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Christians join land-use debate
Ed Langlois

By Ed Langlois

Of the Sentinel

Like Moses and Jesus before them, some Oregon Christians are facing the wilderness and finding the voice of God.

The question of how human beings should use the land, perhaps the Northwest's most contentious ongoing debate, now has a solid religious contingent trying to offer answers.

Native Peoples have long applied their religious beliefs to the plight of Northwest salmon. White settlers in the 19th century came to the West convinced that they would prosper according to 'manifest destiny' ordained by God. But only in the 1990s have Christian denominations, including many Catholics, formed what could be called an environmental movement.

In Oregon, such a movement inevitably tackles issues such as logging, watersheds, and urban design.

'If you look deeper into Scripture, you see it has a connection to the desert, the land,' says Adrienne Stacey, a member of St. Ignatius Parish and a leader in an interfaith environmental group. 'It is this constant flow of going into the wilderness and bringing back wisdom to the city, Jerusalem.'

Christian environmentalists base their work on Scripture and even Catholic social teaching, but are not content to stay academic. The point is to bring a fresh perspective to specific arguments, they say.

The group to which Stacey belongs, Coalition for a Livable Future, concerns itself with the Portland area, where debates include housing density, light rail, bike paths, parks and clean water.

Metro, a regional government that has authority over land use, last month released its major 50-year plan for the area. The coalition for the most part backs the plan, which calls for compact cities with fewer cars and without urban sprawl into farm and forest.

The blueprint has faced intense pressure from home builders and developers who say that the scarcity of land will create overcrowding, congestion, high housing prices and economic recession.

When the Coalition for a Liveable Future weighs into the discussion, it hopes to be a voice of reason, avoiding the extremes that forget either the earth or people.

'In the current land-use debate, we are trying to protect our environment but still trying to live humanly,' says Stacey. 'We must look at land and people. We must look at people and the land, so they are compatible. How can we create a condensed human living area where people can grow up to be safe and have a good environment, a good living situation?'

In a course offered at parishes, Stacey hopes to make the plan and a Christian understanding of it 'available to people in the pews.'

Catholic social teaching, for the past century and more, has tended to stick up for the blue-collar worker. Sadly, says Stacey, those are the people hurt most in the current environmental situation, where resources such as timber and fish are depleted and jobs are lost.

'I think the conflict comes in transition,' she says. 'It is an economic base that is changing. I think we need to support people who are being hurt by economic change, but in the long run we need to look at our responsibilities with the creation of God. Is it to use it up and destroy it, or to use it and keep it going as God has planned?'

In May 1996, Auxiliary Bishop Kenneth Steiner spoke at a Metro conference on the future and the common good. The remarks served as a kind of Catholic imprimatur for land-use planning in Oregon.

'We must recognize that many forces in our society and region tend to emphasize extreme individualism or narrow utilitarian notions of the bottom line and that these patterns will undermine both the social and the natural ecology of our region,' the bishop said.

There are other signs that the church will speak out about the environment and development:

• Seven Catholic bishops of the Pacific Northwest have assembled a team to write a pastoral letter on the Columbia River. The bishops hope to strike a balance between human use, spiritual significance and the ecological well-being of the 1,200-mile waterway.

• The Portland Organizing Project, made up of 18 Catholic and Protestant congregations, has advocated regional requirements that would result in more low-cost housing. Metro has attempted to enact such requirements, but is facing appeals from some local governments.

• In November, more than 100 people gathered at Holy Cross Parish in North Portland to explore ways to make the region's food distribution system more just and more environmentally friendly. The food activists decided they sometimes need to 'go around' market forces and promote small organic farms.

• There is one piece of irony when it comes to the entry of religion into the past year's land-use debate. Ecological activists from Ecumenical Ministries of Oregon have opposed expansion of the Portland area's urban growth boundary. At the same time, the Sisters of St. Mary of Oregon have sought to bring within the growth boundary a 463-acre farm. Selling the farm to developers would help fund retirement needs and educational ministries, the sisters say.

Area farmers and environmental activists have joined up to block re-zoning of the sisters' farm.


The Coalition for a Livable Future offers a workshop called 'Creating Just and Livable Communities' presented at parishes. Given in three sessions, the class looks at Scripture and Christian moral foundations and applies them to regional planning in the Portland area. For information call (503) 294-2899 or (503) 281-8175.

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