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Environmental film focuses on grassroots religious activism

By Frank Brown, Assistant Director, Publications
With reporting by Marina Hayman ’09 M.A.R.

A significant part of the Renewing Hope conference was devoted to a Feb. 29 screening and March 1 discussion of the new film, Renewal: Inspiring Stories from America’s Religious Environmental Movement, a full-length documentary set for release on DVD in March.

The film, produced by Mary Kay Rockefeller and Marty Ostrow, consists of nine segments, each devoted to a different faith community’s reaction to environmental issues. The filmmakers traveled to Moss Point, MS to document the work of the Greater First Baptist Church, where the pastor was moved by the Holy Spirit to pursue post-Katrina testing for pollution levels. Renewal also portrays how a Muslim group in southern Illinois sought out farmers to prepare Halal meat in an ethical and sustainable way.

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“It was a great film in my estimation. My congratulations and praise to the filmmakers,” said Stephen Kellert, the Tweedy/Ordway Professor of Social Ecology at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, at the March 1 panel discussion in Marquand Chapel.

Kellert, author of the recently published Biophilic Design: The Theory, Science and Practice of Bringing Buildings to Life, cited parallels between the film and his own work, including common emphases on the diversity of environmental activists, the human dimension of the environmental crisis, and how the environmental crisis is fundamentally connected to humanity’s alienation from the natural world.

Another panelist, activist Ellen Bernstein, is the founder of the now-defunct Shomrei Adamah, Keepers of the Earth, the first national Jewish environmental movement in the U.S. She remarked, “It was thrilling for me to view Renewal.”

Bernstein, who was among over 100 people to see the film in Niebuhr Hall, noted that Jewish groups worldwide are taking an interest in environmental issues. “In Israel, there are 90 grassroots environmental organizations today, whereas a decade ago, there were only a handful.”

Several panelists commented on the care the film’s producers took to seek out religious environmental activists who were not “the usual subjects” featured in mainstream media.

“Thank you to the filmmakers for focusing on the grassroots, the people who are actually part of the groundswell, the people who are changing things,” said YDS’s Willis Jenkins, the Margaret Farley Assistant Professor of Social Ethics.  He also praised the film’s portrayal of the activists as part of a longstanding tradition of renewal. “Almost all the people in the film take pains to say that they were not doing something new and revolutionary,” said Jenkins.  “It is important for communities to sense the connections that exist from one change to the next.”

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