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John Gates, the Rev. Bob Murphy, and Rita Gates O'Donnell (Ilene Perlman)

A passion for environmental justice

For the Rev. Bob Murphy, environmentalism and ministry overlap like the shoreline and the sea.
By Michelle Bates Deakin
Winter 2011

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Black sea bass and scup are running in Vineyard Sound, but the Rev. Bob Murphy isn’t catching a thing.

Murphy drops his line over the side of the Patriot Too a few times. But mostly he’s helping a young man bait his hook with squid and talking with longtime members of the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Falmouth, Massachusetts, where he has been minister for eleven years.

Murphy and a half dozen church members are on the fourth annual Fellowship Voy­age, a four-hour fishing expedition out of Falmouth Harbor that is part social, part fundraiser, and—the real hook for Murphy—part of his ongoing mission to bring people into closer contact with their local environment. For Murphy and his Cape Cod congregation, that means paying attention to the ocean and the environmental justice issues that surround it.

Murphy’s environmentalism and ministry overlap like the shoreline and the sea. He has emphasized environmental issues in each congregation he has served, and he has helped create denomination-wide efforts, such as the Unitarian Universalist Ministry for Earth and the original draft of the “Ethical Eating” Statement of Conscience, which the Unitarian Universalist Association General Assembly adopted in Charlotte, North Carolina, in June.

In September, at its annual meeting in San Francisco, the Sierra Club honored Murphy with a Special Service Award, a commendation recognizing his “strong and persistent commitment to conservation.” That commitment has taken him from his local food bank to Ethiopia. And it has touched on environmental causes ranging from farm worker rights and disaster planning to women’s health and population control.

As Murphy received his award in late September, the earth’s population was nearing the seven billion mark. On the fishing trip, as he reels in another fishless-line, Murphy rattles off his worries for a planet that has more than tripled in population since 1930. “How do we care for seven billion people?” Murphy asks. “What moral obligation do we have to future generations?” They’re environmental questions, he says, but they’re also religious questions.

Murphy also puzzles over why the Sierra Club presented him with an award. A portly, fair-skinned man of 63, he says, “I’m not a wilderness person. It’s because of my human rights work.”

Murphy found environmentalism before he found the ministry. But looking back, his concern for the earth and the rights of people on it put him on a clear path to ministry before he ever got near a seminary.

Growing up in California, he ran away from home at age seventeen to support the striking grape pickers of the United Farm Workers Union under the leadership of César Chávez. Murphy worked in Chávez’s trailer, distributed food to the families of strikers, and joined the picket line. Then the strike’s leaders put him on a bus and sent him home to his family. “It was my first experience working with clergy who were heavily involved in social justice work,” says Murphy.

His experiences with the striking farm workers in the ’60s left an indelible mark. After college, he began working for labor unions. He earned a master’s in public health, and he represented cleaning crews that worked in Boston’s major universities and downtown office buildings. At the same time, he was volunteering with the Sierra Club, helping to create urban parks and community gardens. He says he got involved with the Sierra Club because he was interested in issues of both rural and urban justice. “A lot of basic human rights issues intersect with environmental protection,” says Murphy.

He also began attending First Unitarian Church of Providence, Rhode Island, where the Rev. Thomas Ahlburn asked him several times whether he had ever thought about ministry. Murphy was already honing his ministry skills in his labor union work, counseling members and doing reconciliations. At 43, he started at Harvard Divinity School.

Murphy was also active in the UUA. At the 1989 General Assembly in New Haven, Connecticut, he sat in a pizza parlor with other UU volunteers to draft an outline for the Seventh Principle Project, named for the UUA’s Seventh Principle, “respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.” The group drafted the Green Sanctuary Handbook in 1991. The Seventh Principle Project ultimately evolved into the UU Ministry for Earth, which seeks to involve UUs in environmentalism and environmental justice work.

“We were a handful of nature nuts who had very little experience in church administration, so we made all sorts of mistakes,” says Murphy. “We didn’t have a budget, or a strategy, or a well-crafted statement of belief, or much of anything. We had a vision and some passion, and we were willing to take some risks.”

The group posed the question, “What can we do for congregations that will be helpful?” It outlined ideas for religious celebrations, education, church administration, conservation, community projects, and environmental justice.

Murphy speaks frequently at colleges, universities, and churches about environmental justice issues, increasingly in the area of women’s health and population control—two issues he sees as inextricably linked. “If you want to get the birth rate down, you need to empower women,” Murphy says. As women are empowered, with easier access to clean water and food, their quality of life improves. “And as the state of women improves, the birth rate goes down, and the care of children and the elderly goes up.” It’s a phenomenon he witnessed firsthand in Ethiopia, where he traveled on behalf of the Sierra Club in the summer of 2010 to study population, health, and environmental concerns.

World health issues are an important part of Murphy’s environmental justice story, but he likes to keep the issues alive at home, too. Hence the fishing trip and the congregation’s regular kayaking outings, often led by his wife, Helen Dalzell, whom he met in the early ’80s when they were both working with the Sierra Club to create public parks on the Boston Harbor Islands.

His Falmouth congregation holds annual events to support local fuel assistance programs and celebrates the groundbreaking environmentalist Rachel Carson each fall with a harvest dinner. The proceeds from the dinner—like a portion of the price of the fishing trip—go to support community food pantries.

When Murphy got news of Hurricane Irene barreling up the East Coast this summer, threatening the vulnerable shore of Cape Cod, his immediate response was to set up a shelter for the American Red Cross, work he has been doing on the Atlantic Coast for fifteen years. Disasters routinely bring up environmental justice issues, he says, but disaster response is also a religious issue. In the wake of disaster, people don’t turn to Greenpeace or the Sierra Club. They look to organized religion, and he wants to be there.

As the Patriot Too heads back to shore, Murphy looks across the sound and breathes in the salt air. The majority of UUs, he says, live within 50 miles of an ocean, and he encourages them to get out on it, to better know their environment and witness environmental justice issues firsthand. Where there is water—freshwater or saltwater—there is fishing, and where there is fishing, there are justice issues: a largely minority workforce in a hazardous profession, in an environment that is at once beautiful and dangerous. “If UUs really want to reach out into the world,” he says, “I suggest community gardening, emergency service work, and fishing.”

Photo: The Rev. Bob Murphy (center) with parishioners John Gates and Rita Gates O'Donnell on the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Falmouth’s fourth annual Fellowship Voyage, a four-hour fishing expedition out of Falmouth Harbor (Ilene Perlman). See sidebar for links to related resources.

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