Group shot of adult education group sitting on the grass together at the Brooksdale Environmental Centre

Photo by Brooke McAllister. Please note the photo was taken before COVID-19.

Watershed Discipleship: An Old New Idea

By Matt Humphrey, Director of Theological Education

For over a decade, I’ve had the privilege of working with a small but growing network of faith leaders longing to see the Church engage the healing of Creation.  For the last several years that work has focused around the concept of “Watershed Discipleship.” Those familiar with A Rocha’s work might not have heard this phrase but chances are they’ve seen it at work.  In my former role at Brooksdale Environmental Centre, I relished the chance to give tours to visitors and explain how what we did in our homes connected to what we did in our gardens which connected to what we did in the Little Campbell River flowing just downstream.   And this, most importantly, is because what we do flows out of who we are. Becoming people who take our place seriously is an essential starting point for caring for Creation.

The odd phrase “watershed discipleship” begins with three important challenges facing our life of discipleship today:

1. We live in a watershed moment. The health of Creation, our home, is threatened by a broad and interlocking set of concerns. Climate change is one of the most pressing, but it exacerbates existing environmental concerns such as resource depletion, loss of species habitat and biodiversity, toxicity in our soils, air, and waters, and a human culture built on overconsumption and the careless use of finite resources.We needn’t be alarmists or doomsdayers to recognize this is an important moment in human history – and the decisions we make in this generation have the potential to make a lasting impact on the earth’s future. Many have referred to this as The Anthropocene, a new geological epoch in which the main influence and impact comes from humans. For those of us in the faith community, it presents us with a moment of existential and theological clarity: What are we living for?  Where is our hope found?  This seems like a good moment for us to consider these questions afresh!

2. We recognize that we are disciples in a watershed, (whether we know it or not!).  Not a single one of us simply lives “on earth” and consumes “resources.” I live in the Cecelia Creek watershed.  One of the most degraded watersheds in Greater Victoria, it collects rainwater across Victoria and Saanich, draining into the Cecelia Ravine and the Gorge. A septage plant was closed in 2000, but the legacy of a century of thoughtless development and industry still leaves deep marks of pain in the landscape. What does it mean to be a disciple of Jesus in this place? How might my faith call me to love my neighbour here and now? Whose land was this long before I or my ancestors arrived?

Photo by Joe Mabel. Coast Salish housepost and Haida pole in White Rock, B.C.

The invitation of watershed discipleship is to allow our theology and faith to be truly informed by our context – the social and ecological setting in which we abide. Faithful discipleship in our time and place means taking stock of our inherited histories and the ongoing impacts these may have for our most vulnerable neighbours.

3. Finally, if we are to learn to be disciples in a watershed, we must start by becoming disciples of our watersheds. As my friend Todd Wynward says, we must come to see the watershed as Rabbi. This is something we may learn from Indigenous folks who have inhabited this place for aeons. Our Wild Church Victoria group recently finished a book study on Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass.  In it she writes:

Until we can grieve for our planet we cannot love it—grieving is a sign of spiritual health. But it is not enough to weep for our lost landscapes; we have to put our hands in the earth to make ourselves whole again. Even a wounded world is feeding us. Even a wounded world holds us, giving us moments of wonder and joy. I choose joy over despair.”

– Robin Wall Kimmerer

Cover of Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer

Photo by Danjo Paluska.

We cannot come to know the wonder and joy of a wounded world through David Attenborough, sharing Facebook posts, or writing important position statements. Rather, deep learning comes from putting our bodies and hands (and souls) in touch with the world that sustains our very life – its soil, air, and waters, as though we really think we have something to learn from it. So when we approach our place not as a background to human work, but as an essential part of the defining story of our lives, what do we discover? What might it mean for your Church to engage their watershed in this way? Who is already at work caring for that place, that the Church might come to partner with? How might new hope be born in us this year, as watershed disciples?

2 Ways to Take Action

1. Reflect on some of the questions posed above:

  • What are we living for? Where is our hope found?
  • What does it mean to be a disciple of Jesus in this place? How might my faith call me to love my neighbour here and now?  Whose land was this long before I or my ancestors arrived?
  • What might it mean for your Church to engage their watershed [as an essential part of the defining story of our lives]? Who is already at work caring for that place, that the Church might come to partner with? How might new hope be born in us this year, as watershed disciples?

2. Get to know your watershed by answering 10 questions we compiled here.