The natural world is often thought of as God’s first revelation to humankind – a gift of God’s mercy. Patty Gillis, executive director of Voices for Earth Justice and board member of St. Paul of the Cross Passionist Retreat and Conference Center, Detroit, Mich., sees protecting and defending it as God’s first commandment.
“God’s first command was to Adam and Eve. They were to care for and protect creation. God said that long before the Ten Commandments.
“When you care for God’s creation you are participating in God’s mercy. I think mercy is another word for love or compassion. I really believe this world was created out of an expression of God’s love. When you get into the biology of things you see the complexity and the awesomeness of the web of life, which is really God’s personal love for every facet of the natural world, and we [humans] are part of that,” explains Patty.
Patty has experienced God’s mercy, through the natural world, in a profoundly healing way. Between 1996 and 1998, everything she cared about was stripped away. She found herself in uncharted waters. Friends had recommended medication and therapy, but Patty turned instead to prayer and nature.
“I sold my home and moved into an apartment along the river by Belle Isle in Detroit. Belle Isle is a beautiful place. It was very healing for me. It’s hard to put into words, but I think that nature is very healing. It’s no surprise that all our retreat centers are in these beautiful, natural places. Father Pat Brennan, C.P., [director of St. Paul of the Cross Retreat and Conference Center] is very concerned about the buildings and the land. I think he is right. I think that is part of the healing when people go on retreat. They are in nature, and they experience something bigger than themselves. That was it for me. It got me out of myself and my little problems. It focused me on a bigger vocation. Caring for the Earth is now my vocation,” shares Patty.
Patty’s vocational call led her to co-founding Voices for Earth Justice, an interfaith advocacy and education organization, in 2002. In 2011, the organization acquired property in the Brightmoor neighborhood in Detroit, the same neighborhood where St. Paul of the Cross Passionist Retreat and Conference Center. Voices for Earth Justice opened Hope House, which now has an eco-lab for neighborhood youth to study nature. It also has a garden full of a wide variety of foliage that brings natural beauty to an economically depressed neighborhood.
“It’s our joy to be connected to this created world which is God’s gift to us. I think even if we weren’t having all these environmental problems, I would still think it would be very important to promote that connection because there are so many ways to learn about God in the natural world.”