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Know the West

Nun calls the faithful to an 'ecological ministry'


NAME Joan Brown

VOCATION Head of the Ecological Ministry of the Archdiocese of Santa Fe, Order of St. Francis

AGE 51

HOME BASE Albuquerque, New Mexico

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 Divine."

SHE SAYS "Practicality has to mesh with the spirit."

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 Christian religion."

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 advocacy."

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 Justice program.

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."

Brown's 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," she says.

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."

The author writes from Santa Fe, New Mexico.