How a Program is Restoring Ecosystems and Cultivating Unity

Learn how Sacred Grounds unites people of different faiths through their shared love for creation.

In his encyclical Laudato Si’: On Care For Our Common Home, Pope Francis reflects on the interconnectedness of God’s creation. He writes that when we talk about environmental issues, we often imagine the world outside of ourselves, when really “we are a part of nature, included in it and thus in constant interaction with it.” When we harm other parts of God’s creation, we also suffer — especially the most vulnerable among us. 

This idea is also central to the mission behind the National Wildlife Federation’s Sacred Grounds program, which helps houses of worship across a variety of religious traditions transform their space into native plant gardens that enhance the lives of both the people and the wildlife in their communities. 

Many houses of worship own large pieces of land that have the potential to be used to strengthen the ecosystems and communities around them. As Molly Burhans from Goodlands has mapped out, the Catholic Church is the largest private landowner in the world. Yet, much of that land sits as empty parking lots or difficult to maintain lawns that require a lot of resources and are detrimental to local ecosystems.

Planting “native plants” — which are plants that have evolved for millenia within a very specific region — helps to restore a natural ecosystem that humans have otherwise disrupted. Native plant gardens often attract pollinators such as bees, butterflies, and other insects, which help plants reproduce. This benefits not just the pollinators and the plants, but also the humans who are reliant on plants for food.

“We have seen that even very small projects from a square footage perspective can have tremendous benefits for people and wildlife,” said Manja Holland, the Director of Community Engagement for the Great Lakes Regional Center of the National Wildlife Federation.

The Sacred Grounds program makes a concerted effort to reach out to communities that have not historically been included in the conservation movement in the past, and to houses of worship that are located in urban environments without much access to green space.

“We believe that access to nature for all is a basic right, and we recognize that access is extremely inequitable, especially in an urban context,” said Holland.

I participate in my local chapter of Sacred Grounds in Toledo, Ohio. Modeled after the program that started in the Washington, D.C. area, Sacred Grounds began in the Great Lakes region about seven years ago. Today, there is programming in four cities: Toledo, Detroit, Grand Rapids, and Cleveland. More than 100 houses of worship in those four cities have grown native plant gardens through the program.

Another tenant of the mission of Sacred Grounds is uniting people across differences — including religious, ethnic, and socioeconomic. Through my own participation, I have had the opportunity to visit a convent for the Sisters of Notre Dame, the Islamic Center of Greater Toledo, and a nearby Buddhist Temple. Despite our varying backgrounds, I have been struck by how much we share in common when it comes to a belief in the sacredness of creation and the interconnectedness of all life — human, plant, animal, and insect.

“It is really that intersection of healthy habitats and healthy communities — recognizing that humans and wildlife are part of the same ecosystem,” said Holland. 

Recently, my own parish, St. Martin de Porres Catholic Church in Toledo, installed a rain garden as part of this year’s Laudato Si’ week in May. Rain gardens provide the added benefit of utilizing native plants to more efficiently absorb stormwater that would otherwise runoff onto streets, collecting pollutants before returning to nearby waterways or contributing to potential flooding. My parish is in an area with combined sewers, and too much water could lead to flooding of sewage in the community.

While we simply transformed an already existing garden space into a rain garden with native plants, Holland noted that replacing impervious areas — a term for paved areas that do not absorb rainwater — with more pervious surfaces like plants and trees can have a huge impact on issues like urban heat islands, pollutants, and flooding.

St. Martin is located right near a large intersection, and in many ways is the type of community that Sacred Grounds aims to involve in their program. Our rain garden was a small first step in a larger vision, which also involves transforming an empty lot that the parish owns across the street into some sort of garden that can enhance the local community. Already in our new, small garden, I have seen flowers blooming, butterflies gathering, and people who stop by and comment on its beauty on the way into Mass.

Sacred Grounds encourages houses of worship to maximize the impact of their gardens by incorporating things like natural playscapes or food gardens that can help create gathering spaces and address food scarcity in the community. Holland said the National Wildlife Federation works with faith communities because they view them as “anchor institutions” that have the ability to reach out to the neighborhoods they are located in. Some houses of worship have started hosting “Bringing Nature Home” workshops that are open to the public and teach people how to plant similar gardens at their houses.

For people who are interested in planting native plant gardens at their own place of worship — or at home — Holland recommends buying locally grown native plants since they are most likely to grow well and successfully support local wildlife. To assist in finding those plants, the National Wildlife Federation keeps a plant finder tool where you can shop for plants by your zip code, and Audubon has a tool for finding local native plant nurseries.

While I am fortunate to be a part of a parish that was supportive of our efforts to introduce native plantings, some people encounter resistance to the idea of replacing more manicured plantings with native plants — which can sometimes appear more “weed-like” than the typical flower bed. There may be trade-offs in letting go of the carefully trimmed hedges and pansies that we have grown accustomed to, but doing so can help all members of our ecosystem flourish.

“It is not enough, however, to think of different species merely as potential ‘resources’ to be exploited, while overlooking the fact that they have value in themselves,” Pope Francis writes in Laudato Si’. “Each year sees the disappearance of thousands of plant and animal species which we will never know, which our children will never see, because they have been lost forever. The great majority become extinct for reasons related to human activity. Because of us, thousands of species will no longer give glory to God by their very existence, nor convey their message to us. We have no such right.”

Planting native gardens in our church spaces is one way we can give back the land we have harmed to those with whom we coexist — the plants, the insects, the animals — and allow them to thrive as God created them to. In the process, we may just begin to thrive more ourselves.

Be in the know with Grotto