Growing up in northern Virginia, Derek Eisel had a front-row seat to a changing world.
He watched forests cut down and bucolic pasture land paved over into suburbs. He was told it was "progress," but he wasn't buying it.
The effect it had on a young Eisel changed the course of his life. He believes watching nature disappear is when the seeds of his environmental activism were planted.
"It bothered me then, and it bothers me now," says Eisel, 36, a Seattle software manager developer.
He had always been taught to live by example. So he and his partner, who live in the city's Magnolia district, took out the lawn and planted a vegetable and fruit garden in their front yard. At first, they weren't sure how the neighbors would react to rows of cucumbers, beans, corn, squash, tomatoes and blueberries in lieu of grass. They got a pleasant surprise.
"Our yard has become a meeting place. We've actually gotten to know our neighbors, and now several others are doing the same thing," he says.
For a time, he rode his bicycle for the four-mile commute to work; when that became too dangerous, he switched over to the city bus. He got involved in plant restoration at local parks.
All of this was separate from his faith life, which had gone dormant for several years. Like many college-age Catholics, Eisel drifted away from his faith after leaving home and going off to school. Then about six years ago, he had a life-changing incident that propelled him back home to the church – and ramped up his commitment to the eco-movement.
He was riding in the backseat of a cab when a woman driving on the wrong side of the road plowed head on into the vehicle. Although he escaped serious injury, he knew how close he had been to death. One day soon after, he found himself in St. James Catholic Cathedral, seeking comfort and giving thanks.
He got such a warm and welcome reception from the congregation that Eisel knew it was time to come home.
In returning to the fold, Eisel began looking for ways to meld his environmental passion with his spiritual renewal. He had always separated his spirituality from his environmentalism; now he began to understand that his Catholic beliefs dictated caring for creation. On the advice of his pastor, Eisel enrolled in St. James' Just Faith program, which concentrates on faith formation around social justice issues.
After two years of study, he got the green light to start an Eco-Faith ministry at his church.
The fledging group is "small but consistent," Eisel says, with monthly meetings that stress action and education. This spring, knowing that he had to reach outside the parish with more community involvement, he organized a public training session for a field trip to the state capital. More than 20 people showed up to learn how to lobby for legislation on curbing global warming, discouraging suburban sprawl, building light-rare near low-income housing and reducing storm water pollution.
The group also sponsored a parish potluck, asking everyone to bring food that was locally grown within 100 miles. And coming up this fall: An interfaith candlelight vigil for climate action timed around the feast day of St. Francis, one of the church's earliest environmentalists.
He's also joined the board of Earth Ministry, a Seattle-based nonprofit that mobilizes the Christian community to play a leadership role in building a just and sustainable future.
For Eisel, combining his secular passion with his spiritual fervor has made him more active and energized for a battle that once seemed impossible and too overwhelming to win.
"We have important issues at stake here, so important that it frightens me sometimes," he says. "But with the Holy Spirit moving through me, I don't feel defeated and so alone. God's presence gives me hope that we can accomplish these goals."
This article appeared in the February 2010 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 75, No. 2, pages 24-28).
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