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Desert environment, spirituality linked in U.N. international year
'Information and knowledge are plentiful in our time, but wisdom seems scarce'

By Phina Borgeson
[Episcopal News Service]  Phyllis Strupp has a passion for helping people develop spiritually by reconnecting with the desert environment.

When she moved to Carefree, Arizona, on the northern edge of the Sonoran Desert, almost a decade ago, she thought it was just to get outdoors more. But her engagement with the land around her led to a deepening appreciation for the desert itself, and for the role deserts have played in biblical faith traditions.

Now, in this International Year of Deserts and Desertification, she and representatives of seven other congregations have launched the Nature and Spirituality Program of the Episcopal Diocese of Arizona.

With a vision for bringing science, eco-justice actions, and spiritual enrichment together, the group has plans for a hike this spring, and for reaching out later in the year to congregations and community with ideas for native plant gardens and green buildings for an arid environment.

On May 13 the group will sponsor a guided hike in the Spur Cross Ranch Conservation Area just north of Cave Creek, Arizona. This relatively new preserve offers an up close view of especially lush classic Sonoran Desert scenery as well as Hohokam Indian petroglyphs and stunning, unusual land forms.

Says Rob Smith, Southwest Representative for the Sierra Club: "My daily work is very secular, political and tactical. This ministry lets me step back and reconnect with the fundamental values which motivate me to spend time trying to save the outdoors and clean up the air and water."

Smith also coordinates the environment and justice committee at Trinity Cathedral in Phoenix, where he and his wife and children are members. "I hope the Program can become a place where others, as well as myself, can explore the connections between personal action for the environment and its spiritual basis."
Smith, Strupp and other members of the Nature and Spirituality Program committee plan a one day leadership retreat at the Phoenix Zoo, May 27, to explore attitudes toward nature, spiritual values, and action goals.

It might seem unusual to hold such an event at the Zoo, but, comments Smith, "the Director there, Jeff Williamson, is deeply committed to using the zoo as a way of connecting people to other creatures and our place in the world." And, he adds, the Phoenix Zoo "supports efforts to protect habitat and wildlife in the Sonoran Desert specifically."

At its 58th session, the United Nations General Assembly declared 2006 as a year to focus on deserts and desertification. This action celebrates the fragile beauty and unique heritage of the world's deserts, while emphasizing that desertification (land degradation caused by human-induced factors and climate change) is a global problem.

"While North Americans may be less affected by processes of desertification, and irrigation projects foster a false sense of security, the challenge of sustainable living in the desert is no less real in much of the West," reflects Strupp.

Strupp developed the foundations for her leadership through participation in the Education for Ministry Program of the University of the South, as student and now mentor, and through independent study of science and environmentalism.

"The role of humanity and role of the desert environment are inextricably linked," says Strupp, and have played "a crucial role in the lives of many spiritual geniuses." She explores and applies this thesis in her book "The Richest of Fare: Seeking Spiritual Security in the Sonoran Desert" published in 2004.

"Information and knowledge are plentiful in our time, but wisdom seems scarce," she comments, adding, "Seekers of wisdom in the past turned to the desert."

Church leaders will have an opportunity to tap that wisdom first hand next year when Strupp leads "Sacred Secrets of Renewal: a Spring Pilgrimage to the Sonoran Desert" in conjunction with the Cathedral College at Washington National Cathedral.

The Rev. Dr. Dean McDonald, college director, expresses the hope that "the pilgrims will experience the desert as God's gift to them during Lent for self-reflection, prayer, and study" adding that she is "personally grateful that we will have time to discuss some of the moral perspectives on the political and environmental issues."

Learn more about Phyllis Strupp's work at:

See what's happening at the Phoenix Zoo at

Explore what's going on to address issues of deserts and desertification around the world at

More information on the 2007 pilgrimage will be available at