Exploring the Spirituality of the Great Lakes

The Great Lakes are often described as Earth’s largest freshwater ecosystem, or an economic engine that supports millions of jobs. But they are more; many see in them and the places that surround them a spiritual force and inspiration.

A new website, the Great Lakes Spirituality Project, is attempting to capture that essence. Billed as “stories, reflections and conversations around a spirituality of the Great Lakes Basin,” the Project is intended “to further develop a spirituality of the Lakes that values and protects the Great Lakes Basin and the life that depends on these waters.”

Check out the Great Lakes Spirituality Project’s interview with FLOW senior policy advisor Dave Dempsey.

Founder of the website and project is Dan Robinson, a Wisconsin resident born in Indiana. Although he says the Great Lakes weren’t really a part of his experience growing up, in adulthood he has forged a relationship with them that led to the project. FLOW asked him to tell the story of the Great Lakes Spirituality Project from his perspective.

What led to your appreciation of the Great Lakes?

Growing up in a small farming town in Indiana, I constantly was outside playing, fishing, collecting insects, and working on farms, so my connection to the outdoors was always there. But the Great Lakes seemed very far away, and I only saw Lake Michigan about once a year through the window of a car on my way to a Chicago Cubs baseball game.

As an adult, though, that changed. My wife and I spent part of our honeymoon on the north shore of Lake Superior, my first real taste of the Lakes. Coming across William Ashworth’s book, The Late Great Lakes, in a Kentucky library captured my imagination. A getaway weekend in South Haven, Michigan, gave me an almost mystical encounter with Lake Michigan on the proverbial dark and stormy night. Six years living in Manistee, Michigan, allowed me to know the everyday life of Lake Michigan. Now, I live near the Wolf River in Wisconsin, which is a part of the Great Lakes Basin and has helped me see the Lakes’ watershed as a whole.

In my professional work, I’ve bounced around a little bit. I was accepted to Purdue University in the school’s Natural Resources department, but graduated with a degree in sociology and a minor in religious studies. Years later, I started a Master’s degree in environmental studies, but ended up getting my Master’s in Theological Studies. For many years, I worked in ministry in the Christian tradition and always tried to connect justice, caring for creation, and the common good to that work. And throughout my career, I’ve been a performing musician, as well.

Now, after three grown children and 34 great years of marriage, I find myself fortunate in combining all these interests and experiences. I host a folk music program for Wisconsin Public Radio, and the Great Lakes Spirituality Project gives me the opportunity to bring my experience with theology and spirituality together with my interest in protecting the Great Lakes.

What are you attempting to accomplish with the Great Lakes Spirituality Project? 

The Great Lakes Spirituality Project has three main goals:

  • Articulating what a spirituality of the Great Lakes looks like, through conversation, stories and reflections;
  • Adding another spiritual voice to the work of protecting the Lakes; and
  • Serving as a connecting point for spiritual communities and individuals who care about the Lakes.

I believe a healthy spiritual perspective is vital to the work of caring for the Great Lakes. Because so many people have an emotional and spiritual connection to the Lakes, the work of the Project can speak to them and encourage them to bring their whole selves and experiences to protection of these waters.

The Project can also bring together a wide variety of people, from Indigenous communities to Jewish synagogues, from Christian churches to Muslim mosques, as well as individuals who don’t identify with any one religious tradition, and beyond.

How would you characterize your point of view on environmental issues that relate to the Great Lakes? Are you discussing issues or values or both?

While a spiritual perspective on our connection to the Lakes can vary from tradition to tradition and person to person, the basic stance of the Project is that we as human beings are just one equal part of an ecosystem that is based on the watershed of the Lakes. As such, we can only flourish in a healthy Great Lakes Basin when all life is able to flourish.

We have a responsibility, then, to care for the Lakes as both necessity and gift, whether we view that gift as coming from a Creator or some other Ultimate Reality. That means we have to carry that responsibility out in practical actions. Values have no value if they’re not being put into practice, so the Project needs to address how we can apply spiritual values in practically caring for the Lakes, and therefore ultimately caring for ourselves.

What do you see as the biggest challenges to the integrity of the Great Lakes over time and what is the greatest strength we have in dealing with those?

The practical threats to the well-being of the Great Lakes Basin and the life that depends on these waters are serious and well-documented — climate change, invasive species, pollution run-off, etc. In many ways, we know how to address or mitigate these problems.

The challenge comes from our lack of will to take the necessary actions because they involve some self-sacrifice, or at the very least, change. In particular, those of us with privilege who wield a disproportionate amount of power and influence (including myself as a middle-class, white man) are among the most reluctant to sacrifice and change.

A spiritual perspective gives us another, important avenue to move forward. Putting our efforts in a spiritual or religious context can help us see our individual actions as part of a bigger picture and provide us with support for those actions, whether that support comes from an ethical framework, a community of like-minded people, or a higher power.

What are your plans and next steps for the Great Lakes Spirituality Project?

In the short run, I’d like to see the Project focus on having conversations with folks from a wide variety of spiritual perspectives and life experiences, particularly under-represented people, scientists, and religious communities. Also in the short term, I’ll be working to develop relationships with people and organizations across the Great Lakes Basin, helping them to know about the Project.

The Project will evolve as time goes by, but ultimately, I’d like to see it start to articulate a shared understanding of a Great Lakes Spirituality and how that shared understanding can help people care for the Great Lakes Basin.

For more information, please contact Dan and the Great Lakes Spirituality Project by emailing him at dan@glspirit.com.

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