How can religion inspire people to take on environmental stewardship? The Chicago-based nonprofit Faith in Place focuses on practical, concrete answers to this question, showing faith communities how they can become more earth-friendly while enjoying benefits like more robust and low-maintenance water infrastructure, affordable local food, and lower energy costs. How can we encourage more people of faith to see the intuitive connections between what they have always believed and the sustainability of human life on earth?
As part of Sinai and Synapses’ series “More Light, Less Heat,” Sinai and Synapses Fellow Dr. Ashlynn S. Stillwell and Reverend Brian Sauder discuss how their faith led them to their environmental work.
Dr. Ashlynn S. Stillwell is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She is a member of the Environmental Hydrology and Hydraulic Engineering faculty, and also among the faculty in the Energy-Water-Environment Sustainability program. Dr. Stillwell teaches courses on water resources engineering, stochastic hydrology, and water policy. Her signature course, Water Technology & Policy, synthesizes engineering and policy content pertaining to water in an interdisciplinary educational setting, focusing on both technical concepts and communication. Dr. Stillwell has authored many publications on the energy-water nexus, including her award-winning master’s thesis, and has a growing research program at UIUC. She earned a B.S. in Chemical Engineering from the University of Missouri (2006), and an M.S. in Environmental and Water Resources Engineering (2010), M.P.Aff in Public Affairs (2010), and Ph.D. in Civil Engineering (2013) from The University of Texas at Austin. Her previous work experience includes consulting engineering at Burns & McDonnell (2006-2007) and policy research at the Congressional Research Service (2009). Dr. Stillwell received the 2015 Girl Scouts of Central Illinois Woman of Distinction Award in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics, and has been among the List of Teachers Ranked as Excellent by their Students. She serves on the Board of Directors for the Girl Scouts of Central Illinois and Faith in Place. Her research interests include urban water and energy sustainability, water impacts of electric power generation, green stormwater infrastructure, and environmental policy.View Transcript
My name is Ashlynn Stillwell and I’m an assistant professor in Civil and Environmental Engineering at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. And as I think about this conversation around religion and science and my role as an engineering professor, as an engineer and as a person of faith, I think back on my journey through life.
And when I was younger, I honestly didn’t see any conflict between science and religion. When I was 16, I was baptized into the Christian faith, and I really took that commitment personally, because I was a young almost-adult, and I felt like there was a lot of ownership on my part in that decision in my faith journey.
And around that same time, when I was in high school, I started to develop interest and skills in math and science. And like most engineering students, I went into engineering because someone told me I was good at math and science, and I think about going into engineering. And it was as a student, as both an undergraduate and a graduate student in engineering, that I really started to develop a passion for the environment and also a passion for public service. And I realized that passion and really put it into practice in my role as a professor now at the University of Illinois. And my research focuses around the environment. Still, I do a lot of work on water and energy and policy, and I see that as an important role in science and and moving forward in our society.
But as a professor, I have realized times of conflict between religion and science. It’s not uncommon for me to run into a student, or former student, at a worship service, at church, and that student be completely baffled to find a professor at church, especially an engineering professor, at church. And I started to pick up on this perceived conflict between science and religion through my work as a professor, and also through my work as a person of faith.
But there’s a lot more people out there who don’t see that perceived conflict, or live in that connection between religion and science, in a sense of harmony and a sense of hope. And I found a lot of people in that community through my work with Faith in Place. Faith in Place is a nonprofit organization headquartered out of Chicago, Illinois, and they are an interfaith environmental organization that works to empower people of faith to care for the environment.
There’s a lot of things about our respective faiths that don’t necessarily agree, but we all share this common home, this common creation. And it’s in our best interest to work to preserve that creation, and to take care of our environment through science and action.
When I think about this perceived conflict, one of my favorite quotes is actually by Albert Einstein, where he says “science without religion is lame; religion without science is blind.” And I take comfort in that overlap between science and religion in my life. There’s comfort in the pursuit of knowledge, in the science and engineering community, but there’s also a lot of comfort in the sense of wonder that comes from thinking on, praying on, meditating on, the infinite that we experience through religion.
Rev. Brian Sauder is the President & Executive Director of Faith in Place, working out of its Chicago offices. He received an award as a University of Illinois’s Business School’s Community Scholar and a Central IL Business 40 Under 40 winner. He grew up in Illinois in rural Tazewell County and received his B.S. from the University of Illinois in Natural Resources and Environmental Sciences, M.A. in Religion from Urbana Theological Seminary, and M.B.A. from the University of Illinois. Rev. Sauder is ordained by the Mennonite Church U.S.A. and worships with Chicago Community Mennonite Church in East Garfield Park. Rev. Sauder also serves as an Adjunct Professor at McCormick Theological Seminary, co-teaching an environmental certification course for future clergy.View Transcript
Hello, my name is Reverend Brian Sauder. I am a Mennonite Minister; I am also the executive director and president of Faith in Place. Faith in Place is a not for profit headquartered here in Chicago. We work with faith communities to educate, connect and advocate for healthier communities, to put earth care first and foremost as an integral part of our faith life, and of our faith practice, in the work that we do.
We work with 104 active Green Teams across the state. These are Green Teams located at mosques, synagogues, at churches, at temples, at places where people of faith are gathering a weekly basis, and our outreach staff will work with these green teams to implement programs to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, prevent basement flooding through green water infrastructure, to increase access to local food, to open space, and together to advocate for a healthier community and to advocate for what we share in common as many faith traditions: our common land, our common air, our common water.
I came to this work growing up in a conservative Anabaptist faith community, a conservative community where science was viewed as suspect. And as science was viewed as suspect, we were suspicious of those environmentalists out there, those others who were out there. But I was passionate about the outdoors, I was passionate about fisheries, biology, wildlife biology, coming from a country background, so I went and studied these things at the University of Illinois.
And as I was studying good environmental science, I began to learn about the ways that our violence in our communities, the ecological degradation that we have, most impacts first and foremost those who least contributed to the problem, and also impacts those who live in economically challenged or poor communities worldwide – and not only worldwide, but also in our own backyard as well.
And this sparked a radical question for me, and it’s a question that has shaped my journey, my career, thus far, and that is a question of “what does my faith have to say about the news of environmental science, and news of environmental degradation, the ways that we treat the earth?”
And this has been a journey that has led me through seminary, it has led me to my work here at Faith in Place, and has led me to work in this interfaith context to continue to explore this question: given the science and what we know, and the science that continues to get tested, how does this inform our values? How does inform the ways that we live, as faithful humans, here on this planet?
And this question, and this tension, have continued to be a driving creative force in my own life. It’s helped clarify my own faith journey, and it’s also helped me dig deeper from a values-based perspective into the scientific literature, to continue to ask these questions, to continue make sure that the programming that Faith in Place provides is not only cutting-edge and the latest of what we know scientifically, but also helps us live our faith into place, helps us live our faith with those values out into the community in which we serve, in which we live, in which we relate with our neighbors.
This is the question and the tension that drives the creativity in my own work and my own career, and it’s a question for which I’m very thankful. And I look forward to continuing to explore along with many others and this work that we do. Thanks.