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Mulling an unusual alliance

Local environmentalists called the Bioneers meet with a Christian group to consider joining forces on common goals.

March 29, 2007|Louis Sahagun | Times Staff Writer

A local group of environmental scientists and philanthropists broke its own rule this week and met with a Christian group to discuss the possibility of joining forces to solve environmental problems.

The Bioneers and representatives of the faith-based Eighth-Day Project met in Pacific Palisades in the spacious living room of actress Barbara Bosson. The exchange Tuesday night underlined a national trend of secular environmental groups networking with faith-based coalitions with the same goals.

"We are seeing more of an appreciation from the environmental community for what faith groups and churches have to offer," said Cassandra Carmichael, director of the National Council of Churches' Eco-Justice Programs.

"They are great on the technical side," she said, "and we add a justice component; the hardest hit by environmental problems are often low-income communities."

Over the last 2 1/2 years, Bosson's home has been a monthly gathering place for a local branch of the Bioneers, a national nonprofit group promoting visionary solutions to environmental and social problems. The meetings feature talks by leaders of like-minded organizations seeking the Bioneers' support, as well as donations from their members, some of whom are wealthy.

A measure of the effectiveness of these persuasive engagements is the number of checks that Bioneers discreetly slip in envelopes set out on a long wooden table. Some guests leave with a bundle. Some with nothing at all.

Until Tuesday, however, the Bioneers had avoided inviting religious groups.

Sara Nichols, a Bioneer in charge of organizing the talks, said members had cited concerns that such groups held narrow political views and sided with conservative organizations that, for example, question global warming.

The two representatives of the Eighth-Day Project who had asked to attend Tuesday's meeting figured as much.

So Peter Laarman, executive director of Progressive Christians Uniting and an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ, and Jennifer Snow, a churchgoing historian of American religion, resolved in advance to be provocative but not overbearing. Nor would they overtly make a plea for donations during a well-rehearsed 20-minute presentation.

Standing before an audience of 30 Bioneers on folding chairs, Laarman, 59, and Snow, 34, talked about how their nascent project aimed to rally churches around issues of mutual concern: air pollution, wilderness conservation, new parks and community vegetable gardens, and more fresh, wholesome foods in low-income neighborhoods.

Snow had the last word: "I hope, on these issues, we can work together."

Although turnout was about half the usual number, the Bioneers applauded warmly. Laarman and Snow scanned their faces for signs of appreciation that might translate later into an active partnership.

As they packed up their posters and brochures, Bioneers offered ideas for networking with environmentally concerned restaurants and farmers markets, artists and community leaders.

Of the 20 envelopes on the table, 10 were taken home by Bioneers. The rest included donations and pledges totaling roughly $7,000.

"I was pleased that so many of our people thought they were fabulous," Nichols said afterward. "Westside environmentalists don't usually associate the environmental movement with churches and poverty."

"That thrills me," Snow said, "because that was the point."

The Eighth-Day Project is a loose organization of faith-based individuals and groups dedicated to improving the environment in inner-city areas.

The group's leaders plan to hold their first conference April 1 at Pasadena Presbyterian Church. The Sierra Club and the Urban and Environmental Policy Institute are co-sponsoring the conference.

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