God. He was not called to the
synagogue," she says. "But we haven't reflected on that in the
Brown, a lifelong Catholic and a
Franciscan nun, grew up on a farm in the bluestem prairie near
Emporia, Kan. Her rural upbringing, she says, gave her a reverence
for the natural world, and a sister with Down syndrome stirred her
devotion to social change. "I think my sense of justice came from
having her as a sister, and seeing how people aren't respected
fully for who they are," she says.
Brown later studied
religion and ecology at the University of California at Santa
Barbara. Influenced by Mary Evelyn Tucker, a noted scholar of
religion and ecology, Brown concluded that meaningful, long-term
social change is best wrought through religious institutions.
"Our time is so short, and the issues are so critical.
How can we cause deep changes?" she asks. "It could be through
churches and religion, through a combination of education and
Brown's mission has taken her from Kansas to
California to Colorado to New Mexico, where she has lived and
worked for more than 10 years. After arriving in the Land of
Enchantment, she first worked with Tierra Madre, a nonprofit group
that uses natural building materials such as straw bales to
construct homes for low-income families in southern New Mexico.
Eventually, she moved to the Archdiocese of Santa Fe, which
includes most of northern New Mexico and is headquartered in
Albuquerque. There, she began an "ecological ministry" — one
of only a handful of full-time environmental positions in the
Catholic Church within the United States — with the support
of Joan Leahigh, then the director of the Archdiocese's Social
In her job at the ministry, Brown takes
her message of Christian-based ecological stewardship to Catholics
— and people of other denominations — through
workshops, writings and other outreach projects. Her workdays are
long, and she often volunteers to organize events such as the
annual "Celebrating Sacred Food and Water" conference, sponsored by
New Mexico's three Catholic dioceses and the New Mexico State
University Cooperative Extension Service. She also helps run
"Stewards of Creation," a nine-month weekend training program for
spiritually minded environmental justice activists.
During her day-to-day work on water and agriculture issues, Brown
has helped small farmers and environmental groups find common
ground. As an environmentalist, a social justice activist and a
Catholic, she says, "I'm sort of walking this line in between,
recognizing there's truth on both sides."
superiors in the archdiocese are generally supportive of her work,
and allow her a great deal of autonomy in choosing projects. But
church members, she says, sometimes have misgivings. "Some people
think, 'Why should we be concerned about the earth? We need to be
concerned about people,' without realizing they're interrelated,"
For Brown, spirituality and respect for the
natural world are most often expressed in the routines of daily
life — by keeping the thermostat down, or by growing food in
the backyard. But these small, individual actions are part of a
much broader vision. "We need a larger shift in the whole
consciousness that touches on spirituality, culture and attitudes,"
Brown says. "Otherwise, we're just doing Band-Aids."