Wild Lectionary: Trees, a Gift for All or Entitlement for Some?

226AtlanticAveEaster 5C 5th
Revelation 21:1-6
John 13:31-35

By Rev. Dr. Victoria Marie

And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “See, the home of God is among mortals.”

I imagine that a new Jerusalem, where God will dwell, will most definitely have tree-lined streets. I also imagine that God’s design for the present Jerusalem—for Earth’s cities in general—is that all should benefit from the Divine gift of trees.

Today’s second reading brought to mind something that has been on my mind for some time.  Trees and their lack in many inner cities. I watch a lot of British TV and I noticed that in film scenes of streets with low-income and row housing there are no trees. The same is true in cities on this side of the Atlantic. In 2015, a research study on Urban Tree Canopy examined the distribution of urban trees in Baltimore, Los Angeles, New York, Philadelphia, Raleigh, Sacramento, and Washington, D.C. The researchers concluded that, “Money may not grow on trees, but this study suggests that in a way, trees grow on money. Our findings show that high-income neighborhoods in our selected cities are more likely than low-income neighborhoods to have high [number of trees].”

What does all this talk of trees have to do with the readings? Well, it has to do with what Jesus says in today’s gospel. “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

Gospel love demands that we work to bring justice where there is injustice, including environmental injustice. Trees or the lack thereof are one symptom of a larger problem.  Environmental injustice and environmental racism, where one group of people are exploited to benefit another, are still prevalent in the US and worldwide.

In the US, it is estimated that a higher percentage of hazardous waste dumps are located in or near lower-income or minority communities. In Canada, as of May 2018, there were still 174 drinking water advisories in over 100 First Nations communities, some of which date as far back as 1995, like Shoal Lake 40 First Nation. The issue of environmental justice can also be considered from a more broad, international perspective. For example, many of the global impacts of climate change are felt acutely in regions with historically lower carbon emissions.”

The new and last commandment of Jesus, stated in today’s gospel, calls us to do all we can to heal the Earth and in the process heal each other and our living environment. Water, air, soil, plants and animals all have innate value given at the time of creation by God, who “saw that it was good.” Yet, in addition to their innate right to health, they share their health with us. For example, trees contribute to their environment by providing oxygen, improving air quality, climate amelioration, conserving water, preserving soil, and supporting wildlife. The Collaborative on Health and the Environment states, “The just and fair treatment of all people, communities, and the environment is essential in creating a more sustainable and healthy world where children can grow and flourish to their full genetic potential.” That means social, economic, and environmental justice are necessities for water, air, soil, plants and animals, including humans, to reach and maintain healthy and to live into their full potential.

Clean air and water are the right of the elements themselves but also the right of creatures that depend on them. Trees and green spaces are necessary for urban wildlife and the environmental, spiritual, mental and emotional health of urban dwellers regardless of where they fall on the income scale or their so-called race.

When someone we love is sick, we do everything we can to help them get better. Today’s gospel calls us to give more than lip-service to our love for one another. It calls us to work to restore health to our environments: urban, rural, national and international. How can we answer that call? There are examples we can learn from.

When I was little there were no trees on our block. Then when I was around 9 or 10, the South Brooklyn Savings Bank paid for several saplings to be planted on our street. Sixty years later, the South Brooklyn Savings Bank is no more but the trees still stand as healthy and beautiful neighbours of the 200 block of Atlantic Avenue. Another example is Wangari Maathai, the Kenyan environmentalist who began a movement to reforest her country by encouraging women to plant trees in their local environments. Her movement spread to other African countries, and contributed to the planting of over thirty million trees.

But how can we answer the call? Could we join or be part of a local group that tries to persuade businesses in our neighbourhood to develop or enhance their community consciousness? Could we persuade a local business or group of local businesses to donate a tree or two or more to a treeless street like the South Brooklyn Savings Bank did all those years ago? We won’t know unless we try. So, let’s demonstrate our love for the Earth and each other by joining with like-minded groups to eliminate environmental injustice. Although, we may not get to see it, let’s work towards making our inner-cities closer to John’s vision of a new Jerusalem. Alleluia!


Victoria Marie is is co-founder of the Vancouver Catholic Worker, on unceded Coast Salish Territory. She is a priest, spiritual director, and pastor of the Our Lady of Guadalupe Tonantzin Roman Catholic Women Church Community and author of Transforming Addiction: The role of spirituality in learning recovery from addiction (Scholars Press, 2014). This reflection is a shared or dialogue homily where Vikki gives a short “homily starter” then those present offer their reflections.

Wild Lectionary is a weekly blog on ecological justice themes in scripture, curated by Laurel Dykstra, gathering priest of Salal + Cedar, Coast Salish Territory





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