ST. FRANCIS — Margaret Swedish’s favorite Gospel is the Gospel of Luke, known in South America as the gospel of the poor.
“There can be no justice, no dignified life, for the poor of our world if we continue to live as we do here in the U.S.,” she said in an interview with your Catholic Herald prior to her Nov. 9 “Care of Creation: The Ecological Challenge for Global Mission,” presentation at the Cousins Center.
“Our lifestyle, our patterns of consumption and waste, our fossil-fueled mobility, our inordinate demands upon the Earth’s carrying capacity are undermining the ecosystems of the planet. Unless we drastically downsize and simplify our lives, the majority of the world, us included, is headed for a very painful future.”
Swedish is a Milwaukee native, and a longtime resident of Montreal and Washington, D.C., who has logged significant time in South and Central America.
She led the Religious Task Force on Central America and Mexico for more than 20 years. Most recently, she founded Spirituality and Ecological Hope, a project of the Center for New Creation and authored “Living Beyond the ‘End of the World’: A Spirituality of Hope.”
Speaker presents case for ‘ecology as Christian mission’
ST. FRANCIS — Margaret Swedish presented a case for ecology as Christian mission during a seminar titled “Care of Creation: The Ecological Challenge for Global Mission” at the Cousins Center on Nov. 9.
Using a collection of charts, maps and photos both striking and jarring, Swedish painted a picture of an earth injured and scarred by post-World War II industrial expansion.
The event, sponsored by World Mission Ministries and the Global Mission Network of Southeastern Wisconsin, was preceded by an open house, which included displays from local sponsors and collaborators such as the Urban Ecology Center, Transition Town, Fair Trade products and Racine’s Dominican Sisters.
Among the images Swedish presented were metrics charting rising fossil fuel use, nitrogen levels, oceanic acidification, climate change and biodiversity loss, which she listed as “1000 percent.”
Her projections included global temperatures, regional desertification, especially in Spain and North Africa, and consumption.
She used images to present ongoing environmental damages and challenges. These included industrial agriculture and livestock farms; East Coast air pollution visible from space; forest fires in Texas; flooding in Bangkok, Cambodia, Genoa, Italy, North Dakota, Pakistan and Vermont;
Local issues Swedish addressed included the collapse of Oak Creek’s power plant, which released coal ash into Lake Michigan; sand mining in western Wisconsin, to feed the growing Fracking industry; attempts by the south and desert southwest to siphon Great Lakes’ water; and Gov. Scott Walker’s push for large-scale mining projects in-state.
“This is the World War II post-industrial expansion,” she said. “It’s what has fed this lifestyle we’re used to. For me it’s an interesting reflection, because it forms the whole conscious of my life. This is all I know. Any of us born, baby-boomers on, this forms our life spans.”
None of us set out to wreck the planet, she said, adding, “it just sort of happened. But now that we know, how do we respond? It’s not a question of whether we want to change. We will have to.”
Swedish explained that in the United States, people are buffered, because they have prosperity and resources.
Change must come from the grassroots level, she stressed, noting that if we wait for top down change, collapse is guaranteed.
“Narratives and stories can be broken up in a lot of different ways. One of my favorites is the loaves and fishes. All of these thousands of hungry people; a little bit of fish, a little bit of bread. It’s late in the day – can’t send the disciples to Wal-mart because it’s closed. The food is blessed, broken into small pieces, it’s shared. Not only is there enough to eat, but there’s abundance left over,” she said, retelling the Gospel story.
“Can we begin to look at our world that way? Are we the ones who are willing to stop hoarding the basket for ourselves? Can we break up what the beautiful world has to offer?” she asked. “We need to remember though that the world is still awesome, and an incredibly beautiful place. It will heal, but we have to help it.”
“I was very inspired by the poor in war zones and refugee camps,” she said. “Seeing them open Scripture, and hearing how it speaks to their own struggles; how it gives them courage in the face of difficulties beyond most of our imaginings moved me.”
“I’ve seen so much impact from efforts for economic justice and human rights, and they’re all rooted in the Gospels,” she said.
Swedish, born and raised in Wauwatosa, was raised Catholic, attended a School Sisters of Notre Dame primary school and graduated high school at all-girls Holy Angels Academy in downtown Milwaukee, run by the Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
She came of age at the peak of the anti-war and civil rights movements in the era, and recalls the efforts of Fr. James Groppi, whom she termed “Milwaukee’s local civil rights hero.”
“I was raised in a staunchly Republican household,” Swedish said. “My father was a friend of Sen. Joe McCarthy, whose name was always mentioned with a certain reverence. In January 1968, I joined the Young Republicans. In the ensuing months, Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, cities exploded in riots, Robert Kennedy, who was beginning to win me over, was assassinated, and then that August, I found myself sitting alone in front of the TV watching live as the Chicago police went on a rampage against anti-war protestors at the Democratic Party Convention. By the time National Guardsmen gunned down several students on the campus of Kent State University two years later, my life had been turned in another direction.”
She spent time at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee before going to the University of Colorado, where she earned a psychology degree in the early ‘70s.
“While in Boulder, I marched against the Vietnam War, partied when Nixon announced his resignation, was tear-gassed in protests against the U.S. decision to mine the harbors of Hanoi and Haiphong, participated in farm work solidarity events, and visited prisoners at a federal correctional institution outside Denver,” she said.
In the late ‘70s, she said she went to Montreal for a retreat and while there met people from the Benedict Labre House, a street shelter and soup kitchen for homeless men in the mostly English- speaking Griffin Town neighborhood. She stayed there for a few years.
At that time, a number of Latin American political prisoners were released – largely through the efforts of Amnesty International.
“Canada had a generous policy for receiving refugees, so we ended up with a lot of Chileans in that neighborhood,” Swedish said. “That began my Latin American education. I got to learning, by listening to their stories and talks. I loved these people.”
She also met several returned missionaries from Latin America who had started a community, Tabor House, a house of solidarity and hospitality, in Washington, D.C. She moved there in 1979.
Some of the people who sought refuge at Tabor House were from El Salvador and Nicaragua where the church was being targeted for assisting the poor.
“Members of Tabor House knew Archbishop Oscar Romero and some of his fellow priests who had been attacked,” she said. “In response to his pleas for international solidarity, we started a group: the Religious Task Force.” A few weeks later, Archbishop Romero was assassinated.
Swedish became director of the task force and expanded its scope to include Mexico. Its focus shifted, too, with less emphasis on human rights and more on economics.
“One thing I kept bumping up against was the environment,” she said. “Deforestation, contamination of water, air pollution, regions that could no longer support their populations. And I saw that pattern replicated again and again.”
Calling El Salvador a “ruined land,” Swedish said every Salvadoran water source is contaminated and less than 5 percent of the country’s forest remains.
“The population is too dense for the needs of campesinos and unemployment is very high,” she said. “Add war trauma, and families torn apart by violence and you have a malfunctioning nation. About a third of the people have left since the 1980s.”
Swedish stepped down from the task force in 2004, and in 2006 launched Spirituality and Ecological Hope. Because, she said, there are many grassroots organizers and political lobbyists already, her goal is to get out into the community, into parishes and educate people.
“I explore what exactly created this toxic, wrecked world,” she said. “I look at the moral, ethical, spiritual and philosophical underpinnings of action. And I review what the faith traditions tell us about how we can begin healing earth.”
Swedish moved to Milwaukee from Washington in 2007, largely to be with her mother.
“I always returned a couple times each year when I was in D.C.,” she said. “But moving here I quickly realized that the state that I love has many problems – and they’re very familiar from when I was young. The racism is difficult to witness. The deepening of poverty is striking. We are lacking in solidarity as a region, and suffering the economic effects of draining suburbs.”
“But I understand the drivers behind all that,” Swedish said. “I believe this is still a great place. But we must challenge issues, not allow environmental degradation to continue, create a different kind of life, and allow the planet to heal. I know we have so much potential.”