Kansas nuns grow organic crops while teaching others to do the same. They're spreading word to save the planet.
GREAT BEND — The Dominican Sisters of Peace have been farming with their faith in mind for more than three decades.
In the middle of a state where large-scale commodity and livestock farming has transformed the landscape, the order of nuns aim for a lighter touch on the land.
“If you don’t have a life-sustaining planet, you don’t have life,” said Sister Jane Belanger, who’s lived on the farm for about 13 years. “And if I could quote scripture, ‘I came to bring life and bring it more abundantly.’”
The sisters at Heartland Farms mark just one of several religious communities in Kansas turning their attention to a modern crisis — climate change. Motivated by their religious beliefs, they make a faith-based case for environmentalism.
Four sisters live at Heartland Farms. They’re joined by a rotating group of volunteers who earn room and board by helping out with chores. The sisters offer camps and classes on how to grow organic crops and spin fiber. (The raw wool comes from the alpacas the sisters keep on the property).
They also sell what they don’t eat at a local farmer’s market.
“That speaks to people,” Belanger said. “We’re not coming in to solve your problems or tell you what to do, but we are offering an alternative way.”
Some oppose their message about climate change
Still, the message can draw opposition. Belanger recalled a conversation she had with a member of Heartland Farms’ advisory committee — someone she described as a “good Catholic man” — who said that as much as he admires what they’re doing, there’s no way he could do it on his farm.
She said people can, understandably, be set in their ways, including doing things that contribute to climate change.
Other religious communities that focus on the environment say they face similar resistance.
“We have some churches that are good at promoting ecological ideas and some that aren’t,” said Helen Meuting, one of the nearly 100 Benedictine sisters at Mt. St. Scholastica in Atchison. “We’re kind of like the squeaky wheel. We have to keep saying it.”
The sisters at the monastery try to live the principles found in Pope Francis’ 2015 encyclical Laudato sí, which focuses on the environment and its destruction.
The sisters grow an organic garden, harvest honey from several beehives on the property and have installed a 150-kilowatt solar system to help offset their electricity needs. They’ve also issued a statement calling for political leaders to support climate friendly legislation and a transition to renewable energy.
Mueting said those and other actions they’ve taken are driven by faith and a sense of responsibility for all of God’s creations.
“If we destroy the environment, we’re morally responsible for the people of the future as well as for the poor who are most devastated by climate change,” she said.
Making a connection between the impacts of climate change and care for the poor, she said, will be key to convincing more people of faith to act on climate change.
Some religious leaders hope that the moral appeal for action will even help combat theological based opposition built on the idea that there isn’t a need to care for the environment because God gave man dominion over the Earth and that Jesus Christ will one day come and renew it.
“To say it’s all ending anyway or even let’s bring it about, is like, to me, theologically really wrong,” said Cathleen Bascom, the bishop for the Episcopal Diocese of Kansas.
Bascom is also part of the left-leaning advocacy group known as Kansas Interfaith Action. It’s members often testify on climate issues to committees at the state Capitol.
Saving the planet for future generation
“This is shepherding,” she said. “Because I want our children and grandchildren to be able to drink and be able to have crops, and we’ve got to see this as holy.”
Religious communities can play a unique role in addressing climate change, said Rabbi Moti Rieber, the executive director of Kansas Interfaith Action. He said people of faith who view climate issues as moral issues are able to reach those that otherwise would only see it through a political lens.
“It’s up to us to demand that our political leaders take this conversation seriously and begin to address these issues,” Rieber said.
And while there’s still a long way to go to convince people of the seriousness of the climate crisis — including getting more religious leaders to talk about the issue from the pulpit and during Sunday school — Rieber said caring for God’s creations is a sacred duty.
“One of the reasons why we do this is because we’re convinced that it matters to God,” he said. “So therefore it should matter to us.”
Brian Grimmett reports on the environment, energy and natural resources for KMUW in Wichita and the Kansas News Service.