by Robert Barossi
It’s been a difficult week for getting on here to post new stories. Back on track soon, but for today, I’m going to post another chapter from my upcoming book (which now has a cover design and it’s extremely cool, if I may say so myself). Here’s another one of my favorite volunteer interviews:
A Spiritual Calling: John Messerschmitt
While religion and spirituality came up with a number of volunteers, there was nobody for whom it was as important as John Messerschmitt, who is both a minister and a psychologist. Sitting in his home office, I asked him what to call him and he said jovially, “you can use doctor cause I’m a psychologist or reverend cause I’m a minister. If title’s matter, put them in. If they don’t, leave them out.” I left them out and just called him John. Although he is an ordained minister, he does not have parish. Rather, he works as a licensed psychologist and pastoral counselor, seeing all types of people including a significant number of clergy and their family. Now semi-retired, he still puts in twelve of fifteen hours of work “for pay,” he says. The work, and the time spent outdoors, must keep him young, as he looks to be nowhere near his early seventies.
While John now lives in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, he is originally from New York City, where he recalls taking walks in the Bronx Park and Botanical Gardens with his father, something he considers highly influential in terms of his love for the outdoors and the environment. Growing up there and having the opportunity to find those special places where he could play in the woods or lose himself in the outdoors allowed him to connect with nature but also not take it for granted.
After attending Bronx High School of Science and City University of New York in Manhattan, John left the city for Cornell University. He had studied biology as a high school student and an undergrad, with the intention of getting his master’s in wildlife management.
“For a variety of reasons, I determined not to stay in the field of biology and that’s what brought me back to the city to go to the theological seminary,” he says. “There was always that spiritual side to it. My mind is such that I’ve always wrestled with spiritual issues. Those two things are kind of intertwined.”
“The spiritual and the environmental?” I ask.
“For me, there’s a huge connection,” John says. “And there are people who have gotten into this much more deeply than I but just to throw out a term or two, there’s eco-spirituality or eco-theology. The basis of that is a reworking of western, especially European, understandings of the theology that has been the more dominant one for many years, based on the genesis story, where in the myth, God tells Adam and Eve that they are in charge, that everything is lower than them and they are in charge. At its worst, it’s to hell with everything else that’s nature because it’s all about human beings. If you destroy the environment, as long as it’s benefitting human beings, what’s the big deal? That’s the outcome of it. In a way, religion in Europe until the 20th century, and in America, has in a sense been either naive or ignorant about environmental issues or even anti-environmental. The eco-theological or spiritual movement has said that’s a mistake, that a re-reading more deeply and more carefully of the biblical message, especially the Hebrew prophets, has an image of God saying, ‘as human beings you are stewards of the environment, you have the opportunity to take care of and care for the environment, not to dominate it or destroy it for your own ends. To be aware of what’s going on, to be actively involved in aspects that are environmental.’ You think about other people and by extension think about all of creation and that’s the other big theme, that the force or power, what we call God, doesn’t just create human beings, it’s all part of creation, it’s all part of the mystery of spiritualty. To see all of creation, form the beginning of time, in a way, there’s a powerful and profound mystery that we should take some responsibility for. That’s been important for me. If I’m out there abusing my old body helping to clean up Housatonic River, somewhere at least in the back of my mind is the sense that this is a spiritual calling, it’s not just a hobby.”
An active member of church and community, John has made a number of efforts to get involved in environmental activities and opportunities in the Berkshires. His main volunteer efforts involve river cleanups, which he gets to as often as he can and stays with as long as possible. “I have a back problem so I’m not always able to do the whole four hours out there,” he says.
“What’s the strangest thing you ever pulled out of the river?”
“Strangest thing we pulled out of the river,” he says, pausing to think back. “We pulled out some…well, I guess it was memorable, it wasn’t strange I suppose, but it was a tire, a big old tractor tire, a huge thing. Took us hours to dig it out of the mud and then to get it out of the river. That was one of the occasions with me standing on the side, shouting, ‘good work, guys!’” he says with a smile and a laugh.
John notes that he and some members of his church have been trying, with some degree of success, to get their church involved in “these ecologically concerned type enterprises.” This has led, he says, to collaboration between Berkshire Environmental Action Team (BEAT) and First Church.
“A colleague friend of mine, Dick Noble, he and I have been key guys at First Church in getting involved with BEAT,” he says. “That’s one of the things we try to do. This particular church wants to hold itself as being involved in the community, wants to get out there. This is a wonderful, spiritually motivated way to get out there and not only do something worthwhile but also to have it have a certain functional integrity. If we claim we want to care about God’s creation, let’s do it. Think globally but act locally, you know. There’s a river down the street and it’s been polluted for forty years, let’s see what we can do to make a difference.”
“Here I was, I was fresh of out of the city, in a sense my wife and I had begun to fulfill our dream because we wanted to get up to New England and be involved in nature and this sounded like a perfect opportunity,” John says of his first river cleanup, many years ago. “There was this river and it needs to be cleaned up. It’s something I can get my hands on, it wouldn’t be just theoretical, it’s concrete. It happened to be down the street, right on the other side of the bridge here, we could walk to it, so we did it.”
Seeing the results from the cleanups has been encouraging, John says, but there’s a negative side as well. He says, “You come back next year and you do the same thing all over again. It still kills me, there’s still a lot of people that unthinkingly just toss stuff. The Audubon Society has a couple of sanctuaries here, one not too far away. My wife and I walk there at least weekly, sometimes two or three times a week and it kills us, you can’t go for a walk without seeing water bottles lining the path…there’s that mix of seeing something worthwhile that you feel good about and at the same time, there’s a skeptical side, that says when are people going to get it?”
“The spiritual element, if it’s a motivating force that has somebody out picking up garbage, that’s wonderful. But the bigger issue, if one claims to be spiritual, is to step back and look at the moral, ethical implications of one’s activities or one’s inactivity,” John says. “That’s where the rubber hits the road. I find that discouraging, especially around here, there’s a significant number of people who go to churches and synagogues, but I dare say a very tiny, minuscule number consider their synagogue or temple participation as, ‘yea, what does that mean for the way I think about the environment?’”
“Do you think,” I ask, “that people would respond if there were environmental messages as part of religious services?”
“I sure would like to see some of the leaders in our religions try to find out. I don’t know, you’re getting into a bigger question,” he says. “What’s the impact of religious leaders, sermons and homilies, on the people sitting there, anyhow? A lot of research says it’s not very big. That most people go to church for the social connectedness, the security of being with people that presumably think like they do and sermons and homilies don’t have as much effect as one might hope. But that’s the point, how about the priest, rabbis and minsters getting the idea and at least giving it a shot? Maybe not just in sermons but in getting groups started and going out and cleaning the Housatonic River. If the leaders, the clergy leaders, would get more involved with this, I can’t but imagine it would have an impact somehow, a positive impact.”
For his part, John has helped to clean pollution from the Housatonic River, something that has taught him about people as well as ecology. “Did I learn it or did I see it illustrated, probably more the latter, that the stuff we throw in the river often makes it impossible for certain forms of live to survive in the river in any kind of healthy way. And likewise, rather amazingly even to scientists, once pollutants are brought down to a certain level, aquatic life comes back quicker than we thought,” he says. “So there’s a double thing, how sad that it’s been wiped out and still is being wiped out and how moving that nature rejuvenates itself when given half a chance to do so.”
“Do the environmental values and spiritual values just go together?” I ask
“For me they’re very meaningful,” he answers. “There’s no clash there. The clash, if you may have picked it up, is within myself. It’s not between science and ecology, it’s between keeping a positive sense of hope about these things and the constant temptation to become cynical or jaded and just say, ‘what am I wasting my time for?’ That’s the back and forth.”
Pressing the issue a little farther, I ask, “Can the environmental movement tap more into that spirituality? Should it?”
“I go with could and might, not sure that it should. Because I think there’s a lot of streams that feed the river in these movements, including the environmental movement, and one of them is pragmatic, just saying, ‘look, if the environment is cleaner and well taken care of that’s better for me and for my grandchildren, it’s better for society.’ It’s a deep value for me, which is spiritual, so it comes together that way. There could be others, where if someone could articulate that sense of connection in such a way that it was not parochial, non-denominational, that some people might be very affected by it in a positive way.”
“Are you hopeful?”
“My own hope is that people will go through an evolution and be, so to speak, inspired, spiritually or otherwise, to do something,” he says “My hope is that if people do enough of, for instance, cleaning the river, at least some of them are going to say, ‘what can we do to change things so it doesn’t happen in the first place?’”