By STEPHEN O'KANE, Staff Writer | Published April 29, 2010
Trees seemingly danced in the wind outside the chapel at Ignatius House Jesuit Retreat Center as nearly 50 people gathered there to kick off the Catholic Earth Day celebration on Sunday, April 25.
The center, nestled in a wooded area on Riverside Drive north of the Atlanta perimeter, served as an appropriate backdrop for Catholics to come together and discuss their responsibilities of preserving and caring for the land that God has given them.
Water was the primary focus of the event, which was the first of its kind for the Atlanta retreat center and the archdiocese as a whole. Local speakers shared their perspectives on the impact of water and care for water resources at the local, national and international levels.
The event had its roots in the social justice committee at Immaculate Heart of Mary Church in Atlanta, chaired by parishioner Nancy Sestak, who felt there needed to be an organized group of parish “green teams” to motivate Catholics to take environmental action in their own parishes and daily lives.
The committee eventually approached Catholic Charities Atlanta and Georgia Interfaith Power & Light and formed a planning committee of parishioners throughout the archdiocese to organize a specific event to raise awareness. The event became Catholic Earth Day, a day of education and discussion of environmental issues that began and ended with prayer. It was held close to the international Earth Day marked on April 22 annually for the last 40 years.
As people filed into the chapel at the beginning of the day, Janet Wells of Atlanta’s Sacred Heart Basilica led the group in song. She invited the crowd to participate by singing, clapping or playing one of the many percussion instruments she brought along as they sang a traditional West African song. Maria Cressler, executive director of Ignatius House for the past seven months, led the community in prayer.
“With open hearts and minds, let us pray that God will show us a way forward in our current crisis, restoring a right relationship between us and the planet we call home,” she prayed.
Cressler said she was excited to learn an Earth Day celebration was in the works when she came on board and even happier that it had come to fruition.
Sally Bethea, executive director of the Upper Chattahoochee Riverkeeper, addressed the crowd about water conservation.
“I can’t imagine a more beautiful place to celebrate Earth Day,” she said as she looked out the large windows to the swaying trees behind her.
In a PowerPoint presentation she explained the reasons behind Georgia’s recent water crisis and what steps residents need to take to become more efficient in their use of Georgia’s natural resources. She pointed out that it all boils down to supply and demand.
“These droughts are due to the fact that our resources in Georgia are finite,” she said. “Atlanta has the smallest watershed for a metropolitan area in the United States.”
The watershed, which is an area of land that drains to a particular point along a stream, provides critical natural resources, Bethea said. When compared to another city, like Charlotte, N.C., the differences are staggering.
Atlanta has a watershed area of approximately 1,000 square miles to serve nearly 3.5 million people. Charlotte has a watershed area of 2,100 square miles to serve only 1.1 million people.
“We don’t have any choice but to use our water wisely,” Bethea said.
There are a few things residents can do to have a large impact on the water usage in the metro Atlanta area. For example, just by fixing leaks and using water-efficient appliances, the area could save tens of thousands of gallons of water each year. Also, energy efficient appliances save water since they do not use as much of the resource to cool working parts.
“We’re simply wasting water the way we are developing land,” Bethea also said. “By working together we can create better water and energy efficiency and sustainable growth.”
Following Bethea’s presentation, the crowd was split into groups for breakout sessions with other speakers. They included Dr. Wayne Book, professor of mechanical engineering at Georgia Tech, Judith Winfrey, organic farmer and co-leader of Slow Food Atlanta, and Donnette Pearson, who was aided by Catholic Charities Atlanta during the city’s 2009 historic flood.
Flyers, contact information and Web sites were passed along so participants could get involved after they left the retreat grounds that day.
Mass, celebrated by Jesuit Father Edd Salazar, and a reception ended the event, allowing another chance for participants to get to know each other and the speakers. The discussions that took place at Ignatius House that day mirror the retreat center’s efforts to make its own operations more energy and cost efficient.
“Ignatius House just started getting the idea of how to use our resources more efficiently,” said Kathy Powell, marketing director for the retreat center. Powell said Ignatius House no longer uses styrofoam and is currently exploring and installing low-flow showerheads and faucets. The center also hopes to renovate its lighting and make it more energy efficient.
“Caring for God’s creation is one of the seven themes of Catholic social teaching,” said Michael Trujillo, communications specialist for Catholic Charities Atlanta Parish & Social Justice Ministries. “As Catholics, we are called upon to protect the people and resources of our planet by living our faith in relationship with all of God’s creation. This inaugural event united parishioners from more than 14 different parishes to learn about this connection between our faith and our stewardship of God’s creation.”
“We thank God for creation and for our place within this gift,” Cressler said. “The teachings of our Church call us to be good stewards of the earth. They call on us to take environmental stewardship and climate change seriously and to be active in responding to it.”
For more information about Atlanta’s Catholic Earth Day celebration and about organizing for next year’s event, go to “Catholics Caring For Creation” on Facebook.
Ignatius House, 6700 Riverside Drive, Atlanta, hosts retreats year round, many of them silent reflective retreats based on the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola. Contact (404) 255-0503 or www.ignatiushouse.org.