TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. (AP) - A devout Lutheran who considers herself anything but liberal, Jennifer Simula took a mostly dim view of environmentalists.
Then she began working for Earth Keeper, a fledgling Upper Peninsula group with a mission of uniting people from different faiths under the banner of caring for the planet - or, as members see it, God's creation. Simula is a convert.
"It really isn't about being left-wing or extremist," said the 24-year-old graduate student at Northern Michigan University. "It's a belief that the earth is a gift from God and we have a responsibility to protect it."
Across the country, secular and religious organizations that previously had little use for each other are finding common cause in environmental protection. The movement has spawned groups such as the Massachusetts-based National Religious Partnership for the Environment and the Evangelical Environmental Network in Pennsylvania, best known for its What Would Jesus Drive? campaign that challenged Detroit to make cleaner cars.
Earth Keeper is trying to build on that momentum in Michigan's rural Upper Peninsula by enlisting organized religion to help protect the region's cherished waters and woodlands. Representatives of nine faiths got things started by signing a pact on Mackinac Island in 2004.
Last year, Earth Keeper sponsored a peninsula-wide cleanup that netted 46 tons of household hazardous waste in a single day.
The second annual Earth Day Clean Sweep on April 22 netted an estimated 320 tons of electronic waste. About 10,000 people dropped off discarded computers, televisions, cellphones and similar refuse at 27 sites across the peninsula in just three hours, organizers said.
A private contractor approved by federal and state agencies was responsible for recycling or refurbishing the material, none of which to be dumped in landfills.
Toxic metals that could leak into groundwater if not handled properly was reprocessed or incinerated, said Carl Lindquist, director of the Central Lake Superior Watershed Partnership, part of the Earth Keeper coalition.
The campaign is being funded with a $55,000 US grant from the Environmental Protection Agency and donations from other sources, including the Keweenaw Bay Indian Community.
For Lindquist, an environmental activist for more than 20 years, the outpouring of support from the religious community is, well, a godsend. "I've never seen a more effective public involvement than Earth Keeper," he said.
Although many individual environmentalists are people of faith, the environmental movement and religious establishments have often regarded each other with suspicion - and sometimes hostility.
But relations have warmed in recent years. Environmentalist leaders such as Carl Pope, executive director of the Sierra Club, have reached out to faith organizations. Pope John Paul was among many religious luminaries who have labelled creation stewardship a spiritual duty.
"It comes from a recognition that we do share a lot of the same core values," said John Rebers, a biology professor at Northern Michigan and Sierra Club chairman for the central Upper Peninsula.
Both frown on excessive materialism and consumption, he said. Environmentalists worry about resource depletion and waste, while some religious teachings warn that excessive money and possessions can corrupt the spirit.
Rev. Jon Magnuson, a Lutheran pastor and co-founder of Earth Keeper, approaches creation stewardship from both perspectives.
"One of the deep and ancient teachings of all the great religious traditions is the hidden web or tapestry that binds us all together," Magnuson said. "So when we heal the environment, we heal ourselves."
Magnuson and Lindquist organized the Mackinac Island gathering two years ago, attended by representatives of several Christian denominations and other faiths, including Judaism, Buddhism and Unitarian Universalism.
They signed an Earth Keeper Covenant, pledging to educate their members about creation care and to establish a network of faith-based groups that will form a "spiritual shield" for protecting the Great Lakes. Students at Northern Michigan established an affiliated Earth Keeper program and are helping start chapters at other colleges and universities in the Upper Peninsula.
In addition to the annual Clean Sweep waste collection drives, the groups are planning campaigns to reduce mercury contamination and adopt stretches of rivers and streams for litter pickup and pollution monitoring.
The 2005 Clean Sweep addressed a sore subject in the Upper Peninsula, where dumping appliances and other household refuse in the woods is a dubious tradition. People brought everything from oil-based paints to antifreeze and car batteries to the parking lots of more than two dozen houses of worship.
The EPA's Great Lakes office in Chicago was so impressed, it came through with the grant for this year's drive.
"The faith-based approach was very unique, very innovative," said Elizabeth LaPlante, the agency's regional team manager for Lake Superior. Aside from the sheer volume of waste collected, she said, the cleanup was valuable in teaching people about the dangers of the toxic and hazardous waste in their garages and basements.
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