by Albert J. Fritsch, S.J.





These reflections are offered free of charge. Any reference or use of the materials must include full attribution of the title and the author.


At this beginning of a new millennium landholding religious communities are under pressure to change current management practices. This is due to a number of factors: the lack of personnel who have expertise in land management and are young enough to learn and become engaged in this type of work; a pressure from the outside to sell relatively undeveloped land in choice locations; a need for capital at this time for supporting the elderly and infirm in the communities; and a fundamental change in the needs of the community to where food-growing, recreation and other outdoor activity areas are no longer regarded as integral to the community's life.

Often religious communities have a close relationship with their land, and cherish sacred memories of happy times sealed through their own tender care, hard labor, and the burial of community members on the land itself. These affections are tied to the mission and charism of the community, and yet each member knows this is not a lasting city, nor are our ties so strong that we are unwilling to part with material things, even the land itself. But this dual pull of genuine affection for what currently exists here-and-now and the community's spiritual future out there-and-then creates a tension in the community, albeit a spiritual one when prayerfully considered.

Spiritual growth is both an individual and a community journey, and these will often overlap. Throughout history when communities have been faced with external pressures (e.g., persecution or external war) they have had to abandon land quickly and sometimes never had the opportunity to return. Such circumstances triggered profound changes of direction as well as purification and spiritual growth. Similar circumstances may occur after Vatican II through the decimation of a religious community's numbers. The reasons for this decline in numbers are quite complex and tend to bring new relationships, affluence, and loosening of former cultural bonds.

In these times of change, property could become the tail that wags the dog. Often property acquired and developed for former apostolic purposes may not be needed for such activities today. When novices and religious in training decline in number, the large buildings and the grounds where people helped harvest the foods found on the refectory table are now either underused or turned into what may appear to be inexpensive lawns. However, the underusing of interior space and the expansion of ornamental lawns produce a counter sign to the community's stated mission. Too often outsiders perceive communities to be wealthy folks living in comfortable retirement. Community decision-makers want to acknowledge the need for good land stewardship but find its demanding practices too burdensome, distracting, or beyond the expertise of current managers. They come to realize that few community members have the energy or expertise to engage in traditional agriculture or to use designated recreational areas such as tennis courts.


Aging communities know they must reinvestigate land use patterns and still not treat land as a commodity to be sold at will to the highest buyer -- even when the money obtained is designated for very worthy causes. The challenge facing land-holding religious communities today is to recognize how land stewardship principles apply concretely to changing conditions of limited personnel resources. Thus they are challenged to review general stewardship principles, to reach out to other communities who have successfully transferred land to new applications, or to modify their own traditional land use practices in innovative ways.

The following reflections started in early 1999 when the Raskob Foundation funded the Land Stewardship Conference for Religious Communities held in May, 2000 at the Jesuit Renewal Center at Milford, Ohio. The papers and reflections from that conference have been published and sent to all 65 participants through a grant from the Dominican Sisters of Springfield Kentucky. This current work is made possible through a grant from the U.S. Jesuit Conference and from Jonquil: A Dominican Earth Education Fund. I draw upon two decades of environmental resource assessment experience, during which Appalachia-- Science in the Public Interest (ASPI) has performed 180 assessments. Over one-third have been for religious motherhouses/grounds and adjacent works such as high schools, colleges, summer camps, retreat houses, and retirement centers.


This paper is divided into three Sections. The first focuses on four general concepts of land that were only partly developed at the May, 2000 Milford Conference Statement, a paragraph which was prepared under time restraints at the conference. Next is my reflection at the beginning of the millennium on the history and present condition of American religious communities with their commitment to justice in an age of physical retrenchment. General recommendations on options available and how communities can reach good land stewardship decisions comprise the third point. The paper has been offered to experts including those serving on a property task force for the Legal Resource Center for Religious. All specific examples were obtained from public knowledge or through non-assessment procedures.


The Land Stewardship Conference attempted to take a hard look at community property in the light of current conditions. People need to ask whether to sell or to lease, to dispose of some or all, to alienate this or retain that portion, to accept developer advances or approach non-developers, or to act now or after further discernment. The various communities are at different places in their land stewardship journey. Conference participants were willing to describe innovative practices such as community gardening, intergenerational activities, educational ventures, and restoration efforts, many of which are worth replicating. While the Statement does not emphasize land-related actions which would result in better land use practice, a listing of possible actions are found on pages 80-82 of the Land Stewardship Proceedings. We hope the list will serve as a encouragement to those seeking new or modified uses of current property.

The following points are meant to be exploratory. Our hope is to initiate an ongoing dialogue on land stewardship, which is helpful for interested groups and worth passing on to other groups who currently puzzle over land use practices and land retention.


Section I Critical Reflections on the Conference Statement


We claim kinship with the Earth community, a passionate concern for and spiritual connection with the land. The web of life is threatened. The land, air, and water are at risk. We are suffering from a loss of biodiversity, non-sustainable development, degradation of land, insufficient Earth knowledge, global atmospheric changes, and loss of wilderness spaces to nurture our spirits and for wildlife habitats. We pledge to foster an ecological awareness that comes from a deep reverence and strong commitment to a right relationship with Earth. We support the voices of Earth which speak about a culture of life --biodiversity, communion and interdependence in the sacred web of life. We commit ourselves to listen to the voices of the land where we live or which is under our care and to take action based on those voices.(1)

First Aspect: Land as Suffering

This is why the country is in mourning, and all who live in it pine away, even the wild animals and the birds of heaven; the fish of the sea themselves are perishing. (Hosea 4:3)

The Conference Statement above lists the following harm to land:

Loss of biodiversity occurs two ways: by threatening the existence of native species through overdevelopment accompanied by air and water pollution; and by allowing exotic species to crowd out native plants and in some cases animals. According to a World Conservation Union report, 2000 Red List of Threatened Species, 11,046 plants and animals risk disappearing forever due to human activity, and this is incomplete, because many could become extinct before they are identified. This could be the second major extinction of life event, the greatest loss of species in 65 million years. Bioengineered seed may also produce a monoculture.(2)


Non-sustainable development includes use of land for unplanned urban sprawl especially in prime agricultural areas, excessive road construction, destruction of woodlands for a variety of purposes, and failure to utilize urban land, especially lawns, for productive crops.

Degradation of land is vividly illustrated by soil erosion from agricultural operations, blatant surface and deep mining practices with inadequate effort at reclamation, forest clear-cutting and other poor silvicultural practices, and failure to restore damaged land.


Insufficient knowledge has affected ancient cultures as well as our modern ones. It promotes such procedures as draining ecologically valuable wetlands, failure to rotate or fertilize croplands, overgrazing by goats and other livestock, destruction of forests which retain soil and moisture and affect climate, and salination of fertile drylands by improper irrigation procedures.

Global atmospheric changes, which are partly or totally human caused, will have dramatic effects beyond what is already observed in retreating glaciers and melting of icecaps at both poles. It is not yet determined how much the current scientifically certain global warming is going to affect land masses through desertification and flooding. With the movement of warmer climates, temperate forests may invade frigid regions, and tropic vegetation may inch into previously temperate zones.

Loss of wilderness space generally is an after-effect of unsustainable development practices. As more and more people seek wilderness experiences, the impact of populations on fragile areas will have a more pronounced effect. Such recreational vehicles as dune buggies, motorcycles, jet skis, snowmobiles, and off-road vehicles in forested areas are having pronounced destructive impact on the general environment and wildlife habitats alike.

Land is vulnerable. While the Conference Statement begins by listing the threats endured by the land in recent years, it does not explicitly state that the land is fragile and vulnerable and capable of being harmed. Recognizing this characteristic of land causes us to care deeply for the land, becoming sympathizers who hurt because another is harmed. We lack sensitivity in experiencing land as suffering if we are immersed solely in our own self-interests, by extracting the most from land for our own or others benefit, or if we are so addicted to an affluent lifestyle that we have been numbed into general insensitivity to the basic needs of others. We will enhance this sensitivity if we work in the public interest, if we treat land reverently, and if we strive to be sensitive to the poor, especially the landless poor of the world.

A sense of compassion. The manner in which we treat land is similar to the way we treat members of our immediate family, especially the very young and very old. Land is not a powerful vindictive force or a god or goddess which will turn on us if we do not appease it. Rather, the land is loveable and we, as carers for the land, are not indifferent dwellers on it. Compassion means that we are co-sufferers with another. A sense of compassion drives us to make land more sustainable through an improved state of productivity. When friends suffer we go and co-suffer with them. When my Appalachian homeland suffered through the abomination of unregulated surface mining in the 1970s I was impelled to return to suffer with it.(3)

We have deep attachments to land. We know land when we walk upon the surface, especially barefoot, or when we eat native plants grown on the land and thus assimilate it and become the land -- the land becomes a part of us. Proximity allows us to be all the more compassionate, for we are instinctively drawn closer and enter with desolate hearts into the pains of the suffering Earth.

Experiences of suffering land. Some land near ours at ASPI was wantonly surface mined just before we established our center in 1977. It was a citizen demonstration in which we participated that closed down this mining operation quite quickly. But due to regulatory flaws the torn up land has never been reclaimed. However. Bob Sears, a fellow Jesuit, believes that land remembers past misdeeds and it is necessary to pray over damaged land and ask God's forgiveness for wrongdoing. He came down from Chicago and a number of us assembled at the site and prayed over the land. With time it became evident that the devastated land rebounded even without formal reclamation and is now clothed with pines, sycamores, tulip poplar, blackberries, and Virginia Creeper. The covering is not perfect, but the bleeding (soil erosion) has been halted and the land is starting a comeback. This stripped land may take perhaps centuries to be restored completely, but healing has begun.

Recognition. We need to be spiritually free and open to recognize how land can be damaged and made to suffer: through human overuse, paving over, soil erosion, excessive disturbance, poisoning, use of bioengineered seed, or misdirected use of synthetic chemicals. Each abuse merits an explanatory essay in itself and a heart-rending story of damage. Unlike sick buildings which take expertise to detect, the suffering of land is more obvious to those concerned about the Earth, though the cure calls for expertise and hard remedial work. However, the first need is to recognize the abuse when it occurs and to be willing and able to halt it before proceeding with remedial action.


Immediate action. It is quite possible when coming upon a suffering human victim that we can perform immediate first aid to stop the flow of blood or remove a life-threatening circumstance. With land there are some first aid measures, such as stopping soil erosion through immediate steps. However, being Good Samaritans to the land around us is only a temporary bandage, though it may be a godsend at the right moment. It takes compassionate sensitivity and keen observation to know that harm has occurred, where it hurts, how it hurts, and what is needed for immediate first aid. It takes an authentic spirituality that confronts the present moment for what it is, and then acts. The first impulse is to blame another for the suffering, to call 911, or to try to flee from the scene. When our land is in need of help, we must recognize what is happening and respond immediately.

Intermediate action. Between immediate first aid to the land and long-term actions there is a window of time when spiritual discernment is helpful. This involves planning for and initiating a modification of the status quo in order to conserve resources (human energy, finances, soil fertility, or physical materials). Measures adopted, such as soil conservation work, should be set in place even though the property may pass to a new management.


Long-term action. Landholders need to heal harmed land which is under their care and responsibility. The need for long-term remedial action may not be as obvious as that for shorter term first aid. However conservation work should be undertaken with good advice and planning by those who have control of the land. What if it belongs to another? We still have some responsibility not just for land held or under our individual or collective control, but land beyond our boundaries or in other parts of the Earth as well. We should recognize the abuse, take matters to higher regulatory authorities for injunctions, fines and legislation, and join in seeing that remedial action is taken. Remember: All land is in some way "our" land. Eroded land yields sediment which enters watersheds, clogs rivers, kills fish and diminishes water quality.

Second Aspect: Land as Kin (Community)

The Statement talks about our kinship with land. It is much in the manner of the sister/brother relationship with creatures and creation as espoused by Francis of Assisi and his followers. Here the person shows respect for other creatures, finds that all are mutually supportive of each other, and recognizes the value and worth that they have as God's creatures. This attitude of reverence is a prerequisite to safeguarding and improving our land stewardship practices. Listening to the calls of others becomes a mandate. Hearing what other creatures tell in their own being and presence is part of the demand placed upon us as fellow creatures in an extended family and as respecters of God's gifts.

This primacy of kinship stands in stark contrast to a traditional haughty approach of those who regard their land as totally theirs to use or abuse, and even the more enlightened attitude of treating land well for my (our) own benefit -- the better treated, the more we get out of it. Through the kinship model land is related to us, for we are from Earth, have our common destiny connected to Earth, and find our own well-being in the extended Earth community of which we are part. Kinship takes us back again to the patron saint of ecology, St. Francis of Assisi, who sings his Canticle to all Creation, who preaches to birds and fish, who speaks of Brother Sun and Sister Moon, who proclaims a purity of lifestyle by renouncing all worldly fashion and allurements, and who finds God's love shining up from all Creation.


Focusing on kinship with the Earth has a special meaning for those of us who are farmers, gardeners, homesteaders, artistic naturalists, foresters, scientists, outdoor sportspeople, hikers, walkers, and simple lovers of the great outdoors. We include a diverse community, virtually all of whom always touch the land with reverence. The relationship exists, whether we bow our heads deeply or not. My book, Spiritual Growth through Domestic Gardening, which can be accessed from the ASPI web site <>, takes the reader on a journey throughout the year, and recalls to the domestic gardener how each month has a different way of perceiving garden space, e.g., January is the planning month, May the month of appreciation of flowering beauty, etc. Within each of these reflections one may move forward to a deeper ecological understanding of proper land care.

We have specific connections with particular land -- home, or sacred site, or reflection center, or gathering place. Our connections radiate out from the locality to include others with similar places wedded to their psyche, and ultimately to states and nations and the planet itself. Our land as "my land" depends on this relationship which has developed over the years. It may refer to a sense of absolute ownership or to shared responsibility with a family or community. Through a loving kinship we come closer to the land; in working it we get our hands dirty; in our communion with the land we endure its joys and pain. Land is not just what we give service to, or what we use to our benefit; land is a part of us. Members of a family listen to each other and learn to give and take, to express affection, and to support each other.

Criteria. The Statement refers to, but does not spell out, the signs and directions that the so-called voices of Earth communicate to us. We must move from intuition, art and poetry to a more formal approach involving discernment in order to recognize the authenticity of these voices. While we have a relationship with land, we are not endorsing a pantheistic relationship, but one of becoming aware with sensitive hearts and acting with a discerning judgment. Let us assume that this is a valid experience and that we recognize the voice of the land. In a world filled with both concordant and discordant sounds, we need criteria in discerning which one is an authentic voice of land. The following three may be of assistance:

1. "Composition of place" -- listen attentively to the land as God's creation. Land lovers know they must be attentive and listen to the land with an open mind. What is land trying to say to us? Are we moved to reflect and to take prudential action? Is this listening an experience of God's creative power which raises our spirits? Does the experience bring peace of soul? If we talk to animals, should we talk with plants as well, as good gardeners have a habit of doing? Should we find it just as easy to talk to the land and wish it well, speak of its hurts, find joy when it rejoices, and sing with the land God's praises? Do we believe that land knows, that land responds? Our reverence for land takes on various forms -- kissing the Earth, tilling the soil, hugging a tree, tasting ripe fruit, smelling or sitting on the Earth, and planting trees.(4) It is like communicating with our family members and listening to them when they speak. Can one have authentic faith without touching land in some way -- in a potted plant, a raised bed garden plot, an open field, the understory of a forest, or the desert?

2. Reflection -- know the land. The application of the Spiritual Exercises allows us to go from a vision or awareness of place -- a locating ourselves as in the first moment -- to one in which we verbalize the experience through prayerful petitions or expressions of gratitude. Initial insights may be verbalized in some fashion -- an individual or group prayer, an informal discussion, through journal writing, or by composing a poem. Proper discernment involves knowing the subject well, namely, the particular land. Generally farmers, gardeners and homesteaders are quite resource-conscious, or else their livelihoods will be threatened. They encourage land to become more fruitful and to remain a source of fulfilling basic needs, especially those necessary bulky materials which take much effort to transport, namely food, fuel, building materials, and water.

3. Voices -- move to action. Land's voices move us both internally as expected and as part of a social community through sharing in conversations and cooperative actions. Personal discussion encourages us to act for the good of others. We are energized when in intimate communion with the land; we are more able to take on tasks that otherwise seem impossible. In working the soil I am more willing to engage myself in other activities which are truly in the public interest. We are aware of the effort it takes, the sense of accomplishment, the feeling that it needs to be even more perfectly done, and a sense of gratitude in what the land has produced.

Third Aspect: Land as Temporary Gift

Land must not be sold in perpetuity, for the land belongs to me, and to me you are only strangers and guests. (Leviticus 25:23)

The Conference Statement neglects to mention the Creator of all land and the acknowledgment and gratitude we owe God for the gifts of land and of our own individual and community lives. On the other hand, individual or community lives are finite and relatively short, thus giving added urgency to reviewing our land stewardship practices.


The land as God's gift. We receive the land; it is not the product of our creative hand, but from Another's beyond us. We recognize that many factors go into making a piece of land productive and fruitful, i.e., climate, weather conditions, soil conditions, etc. Thanksgiving for gifts received should come easily to religious communities. In the Scriptures one finds in numerous places in the early books of the Torah, in the Psalms, the Gospels, and the Letters of Paul a movement to give thanks for gifts received. We need our Sabbatical rest and time to reflect on the Source of the land's productivity and the particular bounty that our land has given to us.

The land gift as eliciting thankful appreciation. America is a land which has generally shown a sense of gratitude for gifts given. Our traditional stories tell of Native Americans giving thanks for gifts, of the voyagers showing gratitude for a successful voyage, and of Pilgrims thanking God that they were able to live through the tough conditions of the early settlement years. This special thanks continues to be directed to the Source of all gifts, especially during, but not limited to, our Thanksgiving Holiday. We continue to have celebrations such as festivals, fairs, block parties, special tree plantings, religious ceremonies, and sacred liturgies at specific land sites and at designated times.


The land as part of God's covenant promise. God's Chosen People -- in whom we all are now included -- were given land flowing with milk and honey to prepare for more total sharing of the promises of salvation -- thus a Promised Land to care for and keep holy. Wandering gave way to settlement through the land-gift -- a Holy Land -- a designated portion of the globe which was to be the focal point of the salvation event of the birth, life, death and resurrection of the Messiah.(5)

This land was made holy by special divine favor, and has been the destination of pilgrims for millennia. Through the Christ event that land shifted from the responsibility of a small group to all people -- the very reason for the need to internationalize Jerusalem and the holy places.


Our Holy Land. We need not possess a piece of land to identify with it. It is sufficient to appreciate the gift of our particular bioregion, to care about it, and to exercise some joint responsibility in its care. Through loving and caring for a particular piece of land -- and seeing all the land of the Earth (including the ocean floor) as contiguous, we are able to acquire a profound sense of the holy extending beyond a particular place to include all -- our humble and not so humble abode as well. We can rightly say that the gift of land extends to our planet and our universe.

Land as giving us our bearings. Some eco-spiritualities start with a grand cosmology which sweeps one up into the distant stars and planets. Out there is a great distance. How about starting with the Microcosm, the land under our feet? For down-to-Earth folks this seems more a propos. Those familiar with their land are aware of the here which gives us bearings and direction. We come to know our bioregion --what direction the wind blows, the plants and animals present as native or invasive, the flow of the water, the type and texture of the soil, the topography, what part of the land is hotter and dryer in the various seasons, and something of the history of land management. We have a spiritual sense of land-gift by coming to know the land and ourselves.

All earthly creatures as interdependent. This is a general principle of ecology which we have accepted somewhat uncritically but perhaps needs to be recalled as including land. Our land-related "eco-spirituality" does not isolate us on a small spot, a defined piece of land as such. Human beings are not splendid isolationists, but caretakers on a modern day Noah's ark -- spaceship Earth. A spirituality of overlords, slave masters, big game hunters and colonialists encourages a conquest of parts of the world for selfish purposes -- a deliberate choice to possess with the exclusion of others. Most religious communities realize that they must focus on caring for a particular parcel or limited area. However, they also are aware that interdependence of all creatures extends to their connectedness with a broader land than their immediate locality.(6)


Temporary holdings. Land stewardship involves recognition of both the gift and the temporary nature of it. Gratitude includes being aware of the shortness of our land tenure -- and thus the urgency of our work. If we had forever to get things done, why hurry? We are truly sojourners on the land, people just traveling through, whether as individuals or families or religious communities. We have no guarantee of survival for long periods of time; we are here a short while and then move on. While here we realize our short-term responsibility and we are not to make ourselves masters of the land's fate; we have no lasting permanent grasp on the land. In fact, our land grasp is always at risk of slipping away; just consider the history of estates, landholdings and tribal lands. In a few generations land will change hands and the tenacious grasp of former holders is quickly forgotten.

Faith in the goodness of the Creator. God's goodness is reflected in all creation; this generates an atmosphere of mutual respect for others, whether human or non-human. God owns the land and we are mere tenants. We are called to be gentle, to see our own limitations, to foster care for all creatures, so that in protecting the local environment we might think more globally. Thus our immediate locus colors our spiritual quest for meaning; constantly we are reminded of our own limitations as our minds and hearts stretch out to all the world. We thus experience a dynamic tension between acting at a local level and thinking far beyond.


Fourth Aspect: Land as Tangible

Woe to those who add house to house and join field to field until everywhere belongs to them and they are the sole inhabitants of the land. (Isaiah 5:8)

The Conference Statement does not mention the powerful corporate forces in our society which are rendering people landless and which are the catalyst for the suffering caused by unsustainable development of land. Often those who choose to view land in an eco-spiritual manner omit the integral social justice dimension. Ecological restoration and extending justice must go hand-in-hand. When we speak about the beauty of the Earth, we include the often overlooked beauty of healing its wounds.

Land has extension, location, quantitative limits, and a human history. It is a source of security and resources. It is that place on which one can make an abode, have boundaries, and cultivate or use it for providing sustenance for the residents. Because land, unlike air, can be acquired on a relatively permanent basis, records are kept as to who has use or ownership over particular portions of land. Through surveying records, deeds and property transfer an official record of landholding can be made. Land can be parcelled and distributed, but that does not guarantee the legal procedures are just.


Air is part of our global "commons," which we all share in some fashion. Scientists can speak of the millions of molecules of air that move from one person to the next and can at least theoretically circulate throughout the atmosphere. The same perception can be shared for water, even though that state of matter is less mobile than air. We can speak of the Law of the Seas -- a surface area comprising four fifths of the planet's surface. Land is different from air and water; for long periods of time it remains in one place, measured, requiring particular care, and capable of being enclosed. Land can be held either individually or collectively and boundaries can be established to exclude others. The paper by Ben Urmston opens a special dimension to land as a global social concern; the same holds for the Ralph Dowdy paper on the local level. These point to a justice dimension associated with acquiring, retaining, using and ultimately disposing of land so that land should be under the control of all of us, not just a few.

Over-control as wrong. Land can be gained or lost depending on the good or bad fortunes of the legal landholder. Newcomers like the American colonists seized land through "legal" means from indigenous people. The same sad story can be told of people from various periods in history such as the Vandal invasions of Spanish and North African communities in the 5th and later centuries, the Irish in the 17th and 18th century, Australian aboriginal peoples in the 19th century, and Palestinians in this past century. Powerful, ambitious, well positioned persons in high places can legally take land away from others and render them landless. Land tenure for generations can be lost quickly to an ascendent culture, especially one that is profit-driven.

The poor and landless. Should we bother to consider the impoverished of other places, or act in socially just ways to those nearer to us? Certainly injustice touching land in our own backyard should be given primary consideration. One is tempted to say, let the injustice of each place be the focal point of activists at that place -- and encourage them to engage in meaningful action for they know the territory and the people better than those at a distance. To address the poor properly we must return to the basic consideration of our own resources, where results can best be achieved. A basic principle is to involve those who are landless in a meaningful fashion. Although best done on the local level, a defense of justice may require outside intervention when these local legal resources are absent. Ultimately the planet is our responsibility even if the landholding is in the hands of another. By allowing injustice to continue we are permitting a malady to infest the social order, and that eventually affects the health of the entire planet.

Poverty vowed and poverty endured. Some live freely in vowed simplicity on the land, having a corporate title to the land. While received to help sustain and give livelihood, the mere location and condition of the land may make it a commodity worth much money. The vowed poor in some religious communities can find themselves land rich. In other cases, the land could have a commodity or high economic value but land incumbrance makes it of less monetary value. Thus a widow or holder until death of a property willed to heirs may live quite simply on a valuable piece of property, may be assumed wealthy, but may be cash poor. On the Great Plains ranchers sit on valuable land but their income is currently so low that these "millionaire landholders" reside in the poorest counties in America. And then there are the landless who crave having land to occupy for housing and to grow their own food. Instead, they own nothing.

Religious as models of justice. Landholding religious communities often find themselves in an uncomfortable position of neither wanting to appear wealthy, nor of giving up responsibility for their land. Nearby residents and visitors perceive them as wealthy, thus damaging their mission with and for the poor. Religious communities maintain some of the largest lawns in a given area and yet seek to attract others to their work which is tarnished by the excessive ornamental land. How can a religious group enjoy private wooded and enclosed grounds when nearby residents remain congested with little housing or recreation space? How can vast space be occupied by people who use it sparingly while the working poor and landless go without proper recreational land or space for growing food? Creative religious communities may be hesitant to alienate their land, but can still allow the landless to lease or use land for community gardens, housing projects or for recreation. There are ways of planning land use patterns or of engaging in corporate investment procedures so that community needs may be met while the landless questions are addressed to some degree. Land is not an object of envy when shared in significant fashion with the larger community.


Section II Reflection on Land Use Experiences

A religious community may desire good land stewardship and realize that changes must be made in the near future: the past methods are too costly and require too many resources; experienced managers are too hard to find; increased administrative details from governmental red tape and other sources make land management especially burdensome today; taxes may have to be paid on income-bearing land uses; it requires too much time to find sub-managers for the land, especially with the community's increasing health concerns.

Land management may be reduced through determining certain uses such as woodland and pastures, but any land management still remains a burden and responsibility, e.g., fencing, safety, positive enticement for youth, and hunters and off-road vehicles. Community leaders most likely prefer to pass the torch on to other responsible landholders, to do so with an open heart, and to attempt to guarantee that the community's love and care of the land be continued. The hope is that this can be achieved through careful planning and execution of the land transferral to another party -- if that is the option decided upon.

Experience. To assist communities I draw on experience of the past two decades while performing environmental resource assessments in thirty states. Any critical discussion of specific sites is omitted here because our assessment work is confidential in nature. Actually some success stories were mentioned in the course of the Conference by participants willing to tell the stories, but most of these should be more comprehensively treated in some future reflective work. In this section we will focus more on common procedures needed to make land use management changes in the immediate future.

General community characteristics. From our experience in environmental resource assessment we find the following general characteristics:


In times past land was most valuable as the source of food, water and the other basics of life. Over time people have distanced themselves from the land, even when not leaving it. However, most land holders still regard the land as a source of livelihood in some way, even though it is now no longer growing large amounts of food. When funds become short these groups focus on land as income-earning, but regard the income in dollars and cents and not in food produced for the community's use. If the land is not yielding money in the form of space for other community services or for commercial produce, then further pressure is applied for getting a just return off the land. The more pragmatic person would say at this point, "If not productive, it must be disposed of." Others are dismayed and defend community-related benefits such as privacy and possible future land use practices.

Sustenance land use. Quite often religious communities in simpler times and with a flush of new members were able to sustain themselves through their farmland -- through hard work, a supply of experienced farm workers, and good and close management by managers with farming experience. The land provided food and the people thrived on the wholesome produce, which probably included vegetables, herbs, fruit, nuts, dairy products, eggs, and meat from locally raised livestock. Some groups had their own root cellars, canning operations, underground apple storage areas and meat packing operations. Others had only certain components of a sustainable farm. For those who participated in that enterprise there are many happy memories.

Land use changes. A fraction of current religious communities continue farming operations in more rural areas, but admit that the challenge becomes ever greater. However, generally in the late 1960s things changed. Novices and associates became fewer, and more attention was given to formal instruction and education. At the same time mixed farming was undergoing dramatic changes, and more and more family farms were either specializing or going out of business and combining with larger farm units. The religious communities responded in a variety of ways, but generally began to transfer (by leasing) cultivated and pasture lands to neighboring farmers for cropping or raising beef cattle. Other farm lands were sold or transferred to other non-agricultural enterprises. In a few cases suburban or urban properties were leased or loaned for growing community gardens. More often portions of farmland were separated and sold for urban development into malls, housing units, offices and streets. Perhaps half of the property of the 1960s has been urbanized, and yet religious communities still retain a sizeable share of undeveloped greenspace near larger cities.


Family farm under attack. With the demise of community sustenance farming, there was a need for more capital to keep religious communities alive. This demand was met either by making the land more cash productive or, more often, by members taking income-bearing jobs outside the community. Cash shortages made the requests by neighboring farmers to lease unused food-producing farmlands for specialty cropping (hay, soybeans, corn, other grains, etc.) somewhat enticing. These religious communities had the same experience as the rest of America the demise of the family farm -- except here family is a religious community. As farming became more of a specialty with heavier and more expensive equipment, the religious gardens and community croplands became a single crop phenomenon with outside managers using commercial fertilizers and pesticides to maximize their own yields while diminishing environmental quality. In turn, since agriculture was in a financial bind even with the increased specialization, the leasing farmers, though well intentioned, did not have ready capital to maintain fences, drainage ditches, farm buildings, and roadways. The farms suffered through these practices of agricultural mining or unsustainable use of the farmland.

Agricultural uses. Farming can still be a viable source of income and sustainable lifestyle for certain people -- but it takes a combination of managerial skill, good opportunity, market niche, good soil, and the momentum of an early start. The Adorers of the Blood of Christ have operated a 600 plus acre farm near the Mississippi River at Ruma, Illinois, and until recently managed it from their own Motherhouse. It has been converted to an organic farm and is now leased. The Grailville Community at Loveland, Ohio has also applied organic methods to both vegetable gardening and livestock raising. The Amityville, New York Dominican Sisters have turned lawn and unused urban land into gardening areas. The Tipton, Indiana Sisters of St. Joseph have been blessed in having their uniquely situated farm within a corn seed-growing area. Other communities such as the Tiffin, Ohio Franciscans and the Oldenburg, Indiana Franciscans have continued to grow food on their farms both for themselves and others. The Crown Point Dominicans at Bath Ohio have a thriving Community Supported Agriculture program plus farm-based environmental education and summer youth projects as well as a foodbank farm.

Non-agricultural uses. In some cases, agricultural lands have been converted to non-destructive land uses, which are also income-producing. Some rent land for annual festivals, Christmas shows, fairs, or yard sales; others rent land for occasional parking; still others have allowed the use of property by professional or amateur athletic teams, or have rented camping sites to scouts or other groups on an occasional basis. Innovative non-agricultural uses have in all but a few cases been far more lucrative than traditional or specialty farming practices. These do require some additional management and planning. The Benedictine Sisters at Erie, Pennsylvania have beautifully situated lakeshore land and have made good use of it for retreat programs and still are able to cultivate gardens at their environmental camp.


Non-conventional agriculture. One could hope that high quality farmland could be retained in agricultural production to the best degree possible. However, it is not necessary that large-scale agriculture be the primary model. Religious communities could take a lead in promoting small farms.(7) Part of the promotion could be by making land available to groups or individual homesteaders who wish to make a living on small farms with organic and diversified food production. The time is right for converting religious land to small farms. However, it would require good planning for dividing the large cultivated fields into viable, accessible, and self-sustaining areas. It is not necessary that the land areas be large (a few acres could suffice). Much depends on the choice of homesteaders. Perhaps a good apprentice program would be necessary before settling on each individual, family or working unit.

New Land Ventures

Many socially conscious religious communities are becoming more deeply involved with using their land for assisting the landless or for giving opportunities to lower income people or youth from inner city neighborhoods. The land may be converted from agricultural to a number of uses or be divided into small farms or community gardening plots. It may serve as recreational grounds or as a location for spiritual retreats for people in need. It may contain physical facilities needed for community meetings and gatherings and may serve as a model or demonstration to encourage other religious groups to follow similar practices. Finally, it may be used for the religious themselves in a higher quality manner, especially among retirees and nursing home patients. A number of examples are listed below, but we must emphasize that the listing is not complete.

Hermitages. A recent growth "industry" for religious communities is that of establishing hermitages or prayer places for both community members and visitors. These are usually built in secluded but still easily accessible places conducive to prayer. The Loretto Sisters in Central Kentucky have a number of popular hermitages which are clustered in a wooded section near the main buildings but still removed from the flow of normal traffic. The Benedictine Sisters in Sand Springs near Tulsa, Oklahoma have interspersed a number of hermitages and housing for retreatants within a broad wooded band of land around their central facilities. These and other hermitages are generally quite simple and offer opportunities for simple lifestyle devices such as solar photovoltaic systems, solar hot water devices, cisterns, dry composting toilets, and constructed wetlands.

Group retreat centers. Many in the retreat movement are becoming uncomfortable with gearing activities to a middle or upper income clientele who may in part be occupied with personal problems arising from their own affluence. When the persons who give retreats find that the economic status of the clientele is influenced by the affluence of the setting and the need to increase per diem fees, they experience some disquiet. What about those who do not have the funds to come and who consider themselves unwelcome in a place with mainly upper income co-retreatants? Scholarships to people of need may be offered.

One answer is to furnish simpler lodging and prayer facilities. The Sisters of Divine Providence at Melbourne Kentucky have turned a major portion of their motherhouse facility into retreats for church groups at very reasonable rates. In a number of communities older unused or underused barns have proved ideal for retreat meeting rooms and chapels. An excellent example has been achieved by the Monroe, Michigan Immaculate Heart of Mary Sisters. The renovated barn is integrated into the retreat ministry and is located on land which was regarded as sacred by the Native Americans who previously occupied this portion of southern Michigan. A similar undertaking is being planned by the Humility of Mary Sisters at Villa Maria, Pennsylvania who have a very large barn with loft and a large scale gardening operation nearby. Also ideally located for such an undertaking is the barn on the property of the Sisters of St. Joseph at Baden, Pennsylvania. Simple lodging can also be arranged in these structures, especially if used only in the warmer months. The people who come can do their own cooking and thus reduce the per diem cost of retreat time dramatically, thus broadening the clientele to include lower income people and youth.


Community gardens

While aware that so-called "developing" countries have landless people who have lost their traditional lands or have never had an opportunity to hold land, we can forget the millions of Americans who are also landless. Often these people have a past history of raising food; they seek land to grow traditional Vietnamese or Southern crops. The Medical Mission Sisters of Philadelphia have been successful in turning some of their valuable land over to community gardens to Asian immigrants. The great weakness of opening land to community gardening is that, in order to be inclusive, a sponsoring religious community is suddenly burdened with potential gardeners having a wide range of experience. Some of these potential gardeners regard rural life and gardening as primitive, and neglect advice from experienced gardeners. These folks soon tire of gardening after they sow seeds; they find tending the growing crops too difficult in the hot summer sun. Others bring disorderly practices to gardening; still others who come to programs lacking strict ground rules apply pesticides and other commercial chemicals highly disliked by adjacent gardeners. And still others do not follow detailed and proper community gardening rules. The firm manager, armed with firm procedures can encourage responsible garden use, and be a key to a successful community gardening enterprise.


Often an urban and suburban land need greater than gardening space is housing, especially in areas of very high rent and land prices beyond the reach of modest income individuals. For them housing is unaffordable. Religious communities have a notable record of considering the needs of such people and have donated land for low-income housing, making space available for retirement communities, and directing unused land to be used for group housing purposes. Surplus community funds have been used for housing loans and grants. Religious communities such as the Franciscans Sisters in Wilmington, DE have launched urban homesteading to help resettle blighted urban areas.

Housing for the elderly. Another approach is to provide specialized housing for elderly persons. The Sisters of Charity of St. Augustine at Richfield, Ohio have opened a joint eldercare facility for various religious communities, thus economizing and ministering to groups in great need of nursing care. The Franciscan Sisters at Clinton, Iowa have combined nursing care for their sisters with that of both laywomen and laymen in most pleasant surroundings -- and a number of other groups are doing the same thing. Several groups have also sought to connect elder with youthful gardeners in an intergenerational enterprise. The ElderSpirit Community is planning a co-housing neighborhood in Abingdon, Virginia by building individual housing units on a hillside which was not suited for cropland. A desirable approach is either to cluster housing to reduce agricultural disturbance or to retain land around housing for gardening purposes.

Inner-city youth experiences. A surprisingly large number of community properties have facilities such as ball fields, tennis courts, swimming pools and gyms which were used by younger members but stand idle, except perhaps for a special summer program once a year. These facilities are ideal for youth who do not have opportunities to attend more expensive summer camps or participate in special school programs for wealthier youth. A number of religious communities, such as the Maple Mount, Kentucky Ursulines, have taken steps to expand youth recreational opportunities on their grounds. These communities find that youth and older retirees can coexist if there is proper youth supervision, rules, and specific recreational time periods.

Educational expansion.

About one third of the motherhouses and major religious properties are adjacent to either high schools (e.g., the Rocky River, Ohio Sisters of St. Joseph) or colleges (Alton, Pennsylvania and Sylvania, Ohio Franciscans and the Newburgh, New York, Springfield, Kentucky, and Caldwell, New Jersey Dominicans). The health and success of these institutions often depends on their ability to expand their own activities so as to attract other students. To the degree that these are able to foster a better mix of economic levels of students, then social justice will be better served. We have noted that there is often a tension over land used by religious communities and that sought by outside groups for recreational use or for parking space by a nearby sponsored institution (college or high school). Sometimes competing space and privacy are major issues. However, successful resolutions have been achieved for both privacy (green space and vegetative barriers) and for former lawn or cropland being added from motherhouse to sponsored educational or social institutions.

Other physical facility uses. Some religious communities such as the Rochester, Minnesota Franciscans, Farmington Hills Mercy Sisters, and the Benedictine Sisters at Madison, Wisconsin have turned portions of their physical facilities over to civic, health-related and other non-profit groups for use on a lease basis. The proximity of the facilities to larger cities, where quality space is scarce, makes the arrangement work for the good of both groups -- the non-profit group gains office and meeting space with good parking, and the religious group maximizes the use of physical facilities which must be kept heated, cooled, cleaned and maintained.


Sharing facilities may test community social justice commitments. Leasing necessitates added management; youth may use facilities at unsupervised times; affluent disgruntled neighbors may want to use land as buffer greenspace; sharing facilities may threaten privacy; social justice proponents often do not serve as managers. Aging people have different needs that require refurnishing facilities.



Aging Religious


Teach us to count how few days we have

and so gain wisdom of heart. (Psalm 90:12)

Current conditions. To an observer/consultant on the religious scene it is now apparent that many religious communities in the United States are aging. Some have a sizeable number of younger members but the vast majority of religious communities in this country are in decline. The mean age has climbed steadily in the last two decades (1980-2000) in which our environmental resource assessment work has been performed. During these twenty years we have observed that the average age of assessed religious community members has climbed from the mid-fifties to the seventies, though there are exceptions. Communities are quite able to make major community land renovations when the average community age is in the fifties but this changes with aging. We now tailor recommendations to the age of the community as well as to finances. In many communities able-bodied members must either take outside money-earning occupations or be recruited to care for the aging members. The result is that less and less financial and human resources can be directed to land management, and now more to American Disabilities Act (ADA) access, health care facilities, and internal living adjustments. With an aging community the physical facilities are being converted from independent living residences to assisted living and nursing care facilities.

Accepting ourselves. Through community gatherings, deaths, burials and visits to the cemetery, we religious members get the message. Acknowledging the existing condition of American religious communities is spiritually healthy. Through reflection and prayer we support communities to come to grips with our natural aging process. Adjustments including those of land management are needed. We recognize that religious communities with average ages in their thirties and forties think about vast expansion of ministries, in their fifties about in depth improvements of activities, in their early sixties with refinements of the specific mission, but when the community reaches their seventies, retirement and property disposal become major focal points. Landholders must eventually retire as active managers. However, turning over administration often means distancing a community from the land and preparing for a more complete transferral to others.

The act of "letting go."

Leaving a ministry after a long length of time is difficult for those who have committed much time and effort to a particular project. All of us, individuals and communities alike, face the letting go of our earthly life. Religious communities like individual members are mortal and do not share directly in the guarantee of existence promised the Church until the end of time. Religious communities from the time of Pentecost on have sprung up, flowered, and then passed away. The better we confront and accept mortality, the more profound is our religious witness, knowing that to let go gracefully manifests spiritual strength. The core Conference message is: We need to prepare well for "letting go" so that the land will not be lost to so-called development through the transition.


Considerations in keeping land for uses. Often, the assumption is that the land will be retained intact in the community, and that in some manner it will be used for the betterment of the religious or local community. Whether the land is retained or sold or alienated in some manner, a process of discernment may be wise. While the general bias is to retain land, the community may be reaching a stage where that is quite stressful or taxes resources to a high degree. Merely leasing out land, one of the options mentioned, involves more than "merely" attention. It takes planning, negotiation, finding the right person to perform the task, observing and speaking with the lessee, and modifying contracts in succeeding years. The management is not always lessened by a lease procedure. Possibly a community will be well along the journey of "letting go" and works toward becoming spiritually prepared to give up the land, even though it has meant so much in the past.

Some basic questions. In addressing the options a decision-making group needs to answer these questions:

What is the feeling of the community as a whole and among individual members about the land at this moment? Do people regard the land as a gift, a burden, a benefit, a liability, a cherished possession, an inordinate attachment, an opportunity, a temptation, a friend, a foe, a precious responsibility, a commodity to be sold to help pay the community upkeep, a kindred soul, an estranged former partner, a present home, a final resting place, a source of inspiration, a dissipation, a heritage, a loving but somewhat worrisome dependent?

Do individual community members get positive vibes when walking or moving about the land? Do people spend time reflecting at favorite sites or sacred areas? Is the cemetery cherished and visited? Do people find prayer coming easily at given places? Are there hermitages on the land? If there is not a sense of peace on the land, is this turmoil arising from lack of safety, deterioration from former levels of care, air or noise pollution, litter or waste disposal on the land, trespassing and illegal hunting, natural enticements that could harm neighborhood children, off-road vehicles, more traveled highways and congestion, hostile neighbors, or other reasons?

Does the neighboring local community contain landless people? People who have housing, gardening space, recreational needs? Does the larger community need a place for spiritual refreshment and direction?

Are there other needs that stand out at this time which could be met by the existing religious community land? Is the greenspace available on the land a value in itself and worth conserving?

Section III Reflection on New Land Stewardship Options

Some regard property decisions as a lower priority than fashioning mission statements. This is part of a carry-over from a general Western religious tradition of considering philosophy and theology of a higher order than the down-to-earth management operations of a community. We will spend months discussing our mission statement and never fully realize that property speaks louder than words. In order to weigh the various options for property use, the following procedures are suggested:

  1. Gathering basic information for understanding all the options through experts, personal communication, newsletters, on web sites or through workshops and conferences;
  2. Assembling materials on a variety of option paths;
  3. Conducting a discernment process and seeking input; and
  4. Setting down land stewardship conditions. Ultimately this series of steps is the task of the religious group who should not surrender the duty to outside master planners.


1. Gather necessary basic information. Environmental Assessments are one type of procedure for gathering data on proper land use.(8) Studies and data from conservation districts, area planning offices, county zoning boards, historic preservation groups and other organizations would be of help. The goal should be to assemble at one time as much necessary material as possible so as to facilitate decision making. Often newly available Geographic Information System (GIS) data could be used to the benefit of the community. A person who knows the data can integrate all aspects of the land, its current and past uses, its size and topography, its soil and soil cover condition, its current and past productivity, its proximity to other land use, urban areas, development patterns and to transportation systems, and its cultural and historical significance.

Information of highest priority --

Some of these informational elements are easily assembled and some can only be partly assembled within a limited time span and with current resources. Of highest importance are the following: knowledge of boundaries and amount of land (some communities are unfamiliar with the far reaches or less accessible portions of property); current assessment value and zoning of the land; topographic features and general watershed information; general condition of the land through physical observation and inspection; awareness of current lease conditions and current agricultural management and cultivation practices; description of historical and recent land use; determination of what organizations in the area may be able to assist in preserving land; and immediate condition of land adjacent to one's property.


Lower priority information -- Assessments prove valuable in arranging priorities and pointing out otherwise overlooked assets, many of which are often overlooked. Yet these are needed for proper long-term land use decisions: current water resources; solar potential for various parts of the property; soil conditions and erosion potential; condition of trees and woodlands; development plans in the broader community; air pollution conditions of the given area; historical or cultural factors of the immediate area; a history of the community's land use practices from the beginning; the ethnic composition and changes in the neighborhood; and land needs for housing, gardening and recreation in the vicinity.

Incompleteness --
It is not possible to assemble absolutely complete information. Such assemblage would require an academic graduate thesis. What is needed is a suitable amount of information sufficient for a good judgment by those who are seeking to change the land status. With care and time the assembling of the information (not the objective external assessments) could be done by on-site auditors or by tapping local resources such as county extension agents (for soil maps), or the local library or archives for historical records.


2. Assemble possible options for property transfer. The decision may be to retain the land for a period of time and then to dispose of it as a matter of last resort. The examples of land use applications in the previous section applies here, with possible further specification as to how land is managed. Thus the option desired may be a conservation management agreement under which the conservation group assists the religious community in management, while the community retains control of the property. The community may be forced to develop a portion of the property and can place only a part under a conservancy management program. Fees may be charged when drawing up such agreements.

If the community is considering the future alienation of all or part of the property, then it should look at various alternative ownership options. This is the golden opportunity to make sure that land remains under proper sustainable management in the future. Panic selling, or leaving the matter in the hands of a friendly developer who will "take care" of small details, is not regarded as a proper option, only a cop out. The difficult and quite painful alienation decision is the community's to make, and should be done apart from developers who could profit from the sale of property. The decision-making process best occurs after the community has investigated all possible procedures. Remember: Some of the following options may not be available yet in your state. In place of turning matters over to someone else, consider the following possible options:

Transfer to a sympathetic non-profit group -- This is a highly preferred option, provided the receiving group has objectives compatible with the mission and goals of the religious community. Obviously the highest preference is another religious community of identical, similar or related traditions. Whatever the purchasing group, the ultimate success of this option depends on the financial and managerial viability of the purchasing group. No one can guarantee perpetual land care, but responsible transfer demands that one place up front what land protection measures would be required. While specified agreements will ensure protection, there are rare success stories which are not the deliberate planning of the previous owner. Shakertown at Pleasant Hill, Kentucky is a defunct religious community which receives thousands of visitors annually who become acquainted with 19th century simple lifestyle practices of that Protestant group. Visitors testify to the educational experience of visiting and lodging at Shakertown. The independent corporation is committed to continue the charism and programs of the original owners.

Conservation easements --

A conservation easement is a legal transfer in which the owner of land conveys to a governmental entity or charitable organization ("The Holder") certain rights to be enforced for the public benefit. To be the subject of a conservation easement, land must support valuable natural resources, be of significant cultural or historical value, or provide open space that is of benefit to the public. The rights transferred may include the right to log, to mine, to build houses, etc. Easements are tailored to the wishes of the landowner and the goals of the conservation holder. The holder sometimes charges the owner money for the easement, because monitoring and, if necessary, taking steps to enforce the easement can be costly.

Environmental land trusts (see below) are major holders of easements. To find a land trust near you contact The Land Trust Alliance in Washington, DC or go to the organization web site <>.

After a conservation easement has been put in place, the owner may want to lease the land to a conservation organization or to sell it.

When sold, the property brings a non-development price. (The difference between the assessed price of land as open for development and the non-development price is the monetary value of the conservation easement.)

The rights that the owner gives up are perpetually alienated; future buyers of the land are bound by the terms of the easement. The easement may be attached to the deed or simply recorded in the courthouse. In some states, a government entity or non-profit organization that is willing to manage land according to the terms of the easement may buy the land with public funds. The land may then become a public reserve.

Land trusts -- A great variety of land trusts exist. Land trusts may preserve land for environmental purposes. In this case, they are often sizeable organizations that buy and manage land and that hold conservation easements. Land trusts may also be used to provide affordable housing or to both provide housing and conserve land. A private land trust is owned and controlled by the users of the land, while a community land trust has an open membership and an elected board that usually includes people that live on land owned by the trust, other residents of the community, and representatives of the public interest. They are nonprofit corporations that acquire land through donation or purchase with the intention of retaining title in perpetuity, thus removing the land from the speculative real estate market.

A community land trust may lease land on a long-term basis to people who want to build houses or may sell homes already on the land. It will usually impose restrictions on how the owners of buildings on the land can dispose of them. In order to preserve the environment, the trust may also place restrictions on how the home owners may use the land.

Religious communities may participate in land trusts as principal trustee or as partners with others, or they may donate or sell land to trusts. If a community plans to donate or sell land, it may want to place a conservation easement on the land before doing so in order to make sure that the trust honors the community's wishes. Many land trusts succeed, especially when an effort is made to pursue democratic decision-making processes. However, some local community-based land trusts are plagued by fleeting commitments, short attention spans, and short-lived "marriages" of their members.


The Trust for Public Lands (TPL) is a nationally known group with a very good track record. It seeks to conserve land for people to improve the quality of life in our communities and to protect our natural and historic resources for future generations. In two projects on Staten Island, TPL has helped religious institutions protect their property as public open space. St. Francis Woods had to be sold to finance retirement funds but the state hoped to acquire it as part of the Staten Island greenbelt. TPL helped secure the property until state funds could be assembled. Mount Loretto property on the southwestern tip of Staten Island (Archdiocese of New York property) was a major area of TPL interest. This is because it overlooked Raritan Bay on bluffs which are among the highest in the city and the open fields are reminders of the city's rural past. TPL is committed to preserving urban greenspace and to helping to transfer lands to public trusts.



3. Conduct a discernment process. A major part of the decision-making operation is to prayerfully discern the various options. This may be done using individuals from within the community who are trained in such procedures, or the community may feel more comfortable employing an outside professional facilitator who understands the spiritual mission and the charism of the community. It is generally best to find someone who is familiar with the religious community -- though that is not absolutely necessary. The location must be a quiet place apart from external disturbances. Ideally, each decision-maker walks or moves about the property in question to get a special "feel" for the land.


Discernment process -- The exact nature of the discernment process can take various forms but should have the following elements -- a listing of all assessments and assets to the best degree known; freedom from excessive outside influence; identification of internal power groups; a formal process; a prayerful atmosphere; an openness to accepting results (though there may be an appeals process included); and enough time to bring the process to fruition. Within the process itself, uninterrupted time must be given to hear all aspects including positive and negative arguments. The proceedings could be recorded, if it does not hinder openness. Record-keeping, either through written minutes or by audio- or videotaping, may be of importance, though such procedures may be considered by some to hinder free exchange.

Immediate, proximate or long-term decisions -- It may be expedient to make a decision about only a portion of the land here and now, and allow a more drastic decision to go until the community is better prepared. The argument will be made that the larger tract will allow more options than piecemeal alienation. However, portions of property may not be absolutely essential to the general mission of the religious community. When people must dispose of land, it is often necessary to consider how quickly the decision must be made. Sometimes crushing financial situations require immediate decisions. Such decisions do not offer time for wise choices and sufficient reflection, but still prayerful discernment is always the best course. It also offers the opportunity to become aware of self-deceptions and rationalization which could creep into the process.

General process -- A good method for making land decisions is to require those with input to study the assembled information materials, to walk the land, and to listen carefully. It is helpful to have a listing of all the negative aspects of a particular choice with no allowance for positive refutation during the process. This should be punctuated by a time out for prayer and reflection. Next all positive aspects of the decision with no time allowed at this point for refutation of solicited points. After another prayer period attempt to come to some decision through consensus. At this point the facilitator is most important for good listening and permitting all to speak and voice their opinions. If possible, the decision should be tentative for a period in which further comments could be heard.

4. Provide a comment period. Often land decisions are made with little regard to what others who may be profoundly affected think. We Americans often retain the mistaken Teutonic concept of being absolute lords (and ladies) over the manor, and that we ought to make land decisions apart from others. However, the more Judeo-Christian concept (and similar to many primitive cultures) is that we hold land in temporary and community trust. The land does not belong to us in any absolute sense; it is held by us in temporary trust, and its use is partly conditioned by the needs of the greater community. The land decision-makers affect local neighbors, the community's benefactors and associates, occasional visitors, residents of the larger territory, and wildlife and other creatures as well. To the degree possible wider constituencies should be brought into the final decision-making process. Occasionally the tentative decision will provoke anger and even destructive behavior on affected and unstable individuals. Public democratic processes come with a risk. Most often a healthy airing of public opinion produces better land-stewardship decisions and improves the peace of mind of the greater community.

Local vicinity residents -- Often the religious holding has been respected and enjoyed by the neighborhood without its contributing to the burden of keeping up that greenspace. What results is the neighborhood spoiled child syndrome, which surfaces as the religious group prepares to make a change. The total environment includes the neighborhood, which should be drawn into the decision-making process long before the final decision on how to dispose of the land. Good and supporting neighbors deserve to have input because their land may be threatened by the wrong decisions.

Community benefactors and associates -- In most instances religious communities have layers of associate members and friends who support the mission of the group in a variety of ways. Often these constituencies can easily be hurt when a decision is made abruptly and without their input. They may have assisted in maintenance of grounds or buildings which will then be sold or even changed dramatically -- and they will feel somewhat betrayed by the decision makers. Sometimes this is inevitable, but in most instances a softening process may suggest inclusion of these devoted persons in the decision-making process in some way.

Broader community -- Often the land is used for occasional assembling or the vista is enjoyed by visitors during the summer. The loss of land quality such as "viewscapes" may seem small for those with different places to see things, but is utterly important for a retired couple who comes every summer to enjoy the view. A faith-based group may use this location as a stopping off place on their way to a pilgrimage and will lose this valuable component of their occasional spiritual journey. The environmentally minded people may see the woodland as an important component to preserving an endangered flower or some stressed wildlife. While we do not expect foxes and rabbits to enter into dialogue about land decisions, those who know wildlife can anticipate their feelings about ruined nesting areas, restricted movement, or contaminated food and water supply. Such sympathetic folks can speak for the wildlife.

5. Set land stewardship conditions. Part of preparing a will or guiding an inheritance process is to see that the right person gets the right real estate or material possession. That is not exactly what the religious community is trying to do, but there are similarities. The religious community is anxious that the right persons(s) take care of the land well into the foreseeable future. Cultivated land should be organically tilled, or minimum amounts of chemicals used; woodlands and trees should be properly cared for; natural areas should be protected; waterways, greenspace and lakes should be managed; and wildlife and birds should thrive. Where possible, property should be transferred to a group that shares the spirit and principles enunciated by the community throughout the time of its landholding. The following are a number of examples worth considering when drawing up encumbrances on land to be transferred or leased:

* Deny development -- Place specific stipulations forbidding the development of land. This is hard to maintain both for land remaining in the community and for land sold due to the enormous pressure from developers who know the art of creating panic selling. It is difficult to keep land undeveloped when a combination of outside pressures and a determination that land is a commodity influences a religious community. Thus both the present community landholders and future owners must be committed to countering ongoing development pressure;

* Maintain sacred space -- Some encumbrances on cemeteries exist by local and state law, though it may prove better in rare circumstances to move the graves to a better location than to allow them to be swallowed up by land development. Continuing the use of shrines by older members may be foreseen at least during their lifetime and then the shrine removed to a more accessible location. Often the shrine has special importance to long-time visitors, and so provision will have to be made for access and safety of the visitors and for ongoing upkeep.

* Special use -- Often land donors spell out uses that are so specific that no one group or individual has the time and resources to satisfy the specifics. If a community wants land to be used much as in the past (e.g., special education of youth), the written encumbrance should be clearly phrased so as to allow for a proper interpretation. On the other hand, the wording should not be so vague that it will be broadly interpreted to include virtually any activity.

* Ecological safeguards --
As awareness of human effects on land become more evident, religious are becoming quite sensitive to the need for expressing their own faith-based actions through the way they conduct their land use practices. It is not enough for them to depend on the apparent good intentions of lay associates and sub-managers to do a good job, when that may mean following modern practices of those who have title to the land. Thus the religious community should consider insisting on the following sound ecological land practices: using organic (no chemical pesticide) farming methods; reducing lawn size and using restorative measures such as wildscape and returning wetlands to native vegetation; and instituting such sustainable forest practices as removal of invasive species, retaining standing dead wood as special wildlife habitat, and encouraging the reintroduction of native trees and plant species. These specific ecological practices should be discussed with environmental experts and need to be spelled out in any easement covenants, land trust arrangements and sale encumbrances. A sales encumbrance should be backed up, if possible, by a conservation easement given to another entity. That gives the best chance of long-term adherence to the stipulations.

Conclusion: Good Land Stewards are Prophetic

For some people land stewardship is a conservative term, but need it be? When stewardship applies to a gift, entrusted for a given time, and delivered to a larger community, and when the religious community is called to be prophetic, then care by religious communities takes on special characteristics. Religious stewards can be prophetic by thankfulness for the gifts -- through land improvement, caring for land with love, and handing land on with responsibility.

Thankfulness for gift through improvement. America is a blessed land with great gifts of a vast heartland, of good and productive soils, of plentiful wildlife and a multitude of plants. Religious communities share in this blessing from an all generous Creator. Our response is to admire them and thank God for them. However, the prophet says something more: the land deserves to be left in a better state than when we found it. The human touch should not be a destructive but constructive. When land has been walked upon and lived in, it needs to show the betterment from the human presence. We are able to see when land is loved; that stands out in ways where deeds speak louder than words. Anyone who knows and is aware of land in its beauty, knows that it speaks to the dweller in a special way and calls prophetically for improvement, for the on-going creative act of love that can be presented by a prophetic steward.

Sacrifice which includes being inclusive. Jesus is not accepted in his native place because he speaks of inclusiveness as God's plan, an inclusion of non-Jews -- the widow of Zaraphath and of Naaman the Syrian (Luke 4). It is amazing how land was and is tied up in the concept of who were chosen and what was a promised land. Paul, in following Christ, tries to break the bonds of exclusivity, but land by its ability to be delineated can tempt the holder to think in terms of "my" and "your" borders, "my" and "your" lands. Communities imitate Paul's conversion journey, and may be struck from the horse of tradition. Land can hold people fast to what is regarded as theirs and not others. The willingness to sacrifice and share is at the heart of being Christ to others. A willing religious community is inclusive by welcoming others, getting them started, and benefitting from their presence.


Letting go with love. Paul says the gospel of love involves being patient, kind, not jealous, not pompous, not inflated, not rude. This gospel of love is both radical (a rooted need) and gentle (a willingness that is not forceful but relies on the power of love). For love is of God and we testify to this through our life witness. The joy and willingness to let go of what is dear to us is an exercise of prophetic freedom, provided the stewarding responsibility involves handing on land to those who will take proper care of the entrusted responsibility. We are not in a lasting place and must move on. That is part of life, for living is dying and passing from the present to a future abode.

Thus the land is cared for, because it is a precious gift, shared with others, because they are included in its bounty, and prepared for proper future use, because the stewards are loving -- and mortal.

End Notes

1. Milford Land Stewardship Conference Statement, May, 2000 as found in Conference Proceedings published by ASPI Publications, Mount Vernon, Kentucky in August, 2000. Additions were suggested by participants after the original framing. Ben Urmston, S.J. would like to add the words "for the Earth" to line eight after "deep reverence."

2. Bioengineering involves a number of environmental and other potential problems which are well worth further consideration. For a recent overview see John Grogan and Cheryl Long, "The Problem with Genetic Engineering," Organic Gardening, January-February, 2000. pp. 42-47.

3. I was able to return to Kentucky from Washington, DC in 1977 and help establish Appalachia--Science in the Public Interest within the region, and not in the nation's capital. It became evident to me that the best way to address land issues is to live where they are occurring. I shall expand on this theme in my upcoming book, The Latch String is Out.

4. This subject is developed in my book, Spiritual Growth through Domestic Gardening, which is found on our ASPI web site <>.


5. Many Christians object to the current struggle over the Holy Land by Jews and Moslems; we believe that a fair and just solution as to who should control Jerusalem should be the world community. This may also be the beginning of a land revolution which would see the broader community as the people with land responsibility. The Holy Land had special significance to some and also importance to all, and is thus the concern and responsibility of all. This has been the Holy See's position throughout the Palestinian struggles of the twentieth century and to the present moment.

6. Interdependence is mentioned in the conference statement along with biodiversity and communion. A discussion of the origins of these three terms is beyond the limits of this paper. I would have used two other concepts derived from my own current scientific understanding of the mystery of life. However, the grouping of the three terms as part of "the sacred web of life" may actually reveal the hunger of earnest people to proclaim the Trinitarian nature of the universe -- a worthwhile study in itself, but something that will have to be delayed to another time.

7. Worth considering is a study by Peter Rosset comparing large and small farms, The Multiple Functions and Benefits of Small Farm Agriculture in the Context of Global Trade Negotiations. This is available on the Food First website <>.

8. Environmental Resource Assessments are explained on the ASPI web site listed above. The procedure involves a comprehensive look at all aspects of the property including waste management, wildlife, water resources, transportation, and physical facilities. Land use is one of the focal areas; it may include cultivated farmland and gardens, wooded areas, recreation space, parking and roads, lawn, and cemeteries as well as space for buildings.