“Water is Life: Journeying to Justice on the James”: Reflections from the Eco-Stewards Program in Richmond, VA

by Vickie Machado

Recently, young adults hailing from the Willamette Watershed in Oregon to the Biscayne Bay Watershed in Florida gathered in Virginia’s James River Watershed to partake in the 10th annual Eco-Stewards Program, a grassroots community that shapes young adult leaders through place-based experiences that connect faith and the environment. Each year, Eco-Stewards organizes a weeklong gathering in a location that reflects the pressing issues of faith and environmental action. This year’s theme, “Water is Life: Journeying to Justice on the James,” arose in response to the prevalence of water issues—such national events as Flint, MI and Standing Rock—and was hosted in Richmond, VA. Participants received copies of Watershed Discipleship, a natural fit as it addresses the complexity of faith, water, and justice. The anthology acted as our guide, and its themes were reiterated throughout the week in our interactions and dialogue. We assembled in Virginia open to learning the stories of the James River and how its inhabitants are responding to the beckoning call to become disciples of their watershed. The idea, “We won’t save the places we don’t love, we can’t love places we don’t know and we don’t know places we haven’t learned” (Baba Dioum), became a common theme and was expressed even by those who had no connections to the growing watershed discipleship movement.

Arriving a day early from the sub-tropical bioregion of South Florida allowed me to gain my bearings. My fellow Eco-Steward, friend, and Richmond host, Kathleen, took me straight to the river. I was amazed at the amount of greenery lining both sides of this urban section of the James. As I dipped my feet in, I decided this week I would let the river guide my journey—taking me through whatever flows it had forged. Kathleen drove me all around her city, allowing me to take in this watershed before we prepared for our Eco-Stewards week ahead.

Over the course of our time together, our group was graced with the presence of local historians, geographers, conservationists, watershed restorationists, tribal council leaders, outdoor enthusiasts, and faith leaders, as well social justice advocates and activists—each of these individuals on a quest to reclaim the James River Watershed as a restored place of social and environmental justice. Early in our time together, Ralph White, who served as Park Manager for the James River Park System for 32 years, shared the early history of the park system and the revitalization that arose from volunteer efforts. His talk was followed by watershed expert and Richmond Hill community member, Kristen Saacke Blunk, as she explained the racial reconciliation actively occurring in the area. Still, others like environmental ethicist and University of Virginia professor, Willis Jenkins, challenged us to explore what it means to have an allegiance to creation.

Our time was also soaked in movement as we chatted with Charis Community member Grace Aheron. She showed us her community efforts to live at the pace of the trees through planned permaculture projects and intentionality. We walked with water as Beth Roach, Tribal Council member of the Nottoway Indians, allowed us to partake in a water walking ceremony. We ended our week canoeing the James, experiencing firsthand the river that defines this region.

Throughout our journey, we followed themes arising from Watershed Discipleship. These themes challenged our way of understanding our relationship with biotic communities. In addition to place, our interactions and reading reinforced the need for solidarity, practice, and awareness of the complexity of justice issues that arise in watersheds. The notion of loving, learning, and caring for a place rose to the forefront in early discussions of the book, in addition to conversations with watershed restorationist Bobby Whitescarver, who is actively working to protect the river from excess nutrient pollution. The concept stayed with us, weaving its way through our group dialogue, and into our down time graced with music and reflection.

On a more personal level, as both a leader of the trip and contributor to the book, it was insightful to engage with others who are testing the waters of watershed discipleship. I felt the energy of others, reinforcing my own commitment to the work, study, and livelihood connected to my home. While the week’s investigations offered more insight into the practical nature of watershed discipleship, the experience also opened up a world of questions regarding the larger human-nature relationship. For me, it’s exciting to hear these conversations and, more so, to connect them with the justice actions of the James River Watershed. It’s times like these that renew my own faith, providing me energy to continue the quest for environmental justice and stewardship.

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The Eco-Stewards Program is a grassroots community that shapes young adult leaders through place-based experiences that connect faith and the environment. Vickie Machado has been involved with the Eco-Stewards Program for six years, and recently helped lead this year’s gathering in Richmond, VA. She is also a contributor to Watershed Discipleship: Reinhabiting Bioregional Faith and Practice.

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