In 1988, the first year she was ordained as a priest in the Episcopal Church, Margaret Bullitt-Jonas of Northampton, remembers being alarmed as headlines about the dangers of greenhouse gases began appearing.
Then, a year later, after the massive Exxon Valdez oil spill off the shore in Alaska, she was moved to give her first sermon on environmental threats. It was Good Friday, and she couldn’t help but connect the devastating pollution with the religious observance at hand. “I felt we were getting a glimpse of the crucifixion of the Earth,” she said.
She was proud of her words that day, but when she sat down, a woman approached her, unimpressed: “I just don’t get it. What does religion have to do with ecology?”
Bullitt-Jonas has been explaining ever since.
Now, after 25 years of parish work in five congregations, including nine as priest associate at Grace Church in Amherst, she has created the perfect job for herself.
In September, Bullitt-Jonas asked Bishop Douglas Fisher to make her Missioner for Creation Care — a title she made up — for the Episcopal Diocese of Western Massachusetts.
He said yes, if he could find the funds. And right then, a donor presented the diocese with money to use for climate change work.
“It all came together in this very graceful way. It was amazing,” Bullitt-Jonas said.
She said her goodbyes at Grace Church — with lots of tears on both sides — and started her new job Jan. 1. The church has not yet chosen a replacement.
“We are so desperately sad to see her go but excited that she is going to do this,” said Lucy Robinson of Amherst, a Grace Church parishioner. She and Bullitt-Jonas headed a group called Greening Grace that promoted conservation at the church and participated in state and national events and protests.
“She was amazingly dynamic,” Robinson said. “She’s just been a total inspiration to so many people.”
Focusing Bullitt-Jonas full time on environmental work now is a way for the diocese to show support for reviving the planet, said Fisher.
“The environment belongs to God and we have really abused it through the years,” he said in a telephone interview. “Climate change is a real threat to future generations.”
He wants churches to lead the way, much as they did in past movements for change, such as civil rights. Bullitt-Jonas, he said, is a strong advocate.
“She’s authentic in her belief about this and she’s very, very knowledgeable,” Fisher said.
Bullitt-Jonas now works out of an office on the third floor of her home in Northampton, which is filled with books, posters and pictures of her ancestors. Her cluttered desk, where tomes on prayer are side-by-side with environmental treatises, faces a bay window that looks out over Bancroft Road. A painting of St. Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of ecology, which used to hang in her Grace Church office, adorns her hallway.
“I love to see him now at the top of my stairs,” she said. The painting, which incorporates the moon, waves, and the wind in his body, inspires her. “Everything is part of him. He knew his kinship was with all living beings and the elements.”
KINSHIP, in that same context, is printed on her Prius’ license plate. “All of creation is being sustained by God,” she said, and the mission should be to cherish, not destroy it. “I believe that God is very much with us when we work to get off fossil fuels and close down coal-fire power plants and turn toward clean safe renewable energy.”
Regardless of their religious beliefs — or non-beliefs — Bullitt-Jonas sees people drawn to nature in a way she deems spiritual. “When we want a conscious connection to a larger presence we go to the mountains, to the lake, to the ocean, ” she said. “We have a sense of the sacred disclosing itself to us.”
Over the years Bullitt-Jonas has participated in protests — and been arrested for helping to block the doors at the Department of Energy in Washington, D.C., a dozen years ago — preached, organized marches, lobbied legislators, arranged workshops, held retreats, wrote books, articles and letters, and advised and practiced ways to cut the use of fossil fuels.
But that isn’t enough.
“It wakes me up sometimes in the middle of the night when I think about how the climate is changing,” she said. “The oceans are heating up, the arctic is melting, the tundra is thawing and droughts are growing across Africa. It seems to me we have a very short window of time in which to make a difference.”
It was clear what she had to do.
“If I was on my death bed and looked back on my life, if I had not given 100 percent of my attention to caring for God’s creations I would feel that I had been living without integrity.”
She and Fisher will meet regularly to set her agenda. She’ll continue the work she has been doing all along, adding communicating through social media, organizing churches’ efforts and networking with climate activists to the mix. She is a board member of the Massachusetts-based Better Futures Project, and plans to use that position to make more connections.
She says she’ll take an interfaith approach. “The good news and bad news about climate change is that it affects all of us.”
Bullitt-Jonas, 62, is married to Robert Jonas, a retired psychologist who is chairman of the board of trustees of the Kestrel Land Trust in Amherst. They have grown children: a son, together, Sam Jonas, who is teaching English in Thailand, and Jonas’ daughter, Christine Labich, a landscape painter, who lives in Shutesbury with her husband and two children.
Bullitt-Jonas, who was wearing a clerical color under a bright red sweater the day I visited, says she loved the pastoral work she did at Grace Church, including visiting parishioners in hospitals and in their homes. But, she said, she needed to simplify her life.
“How many years, God willing, of healthy life and ministry are ahead of me? While I still have the energy, health and time, I want to give myself to what I care about most deeply and where I feel God is truly calling me.”
Finding her way
Though she grew up the second of four children in Cambridge as an Episcopalian, she did not take religion seriously until she was 30 and well into graduate school at Harvard University. It was her desperate struggle with a longtime eating disorder that brought her back to the church she had abandoned in her teens. The illness and her rocky home life is detailed in her memoir “Holy Hunger” published in 1998 by Knopf, New York, and on her website.
“I never went to church once when I was in college,” she said. That was at Stanford University in California where she had fled to be far from home.
After travels and dabbles in teaching and law, she had returned to study comparative literature at Harvard in 1975 where her father was a professor. Her mother worked at Radcliffe College. She said she was ready to face her family conflicts, but still very much in the grips of eating binges that started in her adolescence. “I was living a double life,” she said. “Outwardly I was a star. I was a graduate student at Harvard, but inwardly, I was secretly binging and secretly fasting and running.”
Finally, she could bear it no longer. “When you are sitting down to eat a dozen doughnuts at once there is something deathly about that. I realized I had to choose between life and death.”
It was Good Friday — another life-changing moment for her on that holy day — and so she went to a monastery in Harvard Square. “Good Friday is all about the day Jesus is crucified. I realized that there was a lot in me that needed to die and it would only be through God’s help that I could let the necessary death happen.”
Receiving communion confirmed it. “I vividly remember as I stretched out my hands to receive the bread and the wine that I felt that God was speaking to me in the only language I could understand at the time, which was the language of food. It was a huge moment. I realized that at the base of my food addiction was a religious hunger.”
She promptly left graduate school, got into a 12-step recovery program, began praying and meditating and entered the seminary.
“I wanted to find out, who is this God that just saved my life?”
She has come to believe that beneath her attachment to food was a universal longing for something other-worldly. “If you think of people who have it all, they have the resume, the portfolio, the yacht, the perfect husband or wife ... they still say to themselves, is that all there is? To me that is a spiritual longing.”
The story she tells in her memoir, Bullitt-Jonas said, is akin to the work she is doing now. “The same love that had empowered me to make peace with my body is now calling me out to help heal the larger body of the Earth.”