|Rev. Otis Moss|
And almost every one, when age,
Disease, or sorrows strike him,
Inclines to think there is a God,
Or something very like Him.
"So what's your connection to all this?" I said, my standard opening line at weddings of strangers and luncheons such as the one I found myself at last week. I was standing awkwardly at a large round table, waiting for the program to begin and people to sit down.
"Well, I'm a man of faith, and I care about the environment," he said, explaining that he's highly placed at the Department of Natural Resources. "And you?"
"Well," I said, not really thinking. "I'm not a man of faith, and I've never cared much about the environment. But Rev. Sauder asked me to come."
Rev. Brian Sauder, a Mennonite minister, and executive director of something called Faith in Place. (Slogan: "Stronger Congregations for a Sustainable World.") He had invited me to their "annual celebration and fundraiser" and not having anything better to do, I shrugged and went.
The Chicago-based group, as best I could glean by the speeches, attempts a heretofore unimagined union of religious faith and environmentalism. Usually those two forces are at odds. Christianity's basic take on the Earth and its riches is that God gave the whole ball of wax to mankind to ruin however we please and it's all going to come to a fiery end any moment anyway, which is a good thing, because then the blessed goes to heaven, where nobody worries about recycling. Judaism is fairly mum on conservation too—the environment is what you scurry through to get to synagogue—though some of the newer, touchier-feelier offshoots, such as Reconstructionism, try to correct that by occasionally holding a service outdoors.
But this group not only promotes the idea that religious values are environmental values, but are gathering all faiths under the same tent in their efforts to heal the world physically while nurturing it spiritually. Christians. Muslims. Jews. The invocation was delivered by Dr. Manish Shah, of the Jain Society of Metropolitan Chicago—Jainism is an ancient Indian faith that stresses nonviolence toward all living things, so he fit right in. Dr. Shah brought his mother up to deliver the benediction he had known as a child.
The main speaker was Rev. Doc. Otis Moss III, senior pastor of Trinity United Church of Christ on West 95th Street, who spoke of putting a green roof on the church (some old school parishioners wondered aloud at the barber shop why he was putting a putting green on top of the church) updating Malcolm X's "by any means necessary" in to "by any greens necessary," and was so forceful and entertaining that I was tempted to go up to him after and say, "Is there still time to get you to run for mayor in February? Because we need someone to scare Rahm." Maybe next time.
The luncheon—vegetarian, natch—ended, and I never really got the chance to talk to my host, Rev. Sauder, which was too bad. He has a degree in natural resources and environmental sciences from the University of Illinois, a masters in religion from the Urbana Theological Seminary and and MBA, which makes him not quite your stereotypical Bible thumping preacher from Tazewell County, where he grew up. Some other time perhaps.
On my way out the door, an interesting occurrence. I hurried to the coat closet, but my raincoat wasn't there. I went through each hanger carefully, Once, twice, three times. It still wasn't there. My good Burberry raincoat. Ah, but there was a second closet -- I had never been to the hall before, on the second floor of UBS Tower. Relieved, I went to that closet. The coat wasn't there either. Meanwhile, another man arrived and announced that he couldn't find his coat. "No kindness goes unpunished," he said. Having company seemed to confirm that we had been robbed. A spree. I felt a sinking feeling, an awful, is-this-happening? pit of the stomach feeling. A big sign on the closet said, in essence, "If you lose your coat, tough." I would have to go report my loss to Rev. Sauder. That seemed necessary, but really, what could he do about it? The poor man would be embarrassed. Why had I come to this at all? I looked one more time. The number coats were thinning out. Nothing on the floor. Maybe somebody had taken it by mistake...nah. That wouldn't happen to two coats. The do-gooders have been fleeced while listening to talks about bees and flowers.
I was slowly walking back into the hall to deliver the bad news to the minister when I noticed a third closet. There my coat was. I put it on with joy.
"Thank you God!" I exuded, out loud, quite the departure from my attitude at the beginning of lunch. I smiled at myself, recognizing how, in moments of duress, or relief, suddenly the long-scorned deity takes form before your eyes. As I once told my older son: "When you find yourself in jail—and trust me here—suddenly there's a God." I suppose I do believe, but in what George Carlin called "The God of the Car Keys." When you lose something, it's, "please God, help me find it!" Or, I suppose, when you find something you thought you had lost, He's the guy you thank, despite yourself.