Reverend Stephen Hawkins is the Program Director for the Interfaith Earth Network. In 2016 and 2017, he served as an Agribusiness Advisor with the Peace Corps in Uganda, where he worked alongside community leaders from diverse faith traditions to promote drought-tolerant gardening techniques for home consumption and to establish financial credit institutions for farmers with school-aged children. Stephen holds a Master of Divinity degree from Princeton Theological Seminary where he co-founded the Interfaith Network for Understanding student organization. Stephen is interested in observing how diverse religious communities share their sacred stories in ways that promote ecologically responsible habits. For recreation, he enjoys biking, playing basketball, reading, and traveling. Together, Stephen and his wife have backpacked across Europe, bicycled through Angkor Wat in Cambodia, and reached the summit of Mt. Kilimanjaro in Tanzania. He is currently pursuing his MBA at Marquette University.
This interview was published on March 7, 2019.
What is the Interfaith Earth Network and what is your role in the organization?
I am the program director for Interfaith Earth Network, which is actually an extension of the Interfaith Conference of Greater Milwaukee. Our mission is to inspire and support people of all faiths and faith communities to care for Earth based on their own sacred teachings. Through education, advocacy, actions, and networking, we serve as a catalyst for people of faith to live, work, and worship in environmentally sustainable ways.
We have a unique niche, which is exemplified by our Faith in Ecology series and includes a book club meeting at the Ecology Center in Milwaukee where members discuss how to apply the book to their work or worship. A gardening club contacted us asking for resources. We developed The Spiritual Ties to the Earth presentation, where we share the importance of ecology from a diversity of faith perspectives, which draws on sacred texts or quotes from prominent religious figures of all faiths. Through this presentation, people learn that ecology is bigger than any one faith and is something we can all get behind and collaborate on.
What is the connection between ecology and religious spirituality, from your perspective?
I am an ordained American Baptist minister. I think it is best when people speak from their own traditions. For myself in the Christian tradition, one of the first commandments from God is to till and keep the earth. My wife and I were in the Peace Corps in Uganda in 2016, where I was working as an agriculture and business advisor. Seeing first-hand the effect of climate change in a community of a developing country connected me to environmental issues. In the US, we can adapt to climate change through technology, but an agricultural community in a 2-year drought needs change now. These issues cannot be addressed over a few generations. People need help now. Coming back from Uganda, I wanted to combine my religious background and my new interest in the environmental movement. I had some connection to the Interfaith Conference of Greater Milwaukee and found this opportunity to keep working on these issues.
What issues is Interfaith Earth Network focusing on today?
I think of Pope Francis talking about “the intimate relationship between the poor and the fragility of the planet.” This motivates me to address climate change as not just a nice thing to do, but as a critically important social justice issue because of the deep connection between communities and natural resources.
When I was interviewing for this position with our Steering Committee, we had begun to focus on lead in the drinking water. This initiative encouraged us to seek out other organization in our community, like the Milwaukee Water Commons, who are working on the same issues. We have been working for the past year on researching the prevalence of lead, talking to experts, and identifying all sources of contamination.
The level of community engagement that seems to be prevalent for many organizations in Milwaukee is really astounding. How has your experience been working with the local community?
I think we do have great community engagement, but it can always be improved. We held an event at a Milwaukee church last June that really got one neighborhood excited about working on lead and justice issues. This group formed the Coalition on Lead Emergency (COLE) and meets monthly with community residents. During these meetings we debate action steps and discuss solutions. For example, we are discussing whether the next course of action should be filters distributed to households or long-term service line replacements.
You recently became a part of the River Network member community. How do you feel that membership will benefit you and your organization?
I was just going through emails and saw that a few webinars are coming up. Having continued access to resources beyond the Milwaukee community is really valuable. We can connect with organizations locally and across the nation that are working on lead issues and learn about approaches to this issue that have been successful for other organizations.
What kind of impact would you like to see your organization make in your community over the next 10 years?
The Interfaith Earth Network recognizes that long-term problems need long-term solutions, yet children are being born today who will be affected by lead in the water supply. So how can we help in the meantime? We are a small program within a larger organization, so our capacity to be major change agents on our own is low; however, our connection to groups who can be powerful agents of change is high. We connect with groups across the city. In 10 years, we hope that a child who is born today will have been protected from drinking water contamination as she grows. The child’s parents will have learned how to reduce lead exposure for their family, and their child will have reduced lead exposure during a critical time of development.