Environmental Liturgy: Riverside Church Holds Service in Light of Papal Visit

on October 9, 2015

New York City’s Riverside Church honored Pope Francis’s encyclical Laudato Si on Friday, September 25, with a liturgy dedicated to mourning the current state of the environment and encouraging the faithful towards better care of the earth. The service, titled Worship for the World and Those Within, included passages from Genesis, responsive readings praising the goodness of the earth, and multiple speakers from historically liberal churches and environmental advocacy organizations who addressed, among other things, man’s duty to care for creation in light of his own creation, his place in the universe, and the Incarnation.

The interdenominational church, which was financed by John D. Rockefeller, Jr, has long served as a center of Religious Left activism, although its congregation is no longer as numerous as it was under famed controversial minister Harry Emerson Fosdick.

One of the first speakers, Cecil D. Corbin-Mark, Deputy Director at the nonprofit organization WE ACT for Environmental Justice, reminded the audience of St. Francis’s admonition that the earth is humanity’s mother and sister. “This sister now cries out from the abuse we have shown her,” Corbin-Mark declared. Event speakers, who appeared in alternation with the hymns and responsive readings, all acknowledged the Pope and made references to Laudato Si, the pith of the service being that environmental concerns extend to all other human concerns – spiritual, social, racial, cultural.

“[The way we treat] this world, sooner or later, effects the treatment we mete out to other human beings,” warned Rev. Michael Walrond, pastor of First Corinthian Baptist Church in Harlem, “We cannot consider ourselves to be loving if we neglect any aspect of creation.”

Another idea presented at the service was the notion that quality of life cannot be imposed from without but must be understood according to the culture of each group. Consequently, Environmental abuse robs communities of culture and social structure from which they find identity. “The disappearance of a culture is just as serious as or more serious than the disappearance of a species or plant,” announced Rev. Dr. Andrea White, an assistant professor in the Department of Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies at United Methodist-affiliated Candler School of Theology..

The theology behind Riverside’s environmental liturgy was summarized by United Church of Christ General Minister and President Dr. Rev. John Dorhauer, who believes that, in the Judeo-Christian tradition, creation has more meanings than nature, but refers to the fundamental relationship between man and God, his neighbors, and the earth.

For instance, Riverside Church Pastor Rev. Dr. Amy Butler concluded the service by administering the Holy Eucharist, which she termed, “the center of the universe.”

“God comes not from above but from within; He comes that we might find him within this world of ours. Eucharist is the center of the Universe and the source of love and overflowing life. Thus, the Eucharist is the source of our concern for the environment,” Butler announced.

“My prayer for after this week is that the words become flesh and dwell among us,” said Walrond, one of the closing speaker, in hopes that the many well-intentioned words spoken at Riverside that day would result in positive visible good.

No comments yet

The work of IRD is made possible by your generous contributions.

Receive expert analysis in your inbox.